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President Thein Sein still vital for Burma’s reforms

Analysis by Martin Sieff
Burma economic growth: President Thein Sein speaks at the opening ceremony of the World Economic Forum in Naypyidaw, Burma. He is attracting foreign investment to his impoverished nation. [AFP]

Burma economic growth: President Thein Sein speaks at the opening ceremony of the World Economic Forum in Naypyidaw, Burma. He is attracting foreign investment to his impoverished nation. [AFP]

Burma President Thein Sein has had a rollercoaster month, riding a wave of international approval while dealing with the Kachin, Shan and Rohingya sectional conflicts that have long afflicted his country.

Thein Sein has been receiving international approval for his bold and so far successful steps to open up his country. He has eased decades of repression and has taken steps to end long-running conflicts with separatist groups. Burma has been under military control since a coup d’état in 1962.

“Thein Sein has put Burma on the perception map of leaders, businessmen and economic planners throughout East Asia,” Shihoko Goto, an expert on Asian economies at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., told Asia-Pacific Defense Forum in an interview. “He has already succeeded in making it an attractive location for investment. This is a remarkable achievement for a country that was isolated for so long and that had virtually no foreign direct investment [FDI].”

Thein Sein’s international image took a pounding, however, when reports emerged of the increasing riots and violence against the country’s small Rohingya Muslim minority in the northeast region.

However, those reports were followed by meetings between senior representatives of Thein Sein’s government and rebel military commanders of the Kachin movement in Burma’s east and its Shan minority. In both cases, the government and the rebel groups agreed to take confidence-building measures and hold further talks to establish full and lasting peace in a new mutually agreed political frameworks.

Thein Sein seemed to be a cautious figure in his four years as prime minister from 2007 to 2011 under Than Shwe, who ruled the country from 1992 to 2011. However, since Than Shwe appointed his successor in 2011, Thein Sein has confounded skeptics and pessimists in his own country by reversing generations of isolation and repression.

Even more impressive has been Thein Sein’s ability to go as far as he has without risking being toppled by his fellow generals.

Burma still has long way to go

“In [Burma’s] democracy, the constitution guarantees that 25 percent of the total seats in parliament are reserved for the military without electoral challenge,” Burma analyst Aung Tun noted in Asia Times Online.

“As Thein Sein faces the next tough phase of democratic reforms, he will need all the outside support he can get,” the analyst cautioned. “While the symbolic exchange of state visits and the suspension of economic sanctions have brought the U.S. and [Burma] closer together, there are still miles to go before [Burma] can honestly claim to be a functioning and durable democracy.”

Thein Sein met with rebel leader Lt. Gen. Yawd Serk, head of the Restoration Council of Shan State, for the first time on June 10. The two sides discussed setting up an all-inclusive political dialogue and the creation of a conflict monitoring team in the eastern state.

On May 20, U.S. President Barack Obama hosted Thein Sein at the White House. The trip marked the first time since 1966 that any Burmese leader had paid an official visit to the United States. In November 2012, Obama paid the first-ever visit by a sitting U.S. president to Burma.

Thein Sein’s reforms produce major gains

When Thein Sein announced his determination to liberalize his country, he was met with widespread skepticism. But so far he has delivered on his promise.

The president’s policies, Aung Tun wrote, have “resulted in several positive upshots: hundreds of political prisoners, including [Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San] Suu Kyi, have been released; extensive media censorship has been abolished; separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary has been established; and peace talks with armed ethnic groups, albeit on a limited scale, have been undertaken.”

Thein Sein’s reforms have won international gains for his country this year as well.

In January, the Paris Club canceled $5.7 billion of Burma’s debt. In April, Japan forgave $3.7 billion of Burma’s debt. That same month, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group honored Thein Sein with its “In Pursuit of Peace Award” and the 27-nation European Union removed its long-standing economic sanctions on the country.

Nobel winner Suu Kyi plans to challenge Thein Sein

Suu Kyi, 67, has thrown down a new challenge to Thein Sein.

“I want to run for president, and I am quite frank about it,” she told the Asian gathering of the World Economic Forum.

