The term of Burmese president Thein Sein will end with the election of a new head of state by the parliament in March. In the eyes of the international community he was instrumental in seeing through the economic and political changes in Myanmar. Thein Sein is being praised for bringing the country back from the verge of economic collapse and the peaceful transition of power which is currently taking place. On the other hand, the rapid growth of economy is not accompanied by political reforms of similar magnitude. Thein Sein’s time in office gave Myanmar a much needed push, but his successor will still have his hands full.
The November general election, won by the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has left both the international and domestic audience in anticipation of the next moves by the Burmese military. Formation of the civil government with Thein Sein as its head was a foundation for the changes in Myanmar. Dressing up in suits instead of military uniforms does not, however, mean that Burmese commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing no longer has a final say in all matters important. Still, there have been no obvious movements made by the military to disrupt the smooth transition of power to NLD, which dominated the parliament by taking almost 80 percent of the seats in both chambers. If the army stays true to their stated intent not to interfere in any capacity, the next president will certainly be a candidate nominated by the NLD. Whether it will be Aung San Suu Kyi herself remains to be seen. She is barred from running for office by the constitution because of her children having British citizenship, but her recent frequent meetings with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing suggest that Suu Kyi is pushing really hard to have the troublesome law amended. One thing is certain: there will be no second term for Thein Sein who will resume chairmanship of the military controlled Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). He is leaving the office after five years of ground-breaking changes for Myanmar, both positive and negative.
When Thein Sein took office in March 2011, after the first election in 20 years, many observers considered him a “safe choice”, unable to undermine in any way the power held by the former junta leader Than Shwe. He quickly surprised the public opinion by enforcing a number of radical reforms in crucial country policies. Newly appointed president won international approval by freeing hundreds of prisoners, among them political detainees. Along with a steady censorship removal and legalisation of trade unions and organised protests, Thein Sein introduced some serious changes to the Burmese political system. His primary objective was, however, to open the Burmese economy to the outside world and foreign investments to balance out the ever growing Chinese influence. Combined with a set of anti-corruption laws and strengthening the monetary system these decisions stabilised the economy and gave it a push so much needed to get out of the financial crisis brought by the junta policies.
The effects of implemented reforms soon became visible. Myanmar’s GDP growth steadied itself around 8 percent annually. This is a great result after the collapse in 2008. The Burmese economy is said to quadruple by the year 2030 if it can maintain the current pace. Foreign investments may be more careful than it was anticipated three or four years ago, but they are still increasing rapidly, especially in strategic fields such as natural resources extraction, communication systems or tourism. Foreign direct investments (FDI) in the fiscal year 2014/2015 soared to unprecedented value of over $8 billion, $3 more than what the forecasts had anticipated. Overall FDI value in the last year before the transition (2009/2010) amounted only to $330 million, which is almost 25 times less than the present state.
It would seem that enlisting the help of financial specialists, as well as global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, has paid off handsomely. The streets of Yangon and Mandalay have been populated by brand new foreign cars, young people playing with their smartphones and serious businessmen with briefcases. The cities themselves are also changing, starting once again to shine with their former glory. Myanmar is no longer a secluded country avoided by average western tourists. The biggest cities and most famous landmarks are now brimming with visitors not only from the West, but also from neighbouring Asian countries. The political thaw and international attention had brought a steady change of atmosphere. People on the streets started to openly discuss politics and their sympathies.
All these accomplishments can be partially ascribed to president Thein Sein and his government. He has set the country on a right track towards regaining prosperity and international support. Still, as shown by the recent election, Burmese people are set on entrusting the continuation of transition to a brand new head of state. In their opinion, over the years Thein Sein’s commitment to political reforms started to wane and some all too well known authoritarian methods started to resurface.
Thein Sein’s paradox
After the initial good start, Thein Sein put a hold on the process of implementing larger political freedoms. Part of the society that got their hopes up no longer wanted to remain silent. As a result, the number of organised protest throughout the country started to increase and soon after prisons were filled with arrested students and activists, who had to wait for months to stand trial. At the same time many convicted criminals were granted suspicious pardons by Thein Sein and his administration.
According to the president, political changes can come only after building a solid economic base. In his own words “our first priority is to fight poverty […]; if people have jobs and income-generating opportunities, they will not resort to violence […]; only when we have real economic progress will the democratic process flourish.”
There may as well be some truth to that statement, but the goal laid down by the president is still far from being fulfilled. The dynamic changes and increasing wealth are still limited to densely populated cities and tourist sites. The current administration has failed to address the issue of poverty on Myanmar’s province. While young people in Yangon are surfing the internet on their mobile phones and laptops, inhabitants of rural regions still have to worry about frequent water shortages. Income inequality is increasing dramatically. Not surprisingly, most of the transition benefits are being reaped by the former members of the military and people or companies close to them.
One of the recurring themes during Thein Sein’s term was his struggle to sign a nationwide ceasefire treaty with Burmese minorities. Conflict between the Myanmar Armed Forces, the Tatmadaw, and armed ethnic groups active in the borderlands has spanned for decades and is still easily reignited. Despite considerable efforts to reach an agreement with all the major organisations, Thein Sein’s administration has failed to do so. The document signed in October 2015 by some of the groups is a good starting point, but the quickly following exchange of fire between the Tatmadaw and the forces of organisations that refused the deal makes one question the government’s motives. It may as well be just a ruse to prevent the formation of unanimous ethnic political front opposing the central government. In one of his last public speeches as a president, Thein Sein boasts about a “peaceful term”. Members of many minorities in Myanmar, such as the Kachin people, would certainly dispute his words.
As the election time grew near, faith in Thein Sein’s dedication to reforms started to diminish even further. Questions about the fairness of the upcoming vote and possible reactions from the military arose. Fortunately, as for today there were none. The election process was praised by international observers and the transition of power to the victorious NLD seems to be going smoothly. If the Tatmadaw maintains its restraint till the end, Thein Sein’s election loss may go down in history as his greatest achievement.
Thein Sein’s term is at an end, but it will be months or maybe even years before it can be fairly evaluated. He was the first civilian head of state in decades, so there is no relevant comparison. The presidency of his successor will most likely be very different, marked by the difficult cohabitation with the military. Despite being set for changes, the NLD government can turn out to be less effective than Thein Sein’s administration with its military backing.
Despite all the major problems that remain unsolved, Myanmar did benefit enormously from the transition. It does not really matter whether Thein Sein was an independent political player who speeded up the reform process in opposition to former junta leader Than Shwe’s plans or to the contrary, he was still influenced by his former military superiors and is following a secret plan to strengthen the military position while seemingly giving up power to more liberal forces. Going back on these changes would now be catastrophic not only for the Burmese people, but also the Tatmadaw.
For now, after stepping down as president, Thein Sein will resume his position as USDP chairman. When asked whether he will share the fate of another transition leader Mikhail Gorbachev and be put aside from the new political order, Thein Sein seemed fairly confident that he still has an important role to play in Myanmar’s future. To ensure that, one of the last bills passed by the previous parliament grants former heads of state an immunity from prosecution for any crimes committed during their time in office.
Krzysztof Kotlarski – absolwent kierunku Studia Euroazjatyckie w Instytucie Nauk Politycznych UW. Zainteresowany przede wszystkim tematyką stosunków politycznych i gospodarczych na obszarze byłego ZSRR i na Dalekim Wschodzie