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Thein Sein, reformer of Myanmar

YANGON, Myanmar – After almost half a century in the military, Thein Sein seemed unlikely to champion democratic reform when the army installed him as head of state last year – but he is now hosting the US President.

The bespectacled former general and junta member had a reputation for staunch loyalty to strongman Than Shwe, and the military had ruled the nation formerly known as Burma with an iron fist for nearly half a century.

But since taking office as civilian President in March 2011, he has overseen dramatic changes, including political prisoner releases, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s parliamentary debut, and ceasefire pacts with ethnic minority rebels.

The 67-year-old leader, who US President Barack Obama yesterday to Yangon, has won international plaudits and the suspension or lifting of most Western sanctions for his reforms in the face of conservatives’ misgivings.

Obama’s visit is another major boost for Thein Sein, said Yangon-based political expert Mael Raynaud.

“In reinforcing his position, Obama is making him an untouchable President who is less and less vulnerable to being ousted by hardliners,’’ he said.

The new air of optimism in Myanmar owes much to the relationship that Thein Sein has built with Suu Kyi, who was kept under house arrest by the military for 15 years but now said she believes the President genuinely wants reform.

For decades, only a handful of people were privy to the inner workings of the regime and what motivated him to pursue such a dramatic transformation remains a source of much speculation.

One theory is that his travels overseas as the junta’s prime minister between 2007 and 2011 made Thein Sein realize how far the impoverished country was lagging behind its neighbors.

“There were many in the Myanmar military who wanted reform but could not under Than Shwe,’’ said David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University in the United States. ‘’Thein Sein has allowed the process to move – in part because they know how far behind they are.’’

A son of farmers, born in a small village in the southern region of Irrawaddy, Thein Sein began his army career at the military academy – a route taken by most of the junta’s top generals.

He served in northeastern Myanmar, notorious as a drug production hub and part of the so-called “golden triangle’’ that overlapped with Laos and Thailand. (AFP)

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