Thein Sein’s ‘Second Wave’ Requires Help

By Kyaw Zwa Moe, Reform 16 May 2012

Burmese President Thein Sein seems to have done a good job again! His straightforward, honest confession and down-to-earth instructions made his fans admire him more and even impressed his critics.

Immediately after he started addressing a coordinating meeting of his cabinet over the weekend, Thein Sein admitted that the result of the recent by-elections—the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 out of 45 seats—indicated that Burmese people disliked what his government has been doing “from the village to the Union level.” That means, he said clearly, “reform” has to be carried out effectively.

Even his detractors must admit that it is an impressive admission. However, it might have irritated some of his cabinet who are leading members of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—the main rival of the NLD.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

The president called this reform a “second wave.” It is the next stage of his reformist strategy to achieve national development, with the initial part largely carried out during the first year of his tenure.

In his speech, Thein Sein described unpalatable aspects of Rangoon residents’ lives as examples for the whole country. “More than half of the city’s residents [over five million people—one-tenth of the country’s population] are discontent about the huge gap between rich and poor.

“They live in houses made of thatch and wood which are in danger of catching fire. Meanwhile they face shortages of water and a lack of electricity,” he said. “They wake up early to take crowded public transport for two hours to get their destination and come back home late night only to wake early up again the next morning.

“There are people who are unhappy due to the lack of job opportunities. Street vendors and authorities dispute over where to sell commodities, and there are problems regarding the scarcity of car parks in downtown.”

The president admitted that, “we have to change all of these scenes” all over the country.

His words will definitely strike a chord with ordinary people. However, they maintain the right to be skeptical as Thein Sein’s highly anticipated program of development initiated over one year ago has yet to bring basic needs into their daily lives.

The president’s speech not only covered the issues of politics, economics, administration, land disputes, city development plans, environmental impact and social reforms, he also emphasized that reforms need to change the attitude and mindset of administrative officials and enforce respect for the rule of law.

For Thein Sein, changing the embedded views of his ministers will be the biggest challenge. But the guidelines he set out to his cabinet members were fairly detailed and comprehensive.

Thein Sein’s speech demonstrates how determined he is to carry on his reform process, even if some observers and opposition leaders remain cautious.

Many people in Burma seem to be convinced that the president is genuine, but worry whether his team is similarly committed to reform—following his orders and executing their duties as instructed.

Even opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who said she had trust in Thein Sein’s honesty, does not completely believe in his reform process yet. A few days after the president’s speech, she said, “I sometimes feel that people are too optimistic about the scene in Burma. You have to remember that the democratization process is not irreversible.”

As she has said before, Suu Kyi still believes in the president. But she also believes that there are elements within his administration which remain resistant to democratization. Vice-President Tin Aung Myint Oo, who has reportedly just submitted his resignation for health reasons, was believed to be amongst the hardliners within Thein Sein’s government.

In fact, almost all cabinet members and government officials are old faces from the former junta which was notorious for its corruption, incompetency and mismanagement. Thus, the question remains whether his current administration is capable of implementing reform effectively.

The president seems to have been focused on correcting misguided government policies and strategies, but success also depends on finding the right people.

“Good policies are already in place here, [but] it will not be a success unless people are good,” said Thein Sein. “Conservatives who do not have a reformist mindset will be left behind,” he added referring to hardliners in Naypyidaw.

What should really be the president’s priority is “reforming” his cabinet with efficient and incorruptible personnel before the next stage of reform begins. Otherwise, his “second wave” might not have quite the cleansing effect he hopes.