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As Myanmar Changes, So Does Its Leader

He is sometimes called the Mikhail Gorbachev of Myanmar, a once-loyal apparatchik of one of the world’s most brutal military dictatorships who is chipping away at some of its worst legacies — freeing political prisoners, partially unshackling the press and allowing the long-persecuted opposition to run for election last Sunday.

Myanmar's president Thein Sein during a visit to Cambodia this month.
Hoang Dinh Nam|AFP|Getty Images
Myanmar's president Thein Sein during a visit to Cambodia this month.

Why U Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president, evolved from the right-hand man of a much-feared dictator to a campaigner for democratic change is as much a mystery as why the leaders of the former military junta have allowed him to do so. But in a series of interviews with those who watched Mr. Thein Sein’s rise in the military, including two advisers, and a rare visit to his hometown, a picture has begun to emerge of a man who was always a shade different from his fellow generals.

At 66, Mr. Thein Sein is slight, bookish and considered softer — or at least less ruthless — than the other members of the junta that took power after a popular uprising in 1988. He is widely viewed as being free of the corruption that stained so many of those generals; even former critics have noted with approval that his wife and daughters have avoided the ostentatious shows of wealth that earned his predecessor’s family so much animosity in one of Asia’s poorest countries.

In interview after interview, former critics and longtime supporters alike made much of his sincerity and humility. One former adviser and presidential speechwriter, U Nay Win Maung, offered this assessment last year: “Not ambitious, not decisive, not charismatic, but very sincere.”

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the country’s democracy movement, said it was Mr. Thein Sein’s sincerity about reform that persuaded her to re-enter politics last year. That decision was a turning point for the president, not only winning him support at home, but also moving him closer to the United States, the champion of international sanctions.

Within days of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s declaration, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew to Myanmar, becoming the highest-ranking American to visit the country in half a century. Mr. Thein Sein is becoming someone the administration will look to as it tries to assert its power in Asia to check China’s rise.

On Tuesday, Mr. Thein Sein continued to publicly support the reform process, despite the opposition’s near sweep of the parliamentary by-election on Sunday, saying that the vote was “conducted in a very successful way.” Although relatively few spots were filled in the election, the opposition’s commanding showing, coupled with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s winning her own seat, could be perceived as a threat to the governing party, which faces a general election in 2015.

Former critics’ early praise for Mr. Thein Sein is not to say that they are fully satisfied with the changes he has made. Although many political prisoners were freed, some activists calculate that hundreds remain in prison. Nor are they blind to Mr. Thein Sein’s past: he spent his adult life, until last year, in a military known for cruelty.

Golden Sule Pagoda, Rangoon, Myanmar
Juergen Ritterbach | The Image Bank | Getty Images
Golden Sule Pagoda, Rangoon, Myanmar

He was acting prime minister during the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007, an uprising led by Buddhist monks that was violently suppressed. And he had a command during the crushing of the 1988 uprising that left thousands of civilians dead.

But The Irrawaddy, a publication run by exiles in Thailand, recently noted a distinction, reporting that his unit in 1988 had either released the democracy activists it captured or handed them to the local authorities, perhaps sparing their lives.

Khuensai Jaiyen, an editor of an organization that reports news about one of the largest of the country’s many minority groups, summed up the relative good feelings about the president, who later commanded troops in his region. “If you ask the people here which commander they liked the most, it would go to him,” Mr. Khuensai said by telephone. “Or, more accurately, he was the commander that people hated the least.”

Like so much about Mr. Thein Sein’s past, The Irrawaddy story is difficult to confirm independently. The freer press in Myanmar is still far from free. And there are few in-depth reports about the man who became president last March in elections that brought in a nominally civilian government and that many condemned as a sham. (Mr. Thein Sein and the other former generals now ruling the country simply shed their military titles before taking office.)

An adviser to the president did not respond to e-mailed questions about Mr. Thein Sein’s background and his motivations for leading the reforms. With so little to draw on, it is impossible to say what is driving Mr. Thein Sein as he sends his country hurtling, at least for now, toward a more open society.