The next Burmese presidential election is scheduled to be held in 2015. Commenting on Suu Kyi’s declaration, The Hindu newspaper in New Delhi 8 ran the headline, “No Stopping Her Now.”

“Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy know full well that the present Constitution specifically disqualifies her from contesting an election for the post of president. Article 59(f) says any candidate who is married to a foreign citizen or has children who are foreign citizens is barred from becoming president or vice-president of [Burma],” The Hindu noted in its editorial. “By declaring her intent despite this prohibition, she has raised the expectations of her supporters and also put the country’s military rulers on the defensive.”

Suu Kyi, who is a widow, has two sons who are British nationals. Her late father is Burma’s founding father.

Suu Kyi’s NLD won the 2012 parliamentary by-elections. However, under the current Burmese political system, 312 of the 440 seats in the Pyithu Hluttaw, or House of Representatives, are held by the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party and other military nominees.

“If … Suu Kyi wants to be president, the NLD and the various ethnic groups represented in parliament will have to work towards amending the rigid constitution. But unless a section of the military party is willing to work for a political settlement and reconciliation, such a major challenge cannot be met,” The Hindu cautioned in its editorial.

Thein Sein born into poverty, became a general

Burma’s bold reform leader comes from a humble background. He was born in a small village in the Irrawaddy River Delta, to impoverished farmers. His father Maung Phyo was a porter at a river jetty and wove bamboo mats. Ten years after his wife’s death, he became a Buddhist monk for the rest of his life.

Thein Sein’s rise was slow and uneventful: Throughout his four decade-long military career, he was considered a bureaucrat, not a combat soldier. He always was regarded as a safe, reliable man.

At 68, he is a father figure to the military leadership. His rule is crucial and he may be irreplaceable in convincing the Army command that it is in their interest to allow the liberalization and opening of Burma after total repression and self-imposed international isolation.

Only in 2007, after becoming prime minister, was he finally promoted to the rank of Army general. But then he started carrying out high-level negotiations with Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Apart from the old retired military dictator Than Shwe, Thein Sein’s government experience is unparalleled among Burma’s living current and former Army generals. In this, he resembles China’s Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping. But unlike Deng, Thein Sein has taken the far-reaching decision to liberalize his country politically as well as economically.

And like Deng, Thein Sein already has shown his awareness of the importance of attracting large amounts of foreign investment to boost living standards in his country.

“Thein Sein has succeeded already in putting Burma back on the map,” Goto told APDForum. “His policies have strengthened the economy of the country and given new hope and new opportunities. He has also made his virtually undeveloped country an attractive home for foreign investment. He has increased the allure of Burma. A lot of companies across Asia want to get in on the ground floor.”

The growing awareness of Burma’s senior Army commanders that they stand to make major fortunes from permitting major international investment and development of their country is playing a central role in deterring or persuading them not to topple Thein Sein or try to force him to turn the clock back to the decades of isolation and repression.

The example of Indonesia and its leading generals appear to have played a crucial role in this process. Burma joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN], in which Indonesia plays a leading role, in 1997. In 2014, Burma is scheduled to chair the 10-nation ASEAN, with its combined population of 600 million people.

Indonesia, after the toppling of 32-year dictator President Suharto in 1999, successfully made the transition to being a successful, stable democracy. TNI, the Armed Forces of Indonesia, continue to play a protected, privileged role in guaranteeing the continued unity, peace and stability of the country.

Army is crucial for communication

Burma’s population of 60 million is scattered over almost impassable jungles, mountains and ravine valleys with virtually no road or rail infrastructure connecting them. The Army is crucial in maintaining national communications as well as cohesion in a country with 135 officially recognized ethnic groups.

It remains to be seen how long Thein Sein and the Army high command can hold out against Suu Kyi’s vast popular force and her determination to challenge him for the presidency. But for now, no one can match his skill at introducing and successfully implementing far reaching reforms on the one hand, and preventing the Army from trying to reverse them, on the other.

What is President Thein Sein’s greatest challenge in reforming Burma? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.


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