KYONE KU VILLAGE, Ngapudaw Township — The rice farmers of the small Irrawaddy Delta village of Kyone Ku had to shield themselves from the blowing dust and hold on tight to their little USDP flags last week, as a helicopter touched down and the most famous native of the village arrived. President Thein Sein stepped out and was carried in a motorcade to Thamu Dayan Pagoda, the village monastery, where he took part in a Buddhist donation ceremony to hoist a gold and gem-encrusted top of a spire, known as a sein phu daw in Burmese, on to a gold-leaf covered stupa. It was the first time in many years that Burma’s leader had returned to his village, located an eight-hour drive southwest of Rangoon, where he was born in 1942 as the third child of a poor family. The president held no speech, but only met briefly with his older brother Tun Myint and said hello to a few old friends before leaving again. According to Tun Myint, Thein Sein told him: “Take care of your health. Even though I have a pacemaker, I have to go ahead with my responsibilities.” The president, who assumed leadership of Burma’s first nominally-civilian government in 2011 after decades of direct military rule, was raised here by a father who weaved bamboo baskets and worked as a landless porter at the village’s little riverside port. His mother sold mohinga, the well-known Burmese noodle soup, at the port, according to his brother. In his youth, the village could only be reached by waterways and Thein Sein would take a daily boat to Ngapudaw town and later Pathein to complete his high school education. He enrolled in the Burma Army and was admitted to the ninth intake of the famous Defense Services Academy in 1968, where he was trained to become a second lieutenant He rose through the ranks of Burma’s consecutive military regimes and held positions as regional commanders, before becoming a prominent member of former Snr-Gen. Than Shwe’s of State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) after the purge of former spy chief Gen. Khin Nyunt. From 2007 to March 2011, he served as the prime minister of the junta. He is said to have been hand-picked for the presidency by Than Shwe to implement the supremo’s long-planned “roadmap to democracy” following the rigged 2010 elections, reportedly because of his reputation as one of the cleanest regime members. [irrawaddy_gallery] Tun Myint offered his own explanation about his brother’s political rise. “He reads when he is free. He shows respect to his superiors and never goes against them. He was brought near Snr-Gen. Than Shwe and Gen. Khin Nyunt, and always listened to them. No matter what he was asked to do, he is never clumsy and he does things calmly and steadily. That’s why he has become the president, I think,” he said. Kyone Ku village was described by a visiting New York Times journalist in 2012 as having no running water or paved roads, suggesting it had gained no benefits from its links to the president. These days, however, it seems the village is more developed than neighboring villages and its residents enjoy paved roads and lamp posts that light up streets at night, while free electricity is provided to the approximately 400 households by a solar power installation. The surrounding villages have only dirt roads and no power supply. While locals in neighboring Nga Yoke Kaung Sub-township suffer from poor mobile phone network, a GSM antenna towers over Kyone Ku Village. A primary school is properly furnished and the small village even has its own clinic and police post. “Our village has developed thanks to the president. We don’t need to pay for electricity as it is provided with solar power. All the roads in our village have been turned into concrete now. It has been more convenient for us as transportation has improved compared to the past,” said villager Thet Lwin. It remains unclear how the village managed to leap ahead in terms of government services and on whose instructions it took place. A village administrator could not provide The Irrawaddy with any details on the developments. Despite, the benefits it enjoys, poverty is still rife here and almost half of the village residents have left in order to seek a better income by working abroad. “Around 300 people from our village are working in countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Some get a good job there and send back money to their families, while some have faced trouble,” said Thet Lwin. Family members attest to Thein Sein’s reputation as a simple-living man with little interest in garnering private funds through the power of his government positions. Tun Myint said he had suggested that his brother open a business when he was secretary-1 of the SPDC, but Thein Sein reacted by saying that he was only interested in civil service and farming after his retirement. His family gathered few benefits from their famous uncle, he added. “My brother could not support the family. He was a battalion commander when our mother was ill, but we had to sell the half of our land as we had no money to pay for her treatment,” Tun Myint said. “He has also not given anything to me, not even a land plot, but he did buy me a phone. He always tells my children not to seek help from him but to act on their own.” Thein Sein has been a key figure in Burma’s dramatic democratic transition, but critics of his government say that as president he has done little to curb graft. They say his political reforms—in particular the lack of constitutional amendments and continuing threats to rights activists—has been a major disappointment to the Burmese public, civil society groups and the democratic opposition of Aung San Suu Kyi. “Thein Sein has failed to create a clean government as he has articulated he would. He can’t fight the corruption by steering himself clear from it—and his cabinet members can’t follow his steps,” said political commentator Than Win. Thein Sein has also appeared unable to influence the stalled nationwide ceasefire process, which appears to be under military rather than civilian government control. Recurrent outbreaks of deadly anti-Muslim violence, in particular in western Burma’s Arakan State, have been one of the most disturbing features of his tenure. Thein Sein has left it unclear if he will seek a second term in office in the 2015 elections, but Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann and chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) has indicated he will be a presidential candidate and could be a rival. Residents of his native village said they would like to see Thein Sein run in next year’s elections. “I joined the USDP this year, but we don’t understand much about politics. I joined as a manner of support for our villager, the president. I have no other intentions. I would vote for the president’s party in 2015,” said Thet Lwin. His brother said he would like see Thein Sein retire and lead a more calm life at his advanced age. “I don’t want him to do more since he has served the country since he was 18. He is living with a pacemaker. To be frank, I want him to engage in religious service,” he said.
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