Myanmar President Thein Sein last visited the United Nations three years ago as the face of an authoritarian military regime. Today, the former general-turned reformer will present Myanmar in a new light.
In a speech to world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly this morning, Thein Sein is expected to tout his country’s progress in shifting to democracy after five decades of military rule. He will be the first Burmese head of state to address the 193-member world body.
While the spotlight has been on human-rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi during her 17-day U.S. trip, even by her own admission it’s been the more low-key Thein Sein who’s been guiding Myanmar’s transition from pariah state to aspiring democracy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who met with Thein Sein yesterday in New York, said the U.S. would start easing a nine-year-old ban on imports from Myanmar.
“It’s a government that wants to lead Myanmar out of decades of isolation,” said Thant Myint-U, who’s written two books on Myanmar and is the grandson of U Thant, the third UN Secretary-General. “He was there previously as a spokesman for the old military junta, and he’s now the architect of change.”
In his 2009 UN speech two years after he was promoted to acting prime minister, when Than Shwe headed Myanmar’s military junta, Thein Sein hinted at the changes to come. Swapping his army uniform for a business suit, he announced to a global audience that a political transition was in the works.
“The government is taking systematic steps to hold free and fair elections,” Thein Sein said before the General Assembly. He also said that democracy cannot be “imposed” and criticized sanctions on his country as “unjust” and a “political tool against Myanmar.”
At the time, Suu Kyi, the country’s most famous dissident, remained under house arrest, and many other political prisoners were behind bars.
Today, it’s a different story. Thein Sein has freed hundreds of political prisoners, eased restrictions on the media, begun peace talks with rebel groups, and floated the currency, the kyat.
Vijay Nambiar, the UN’s top adviser on Myanmar, has met with Thein Sein about seven times on his 10 trips to the country and describes him as a man who is “innately modest and not given to making grandiloquent statements.”
“There is a quiet determination to him, he is quiet and soft-spoken but will not flinch from a question posed to him,” Nambiar said in a telephone interview. “He is a little ill-at-ease with public attention he is now getting. He comes from a modest background and in many ways is a self-made man.”
After shepherding democratic reforms that prompted Western nations to ease sanctions and led businesses to consider investing in Myanmar, Thein Sein is under pressure to explain which new economic policies lie ahead and how his government will tackle thornier issues including the plight of ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya Muslims.
“What he’ll want to do is explain the changes that have taken place, the challenges that lie ahead, and demonstrate the government is committed to continuing on this path,” Thant Myint-U said in a telephone interview from Yangon.
With an eye to elections in 2015, investors are focused on Myanmar’s economic potential after a half-century of neglect left the country formerly known as Burma outside the global financial system.
In a report this month, the International Monetary Fund said direct foreign investment into the country will rise 40 percent to a record $3.99 billion this year. Natural gas is Myanmar’s biggest revenue earner, and without new discoveries it will struggle to reverse an average 15 percent annual depletion in its gas reserves.
Western governments are also warming up to Thein Sein. The U.S. in July authorized the first investment in the country in 15 years, and Clinton announced yesterday that lifting the import ban signals “the next step in normalizing our commercial relationship.”
In place since 2003, the ban has deterred labor-intensive manufacturing industries to invest in Myanmar just as Thein Sein is seeking to create jobs after political reforms. U.S. imports from Myanmar fell to zero in 2004 from $356 million in 2002, according to U.S. government statistics.
“I hope that the leadership in our country can help to recognize the contributions that he has made working alongside Suu Kyi to bring this moment about,” Kurt Campbell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state, told a congressional hearing on Sept. 20, referring to Thein Sein.
While in the driver’s seat now, Thein Sein’s political future is uncertain. The 67-year-old leader probably will step aside when his term ends after elections in 2015, Ko Ko Hlaing, his top political adviser, said in May. He made changes in his Cabinet last month to bolster his reform agenda.
After serving four years as prime minister under the former junta headed by Than Shwe, Thein Sein became president in March 2011 after elections that ended decades of direct military rule.
Five month later he met with Suu Kyi, the leader of the biggest opposition party, in the capital of Naypyitaw.
Those talks marked the beginning of a working relationship and set the stage for her party to participate in by-elections last April after boycotting the 2010 vote.
Both leaders have stressed the need to set their egos aside for the good of country.
“I don’t think we should think about this in terms of personalities,” Suu Kyi told reporters after a Sept 21 meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “I think we should think about it as a common goal. If we all want to achieve genuine democracy for Burma, we have to learn to work together and not think about our impact as personalities, either in our country or in the world at large.”
While in Washington, Suu Kyi also gave Thein Sein his due.
“We must also remember that the reform process was initiated by President Thein Sein,” Suu Kyi said in a Sept. 19 speech. “I believe that he is keen on democratic reforms. But how the executive goes about implementing these reforms is what we have to watch.”