Ex-general who led Myanmar from dictatorship leaves mixed legacy
When U.S. President Barack Obama hosts a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders in California this week, his Myanmar counterpart Thein Sein will be notably absent.
Myanmar’s outgoing president abruptly pulled out of the summit as secretive talks continued between his country’s powerful military and the incoming government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
For his admirers, a smooth transition of power would seal Thein Sein’s legacy as the former general who led Myanmar’s dramatic emergence from nearly half a century of military dictatorship.
He freed political prisoners, scrapped censorship, oversaw a historic election and repaired relations with the West, turning Myanmar from a global pariah into a buzzing destination for tourists, investors and world leaders.
On March 31, he will pass the unfinished task of transforming Myanmar to a National League for Democracy (NLD) government led by Suu Kyi, his wildly popular political rival, who in November won the country’s first credible general election in 25 years.
Despite fears of fraud, the election ran smoothly and Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), dominated by former military officers, accepted a crushing defeat.
But critics say Thein Sein, who gave no reason for cancelling his attendance at the California summit on Monday and Tuesday, did little to tackle his country’s profound poverty or the religious tensions that regularly erupted into deadly violence.
Nor did he challenge the military, whose abiding influence over every aspect of Myanmar – politics, bureaucracy, business – poses a major challenge to Suu Kyi’s fledgling administration.
“Thein Sein will be remembered as the president who really turned Myanmar around,” said Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based analyst and former United Nations official in Myanmar.
“His administration has been far from perfect, but his legacy will be an enduring one.”
Former junta leader Than Shwe appointed him prime minister in 2007, the same year the military government brutally suppressed pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks.
Four years later, after winning a general election marred by vote-rigging allegations and boycotted by Suu Kyi’s NLD, Thein Sein became president of a nominally civilian government packed with former soldiers.