Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Most Unlikely Liberator in Myanmar

Burma's President U Thein Sein.
KYONKU, MYANMAR — For most of his career he was a loyal apparatchik in one of the world’s most brutal military regimes. But in the 12 months since he became president of Myanmar, U Thein Sein has been leading this country of 55 million down a radical path from dictatorship to democracy, vowing, as he told the nation earlier this month, to “root out the evil legacies deeply entrenched in our society.”

There are no pat answers as to why Mr. Thein Sein, a bespectacled and bookish 66-year-old with a sphinxlike smile, decided to shake up one of Asia’s poorest and most hermetic countries. And little has been published about the president, a former general who has been called Myanmar’s Mikhail Gorbachev, perhaps prematurely given the fragility of reforms.

But a trip to Kyonku, his birthplace, located in a remote corner of the country, offers some insights into his character and clues as to what prompted him to embark on such an ambitious reform program.

Kyonku is a small village in the delta of the Irrawaddy River, an area connected by a vast network of canals, inlets and rivers.

Four years ago, Mr. Thein Sein returned to the delta after a  cycloneswept in from the Indian Ocean and devastated the area. Cylone Nargis was by far 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 bloated bodies bobbing downstream.

Main Road of Kyonku Village, President's Birth Place.
At the time Mr. Thein Sein was the head of the country’s disaster preparedness committee and thus the leader of the military junta’s emergency response efforts. But as he crisscrossed the delta in a helicopter he saw how woefully unprepared the impoverished country was for a catastrophe of such magnitude.

Cyclone Nargis was a “mental trigger,” says U Tin Maung Thann, the head of Myanmar Egress, a research organization based in Yangon, the country’s chief city, that provides policy advice to the president. “It made him realize the limitations of the old regime.”

Mr. Thein Sein may have had other realizations. As prime minister for three years, he represented Myanmar, also called Burma, abroad, a contrast to other senior officials in the junta who rarely left the country. Mr. Thein Sein’s visits to places like Singapore, where he received treatment for a heart condition, and New York, where he attended sessions at the United Nations, may have opened his eyes to the economic backwardness of his country, one of the poorest in Asia.

Kyonku Village Pond.
Those who followed Mr. Thein Sein’s rise through the ranks of Myanmar’s military describe him as both extremely loyal but also more conciliatory than other senior members of the junta.

As the head of the Triangle command, a region in northern Myanmar rife with drug trafficking and home to a variety of minority ethnic groups, Mr. Thein Sein was remembered as “less cruel” than other men who held the same job, according to Khuensai Jaiyen, an editor of an organization that reports news about the Shan ethnic group.

“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.”

What remains largely a mystery is why Mr. Thein Sein got the country’s top job. Unlike other senior officials in the junta, he does not have a power base in the army. He was never considered particularly ambitious — one story making the rounds in Yangon is that he had wanted to retire to a small village. His advisers say he never actively sought out the presidency.

He owes his rise through the military ranks to his former boss, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the dictator who led the junta for almost two decades until his retirement last year.

General Than Shwe, who was widely reviled in the country for his suppression of democratic forces, is believed to have engineered Mr. Thein Sein’s selection as president. One adviser says that the selection of Mr. Thein Sein and the start of the reform process was designed to allow the aging dictator to slip quietly and peacefully into retirement.

“Than Shwe is safe due to these reforms,” said U Nay Win Maung, an adviser and speechwriter to the president. “It creates a safe haven for him. An uprising is not realistic anytime soon.”

Mr. Nay Win Maung made these remarks in an interview late last year, a month before suffering a fatal heart attack. In the same conversation he offered an unvarnished description of Mr. Thein Sein: “Not ambitious, not decisive, not charismatic, but very sincere.”

Mr. Thein Sein is clearly not the only person in Burmese society driving the reform process. Other former generals such as Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of Parliament, has been very vocal in pushing for accelerated democratization. Reform in Myanmar, to paraphrase Victor Hugo, was in some ways an idea whose time had come: Mr. Thein Sein’s government responded to the bottled-up ambitions and desires of small businesses, Buddhist monks and ordinary citizens who suffered under the junta and were somewhat inspired by the Arab Spring of last year.

But analysts say Mr. Thein Sein’s role should not be underestimated. The major breakthrough of this government was convincing  Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the country’s democracy movement, to rejoin the political system, a coup that gave Mr. Thein Sein considerable credibility at home and abroad.

Analysts attribute Mr. Thein Sein’s successful wooing of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi partly to his personality. He defies the stereotype of a career military officer, especially one in an army so notorious for its brutality. Mr. Nay Win Maung called the president “very un-military like.”