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

Written by New York Times | Published: April 10, 2012 3:37 am

THOMAS FULLER

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.

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. From interviews with those who watched Thein Sein’s rise in the military,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,Thein Sein is slight,bookish and considered softer than the other members of the junta that took power in 1988. He is viewed as being free of corruption charges; 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.

Much has been made 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 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 US.

Former critics are not fully satisfied with the changes he has made. Although many political prisoners were freed,hundreds remain in prison. Also,Thein Sein 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 that his unit in 1988 had either released the democracy activists it captured or handed them to the local authorities.

With very little to draw on,it is impossible to say what is driving Thein Sein as he sends his country hurtling 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. At the time,Thein Sein was the leader of the military junta’s emergency response efforts and saw how woefully unprepared his impoverished country was for the catastrophe.

Critics were scathing about the decision to turn down foreign assistance in the distribution of food and other aid. But analysts pointed out that Thein Sein did at least make himself accessible to his people,unlike his fellow generals.

In the remote village of Kyonku,his birthplace,Thein Sein and his family are known for being slightly different. 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 centre of the town. His parents did not own any land,and his father weaved 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,and unusually literate for the time. “The main reason for his success is his father,” Kyaw Soe said. “He was a great teacher and respected moral values.”

Kyaw Soe said the village’s lack of development today stands as a testament to the president’s honesty. His lack of ostentation has made a favourable impression on average Burmese,who witnessed increasingly unabashed displays of wealth by former military leaders.

And as Thein Sein enters his second year as president,he is articulating bold goals. He has 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.”

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

The presidential speechwriter Nay Win Maung,who died on January 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 has been personality-based.”

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