Myanmar President Thein Sein will probably step aside when his term ends following elections in 2015, an aide said, adding uncertainty to the political outlook after he oversaw the nation’s most inclusive vote in more than two decades.
“The president has laid the foundation for the political reform and he is the founder of this transition,” Ko Ko Hlaing, his top political adviser, said in a May 2 interview in Yangon. “So after this tenure, if it is quite successful, he may be content with his works. The next steps toward democracy will be in the hands of other leaders.”
Thein Sein, 67, has moved to reconnect Myanmar with the West since taking power 14 months ago. The former general has released political prisoners, floated the currency and convinced opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to rejoin the political process, opening the door for Western companies to scout investment opportunities in the nation of 64 million people.
The next election, scheduled in 2015, will determine whether Myanmar’s coterie of generals that has run the country for five decades will peacefully hand over power. While Thein Sein would accept a win for Suu Kyi’s party, the military’s reaction is more uncertain, Ko Ko Hlaing said.
“Our civilian-military relationship with democracy is quite a delicate thing,” he said. Accepting a power shift “will depend on the relationship between the political parties and the military.”
In the unlikely scenario in which Myanmar’s military reasserts its power and Western governments tighten sanctions again, the economy would grow about 4.4 percent from 2016 to 2020, the Economist Intelligence Unit said in an April 26 report. That compares with 7.7 percent growth in that time if limited policy changes continue, it said.
Suu Kyi took office this week after her National League for Democracy party won 43 of 44 seats it contested in by-elections last month, giving it control of less than 10 percent of the 664-member parliament. The NLD boycotted the 2010 national elections, during which the Nobel Peace Prize winner was detained at her lakeside home in Yangon.
“I don’t think the country is ready for an NLD president tomorrow, but 2015 is still three years off,” said Hans Vriens, managing partner of Vriens & Partners, a Singapore-based political risk firm. “There are no clear signs of opposition to the reform movement at this moment.”
Shwe Mann, the former No. 3 in the junta who is now speaker of parliament’s lower house, is the most likely among reform-minded establishment figures to take the mantle from Thein Sein, Vriens said. The International Crisis Group last month called Shwe Mann a “strong contender” for the presidency in 2015.
“Thein Sein has signaled privately that he is not interested in a second term, in part due to poor health, but there is no guarantee he would not change his mind,” the ICG said.
Thein Sein took power from former junta leader Than Shwe in March 2011. The president enjoys reading in his spare time and is not much of a talker, Nay Zin Latt, another of his nine advisers, wrote in an April 7 e-mail.
“He is very decent, and quiet, and a soft-spoken person,” Ko Ko Hlaing said. “But he has a very firm determination and commitment for the betterment of his country.”
Suu Kyi, whose father was a general who founded Myanmar’s modern armed forces and helped win independence from Britain in the 1940s, said on March 30 that she’s confident that Thein Sein “genuinely wishes for democratic reform.” Her meeting with him last August paved the way for her party’s participation in the by-elections.
“I don’t think anybody, Burmese or foreigners, expected the scope of the changes,” said David Steinberg, distinguished professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. “That’s uniquely Thein Sein and the people around him. Than Shwe wasn’t willing to compromise on anything, and Thein Sein has been.”
In 1990, the military rejected an election victory by the NLD in which the opposition party won about 80 percent of seats for a committee to draft a new constitution. Eighteen years later, an army-drafted constitution that allocates a quarter of parliamentary seats to the armed forces passed in a referendum.
Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, campaigned to change the constitution to make it more democratic. Thein Sein welcomes her entry to parliament “because we now have a common place to discuss all things on the agenda very friendly, very openly and very officially,” Ko Ko Hlaing said.
The president’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party is reviewing its strategy as it looks to the 2015 elections, he said. Measures may include bringing in more technocrats to handle financial affairs to bolster the economy.
“We are a democracy now, and in democracies the desire of the people is crucial,” Ko Ko Hlaing said. “The future is unpredictable.”