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Geopolitics

Myanmar: How The Humble Son Of A Former Monk Helped Pave The Way For Democracy

Aung San Suu Kyi, icon of the Burmese opposition, will finally head to Parliament following historic elections. But this day came only after President Thein Sein's surprise commitment to reform. Still, true democracy will need Thein Sein to outfo

Arnaud Dubus

The main opposition party in Myanmar, the National League for Democracy, has won virtually all 44 seats it contested in the special election that took place on Sunday. This will allow Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic leader of resistance to the dictatorship, to enter Parliament. The result will be announced officially in the next few days, but it will not alter the balance of political forces in the country: we are at the beginning of a new era in which the civil government led by President Thein Sein will face a revitalized opposition.

At 66, former general Thein Sein is the unlikely instigator behind this remarkable transformation of the political landscape. When the Myanmar parliament elected him as president in March 2011, the foreign media, including writers here at Le Temps, portrayed him as the protégé of the ex-dictator Than Shwe. Analysts all agreed: the arrival of this rather scholarly looking man with a talent for flying under the radar meant nothing less than a continuation of the military dictatorship disguised in civilian clothes. And yet, 12 months later, Thein Sein has shocked everybody, initiating a series of reforms that could not have been imagined just two years ago, including the release of political prisoners and easing media censorship.

Several Burmese analysts believe that Thein Sein managed to "hide his game plan," while he was prime minister under the military regime. "He kept these reforms hidden in a drawer for a long time, waiting for the right moment. And when the opportunity finally came, he was ready," says Khin Zaw Win, an independent consultant. When he was prime minister, Thein Sein spent three years visiting other members of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), an experience that had a profound impact on him, particularly in helping him to realize the huge economic gap separating Myanmar from its neighbors.

Reforms, one tentative step at a time

The implementation of reforms has proved to be a sensitive task, as only a small team of advisers and former junta members-turned-ministers believe in the legitimacy of Thein Sein's mission. Standing in their way is a clique of conservative generals who were close to ex-dictator Than Shwe. "The reform process is fragile. Generally, politicians don't take sides one way or the other, they stand back and observe the situation, waiting to see what happens," says Harn Yawnghwe, director of the Euro-Burma Office, an organization based in Brussels that aims to support the transition to democracy in Myanmar.

Respected by most for his modest nature, Thein Sein enjoys a reputation as one of the rare ex-generals who has no history of corruption, and whose wife and children have not been implicated in any suspicious affairs. His upbringing was simple: he was born in a little village on the Irrawaddy delta and his father was an ex- Buddhist monk who earned his living carrying travellers' bags across the large river.

Thein Sein's father, a strong believer in the benefits of a good education, encouraged his son to study at secondary school and then to enroll in a military academy, a common way for young people from poor backgrounds to climb up the social ladder. His personality seems to have charmed Aung San Suu Kyi, who met him for the first time in August last year during a conference on poverty levels in the administrative capital, Naypyidaw. Since then, the opposition has stated several times that it "trusts' Thein Sein, despite also claiming "not to know the degree of support" which he benefits from in the corridors of power.

Read more in Le Temps in French.

Photo - United States Government Work

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