One catalyst appears to have been Cyclone Nargis.

The storm four years ago was Myanmar’s worst natural disaster, killing more than 130,000 people and transforming the fertile countryside of Mr. Thein Sein’s childhood into a landscape of flattened villages and rivers clogged with bloated bodies.

At the time, Mr. Thein Sein was the leader of the military junta’s emergency response efforts. But as he crisscrossed the devastated Irrawaddy Delta in a helicopter, he saw how woefully unprepared his impoverished country was for the catastrophe.

The cyclone became a “mental trigger,” said U Tin Maung Thann, the head of a research organization based in Yangon that provides policy advice to the president. “It made him realize the limitations of the old regime.”

As the leader of the country’s preparedness committee, Mr. Thein Sein would have been partly to blame for the government’s failings. Critics were scathing about the decision to turn down foreign assistance in the distribution of food and other aid, a move that slowed the response as the world was captivated by images of haggard villagers desperate for help.

But analysts pointed out that Mr. Thein Sein did at least make himself accessible to his people, unlike his fellow generals, who in the days immediately after the storm remained hunkered down in the capital, Naypyidaw, which was untouched by Nargis.

In the remote village of Kyonku, his birthplace, Mr. Thein Sein and his family are known for being slightly different. (A trip to the village showed both the recent press freedoms and their limits: government minders greeted a reporter and monitored interviews.)

Like most of Myanmar’s top generals, Mr. Thein Sein grew up in poverty.

The youngest of three children, he was born in a small wooden house on the road that runs through the center of the town, which is an eight-hour drive southwest of Yangon, the nation’s biggest city.

His parents did not own any land, and his father, U Maung Phyo, made a living, in part, by weaving bamboo mats, said U Kyaw Soe, who grew up across the street from the president.

But the president’s father was a former Buddhist monk, whom villagers described as unusually literate for the time. “The main reason for his success is his father,” Mr. Kyaw Soe said. “He was a great teacher and respected moral values.”

Mr. Kyaw Soe said the village’s lack of development today stands as a testament to the president’s honesty; he has not favored Kyonku since assuming power a year ago. The village remains without running water or paved roads. Visitors are warned not to travel after dark on the dirt road that connects Kyonku to the outside world because they risk of colliding with the elephants that inhabit the hills.

Mr. Kyaw Soe’s assessment of the president’s character was echoed by others.

“There were certainly people who were close to the military who thought that he was one of the better ones, that he was not personally corrupt,” said Larry M. Dinger, who until August led the United States Mission in Myanmar, which was formerly known as Burma.

His lack of ostentation has made a favorable impression on average Burmese, who witnessed increasingly unabashed displays of wealth by former military leaders after the junta sold off many of the country’s prized assets to friends and allies in the year leading up to the handover of power in 2011. Some analysts speculate that the cash bonanza may partly explain the former leaders’ acquiescence to the president’s reforms.

With Mr. Thein Sein about to enter his second year as president, he is again articulating bold goals.

In his equivalent of a State of the Union address in March — an innovation in itself — he vowed to put in place a system of universal health care, and he said spending on education would double. He also repeatedly called the news media the “fourth estate” and said it “can ensure liberty and accountability.”

At least so far, Mr. Thein Sein has shown a fair level of political, and geopolitical, savvy. By suspending work on a controversial Chinese hydroelectric dam, he played to popular worries of Myanmar, with a population of 55 million, being exploited by its far larger neighbor.

The move also signals to the United States that renewing ties with Myanmar may have an upside in the battle for regional power with China.

Many still worry that the reforms could stall, and that too much hinges on the president.

The presidential speechwriter Mr. Nay Win Maung, who died Jan. 1, suggested in an interview late last year that there was reason for concern. “The changes have been ad hoc,” he said. “There’s been no strategy. It’s been personality-based.”

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