Author Champions Ex-President’s Legacy, Glosses over Challenges

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 5 June 2018

YANGON — Long before their humiliating defeat in the 2015 election, a crack in the then ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) leadership had been an open secret.

To most of the senior membership’s embarrassment, their chairman cum Lower House Speaker was too close to the country’s main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The Parliament he chaired complained that most of the bills and proposals submitted came from the USDP government led by U Thein Sein. In the end, two months before the election, the party chairman and his followers were purged by the president, who claimed they were manipulative of party affairs. However, they made a comeback after the election.

But this time, they were with the NLD.

So furious over their rejection of the party, a cabinet member of Myanmar’s former President U Thein Sein called those who now hold high-ranking positions in the NLD government “traitors, turncoats and foxes.”

In his book “Myanmar’s Transition & U Thein Sein: An Insider’s Account,” U Soe Thane, one the confidants of the former president and ex-President’s Office minister, writes that some top-level USDP party leaders with more than 40 years of military service surrendered to the opposition NLD, which was much more likely to win the 2015 election.

“As a matter of fact, they were traitors, becoming turncoats although they were saying that cooperation was necessary for the sake of country and countrymen,” writes the author, adding that “they were excellent pretenders and could be likened to foxes….they were, in fact, great self-protectionists.”

But the author did not mention whom he referred to.

“You will see (in the book) some factual details without mentioning the names of the persons involved. As the writer of the book, if I think their names should be told, I do. If I think it’s unnecessary, I leave them out,” said U Soe Thane, during the launch of the Myanmar language version of the book on Saturday in Yangon. The English version of the book also launched in Singapore late last year.

“I have strong evidence for what I have written,” he added.

Even though the former commander-in-chief of the navy doesn’t mention the names of the turncoats, some are no longer secret in Myanmar today.

Currently, the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy has appointed U Aung Ko and U Thein Swe (both senior USDP officials) as Union ministers. U Shwe Mann, a former USDP chairman purged by U Thein Sein and  Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s close ally, is now the chairman of the parliamentary advisory Special Cases Assessment Commission. All of them had senior military backgrounds.

In the book, the author, who is also a USDP senior member and loyal supporter of U Thein Sein, says tension between U Thein Sein’s government and the U Shwe Mann-led USDP had mounted due to U Shwe Mann’s personal grudge against the former president. The story goes back to 2011 when the previous military regime that had run the country for more than 22 years hand-picked U Thein Sein (a former general) to lead the country’s transition from military to quasi-civilian rule (the majority of the cabinet was ex-military officials).

U Soe Thane said in the book that U Shwe Mann was widely tipped for the presidency at the time and he himself believed undoubtedly that he would hold the country’s top job. But it turned out that U Thein Sein became the president and U Shwe Mann the Speaker of Lower House and USDP chairman.

“I didn’t know who made this decision. If one considers logically that the decision for nominating the president was not up to U Thein Sein, grudges should not be held against him. From that time on, U Shwe Mann and his backers become somewhat irrational and their actions seemed to be aimed more at competing for power against U Thein Sein,” he writes.

Apart from discussing the power struggle, including two unsuccessful attempts to impeach the president through Parliament, the book is mainly about U Thein Sein’s five-year tenure as president, as he tried to reintroduce democratic norms to the country, which had been under military dictatorship since 1962.

But readers should not be misled by the book’s subtitle “An Insider’s Account.” Rather than providing never-known-before information about the president’s term, the memoir is more of a promotional piece for the former general turned president whom the author admits in the preface is a “president he admires very much.”

During his five-year term, the ex-general was internationally applauded as a “reformist” for his reintroduction of democratic norms to the country. He invited the country’s ethnic armed groups that had been warring against the central government for federalism for peace talks. Myanmar was no longer isolated to the outside world as it was before. Former US President Barack Obama visited the country twice. U Soe Thane dutifully details all of these events, including the names of dignitaries U Thein Sein met on overseas trips and some of his speeches in their entirety. For this reason, the book could be useful to those interested in Myanmar affairs during that time.

However, the author fails to provide an ‘insider’s account’ on some challenging issues such as why the U Thein Sein’s administration was unable to contain racial and religious violence that erupted at least seven times across the country in 2012-13. When it comes to the suspension of the controversial Myitsone Dam project, the author just says that China was unhappy with the decision and that U Thein Sein made a difficult choice. If you pick up the book to learn about why the government didn’t take the rise of ultranationalism and nationalist groups like Ma Ba Tha seriously, you are wasting your time. Curious about the Presidential Security Law that was hastily proposed by U Thein Sein’s administration before the end of his term to protect the former head of state from any prosecution for his actions during his term? Forget about it.

U Soe Thane said the message of the book was how to leash political greed and retreat from politics well. In the epilogue, he says the most fearful power is political power, echoing the 19th-century British historian Lord Acton’s quote: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

“Politicians should be mindful not to be too ambitious,” the author warns, probably a reminder to U Shwe Mann and his supporters whom he labels “foxes, turncoats and traitors.”

But he seems to overlook something. Nearly a month after the election, U Thein Sein received Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to congratulate her electoral victory. U Soe Thane writes: “When she asked U Thein Sein to help her with the new government, he told her to be independent, saying that he has his own work for his party to win in the next election.”

Hopefully, the former president is not too ambitious, as his staunch defender warns against.