The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Thein Sein: Reformist or Caretaker?
By AUNG ZAW / THE IRRAWADDY Tuesday, February 21, 2012

This is the second part of a three-part series. Part one is here, and part three is here.

In 2007, the year that Thein Sein was named prime minister, the Burmese junta faced its worst crisis in nearly two full decades of iron-fisted rule.

Thein Sein was already Burma's acting prime minister when the monk-led Saffron Revolution emerged as the most serious display of popular unrest since the nationwide pro-democracy uprising of 1988. However, it wasn't until after the death of his predecessor Soe Win on Oct. 12—just weeks after the crushing of the protests—that he officially became the last prime minister of the former junta.

Despite his rise through the ranks of the regime, Thein Sein continued at times to demonstrate a sensitivity that nearly all of his fellow generals lacked—a trait that seemed at odds with his position as one of the leaders of a junta that had gunned down unarmed monks and demonstrators.

Although all of Burma's rulers profess to being devout believers in Buddhism, only Thein Sein seems to have the calm, patient temperament associated with the country's dominant religion. Married to Daw Khin Khin Win and the father of two daughters, he is said to lead a quiet, “exemplary” family life. 

“One of his significant leadership abilities is that he leads his family by example. No one in his immediate family has been accused of bribery or corruption. As a pious Buddhist, he practices metta [loving kindness] when dealing with others, and always tries to avoid disturbing things and people around him,” said Ko Ko Hlaing, a former army officer who is now a presidential adviser.

 “Actually, some might assume that he is too good to be a politician in such an immoral world. But it seems that we are fortunate to have such an honest and able leader with vision.”

Even in his public life as a member of one of the world's most hated regimes, Thein Sein showed a conscientious streak that distinguished him from most of his colleagues. For example, when Cyclone Nargis slammed into the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008 and Than Shwe’s government prevented  significant amounts of foreign aid from reaching affected areas, Thein Sein was the first top general to travel to the delta and meet the victims.

It was at this time, when Burma was still reeling from the heavy death toll from the worst natural disaster in its recorded history, that the regime pushed through a referendum on a constitution it had completed the year before that granted the military a permanent role in the country's political affairs.

The 2008 Constitution, which was drafted by the military in a process overseen by Thein Sein, was approved in the sham referendum. The announcement of the results then kicked off a long period of speculation over who would lead Burma once a general election was held.

During this time of uncertainty, Thein Sein emerged as the international face of the Burmese regime, attending both regional and international summits. In 2009, when he traveled to the UN General Assembly in New York to defend the junta and its political “road map to disciplined democracy,” diplomats noted that he was quiet but persuasive. Thein Sein was also the top Burmese official to receive US Assistant Secretary of State for Asia Pacific Kurt Campbell on his visit to Naypyidaw.

However, it was Gen Thura Shwe Mann who was first tipped to become president—while he had no international experience with the West, he did have close domestic ties to junta business cronies. Gen Tin Aung Myint Oo was also mentioned as a possibility—the hardliner was battle-hardened and loyal to Than Shwe, but was also known to be one of the most corrupt generals in the regime.

In the end, Than Shwe made the safe choice and selected Thein Sein, a man with international experience who was personally untainted by corruption and human rights abuses. In addition, Thein Sein had no internal power base that posed a threat to the dictator’s personal or financial security.

But despite Thein Seins’s relatively clean reputation and the undeniable progress that he has overseen in recent months, there are still legitimate questions regarding Burma’s fledgling president due to his past prominence as a junta general, uncertainty about whether he is actually the one calling the shots and the fact that the most meaningful and irreversible reforms are still only being talked about rather than enacted.

It remains unclear just how much authority Thein Sein really has in the new government. Some believe that Than Shwe continues to wield great influence over major decisions and there is reportedly a hard-line faction throwing obstacles in Thein Sein’s path and resisting reforms.

In any event, the ultimate authority on anything related to national security—which in Burma means almost everything—rests with the 11-member National Defense and Security Council (NDSC). But in Thein Sein’s defense, his aides have said that the president has advocated the reform process in NDSC meetings and has made the final decision on many important issues.

A loyal army man who has always known his place, Thein Sein is now also in a position to look outside the military for support in achieving his goals. 

Former army officer Ko Ko Hlaing said: “He is polite and likes to keep a low-profile. He never wants personal popularity and is a bit media-shy and not fit to be a populist politician. But his honesty and sincerity could attract public sympathy.”

The most significant member of the public who has attested to Thein Sein’s honesty and sincerity is none other than Burma’s pro-democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest by the previous regime for more than 16 of the 22 years it held power.

Thein Sein reached out to Suu Kyi when he invited her to a private meeting in Naypyidaw in August, and it soon became clear that the president wanted the opposition leader to participate in Burma’s formal political process to give the new government credibility and legitimacy.

He succeeded in this endeavor when Suu Kyi agreed in November to register her National League for Democracy as a political party and compete in the coming by-elections.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |