Thein Sein Blames WEF Absence on Unrest

By Charlie Campbell 8 June 2012

Burmese President Thein Sein has attributed his sudden withdrawal from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Bangkok last week to tackling domestic unrest, apparently to counter claims that the decision was related to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s presence at the event.

Thein Sein was due to visit Thailand twice already this month but canceled both trips at the last minute. A statement released on Thursday attributed his no-show to handling popular protests against worker conditions and power shortages in Burma.

“The visit had to be postponed due to demonstrations organized by workers from some factories in the vicinity of Yangon for wage-rises and also candlelight demonstrations for the full restoration of electricity supply that required the president to be in the country to give close supervision and guidance to ministries concerned and relevant authorities in their efforts to solve the situation in a peaceful way,” said a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Suu Kyi stole the show during the WEF on East Asia from May 31 to June 1 but appeared to anger Naypyidaw insiders by warning against “reckless optimism” regarding Burma’s democratic reforms. Subsequent editorials in state-run media accused the Nobel Laureate of jeopardizing potential foreign investment with her comments.

The 66-year-old also visited Burmese migrant workers in the port of Mahachai, south of Bangkok, as well as refugees in Mae La camp by the Thai border town of Mae Sot. However, planned meetings with ethnic and community leaders were curtailed at the last moment, leading to speculation that the Thai authorities had been pressured by their Burmese counterparts.

There were also rumors that Thein Sein did not want to be upstaged by Suu Kyi at the WEF by sharing a stage with the democracy icon who has repeatedly been voted one of the world’s most influential people.

But Thursday’s statement moved to diffuse tensions and blamed the president’s absence in Bangkok to solving domestic disputes. Thousands of people attended candlelight vigils across central Burma during late May to protest against electricity rationing, while hundreds of factory workers in Rangoon have been engaged in industrial action over pay and conditions—some even taking part in hunger strikes.

“[Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin] also informed the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand that the visit of the President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar to Thailand will be re-arranged at a mutually convenient time after coordination between the two sides,” the statement concluded.

Suu Kyi’s visit to Bangkok last week was her first trip outside Burma for 24 years. The parliamentarian previously refused to leave the country, not even when her British husband Michael Aris died of cancer in 1999, over fears that the previous ruling military junta would forbid her return.