Analysis

Former President and General U Thein Sein Paints While Myanmar Burns

By Agga Aung 3 June 2022

While the Myanmar people are drowning in troubled waters in post-coup political turmoil, former President U Thein Sein is living a life of ease in his large Naypyitaw compound, painting, writing and growing trees.

Myanmar’s people are suffering miseries because of coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who became the military chief just as U Thein Sein’s government was taking power in 2011. But 77-year-old U Thein Sein has not spoken a word of criticism about the junta leader.

Former general U Thein Sein won widespread praise from world leaders because of the political and economic reforms instituted after he became president. Then US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in 2012 because of those reforms.

Myanmar’s then President U Thein Sein (C) being accompanied by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (R), commander in chief of the Myanmar armed forces, during a dinner reception at military headquarters in Naypyitaw marking Armed Forces Day in March 2016./ AFP

However, U Thein Sein has been tight-lipped since the coup. His silence has raised the question of whether he accepts the view that the Myanmar military is always the savior in Myanmar’s politics by staging coups. U Thein Sein’s silence since last year’s military takeover shows that he is just a sham reformer, which is a shame for the international community that rushed to praise his reforms.

A painter and reader

Since handing over power to the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 2016, U Thein Sein has cut himself off from his cohorts and followers. Instead, he has been enjoying his retirement at his mansion in the Myanmar capital Naypyitaw, where he lives alongside other former generals, including former dictator Than Shwe, in the so-called “Row of Six” in Pobbathiri Township.

But he did invite two of his former assistants to his compound recently. U Aung Paing Min, one of them, boasted about his visit on social media. Former corporal U Aung Paing Min was U Thein Sein’s assistant since he became a general. He accompanied U Thein Sein to the President’s Office, and resigned when U Thein Sein stepped down.

Myanmar’s then President U Thein Sein (R) speaks during a bilateral meeting with US President Barack Obama at the Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw on November 13, 2014. / AFP

He calls U Thein Sein ‘Ba Ba Gyi’, or great uncle, and said that U Thein Sein was riding a buggy when they arrived at his residence. The former president fed them with mangoes he had grown himself and showed off some of his paintings.

U Aung Paing Min posted photos of the paintings on social media. They were painted in April and May, according to the dates on the paintings, just as junta troops were raiding and torching villages and carrying out airstrikes on civilians.

His paintings are at the amateur level, according to artists. U Thein Sein also gave his former assistants copies of “Flowing Ayeyarwady”, a collection of short stories that he authored under the pen name Thein Sein Tun. Peace is one of the topics of the book.

He also presented his former assistants with copies of the book “Nurturing the Youth for Future Country’, written by his former minister U Soe Thane, saying “you two should read this”.

U Soe Thane, a senior figure in U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, was once widely praised as a reform-minded minister. However, he revealed his true colors in his book “The Second Democratic Government and Myanmar”, when he wrote how after five years of NLD rule he was longing for a military takeover in Myanmar.

Thein Sein helps resurrect a dead tiger

U Thein Sein, who Hillary Clinton said looks more like an accountant than a general, had a glorious past before the 2021 coup.

Former President U Thein Sein (right) talks to the regime leader Min Aung Hlaing (left) in March 2022.

He earned a reputation as a reformist president for initiating a series of reforms, while also maintaining the military’s leading role in politics. It was the roadmap of his mentor, former dictator Than Shwe, and U Thein Sein stuck to it.

“Before he did anything during his tenure as president, U Thein Sein always considered if Senior General Than Shwe would like it,” U Soe Thane always said in chats with his friends.

But core members of the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) blamed U Thein Sein for bringing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi back into politics, after Than Shwe had excluded her from parliament. Those USDP members blamed U Thein Sein for ‘resurrecting the dead tiger’.

Their concerns were realized when Suu Kyi and the NLD won a landslide victory in the 2015 general election.

Than Shwe did not intervene in the 2014-2015 power struggle between U Thein Sein and Thura U Shwe Mann, the then speaker of parliament, because he was angry that U Thein Sein brought Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD back into politics, wrote U Ye Htut in his book “Myanmar’s Political Reforms and Lost Opportunities”.

After the NLD took power in 2016, the generals felt a growing threat to the Myanmar military’s leadership role in politics. To their relief, Min Aung Hlaing seized power last year, so preventing the NLD from governing for another five years after the party won the 2020 general election.

Min Aung Hlaing pays respects to U Thein Sein

Retired generals gathered in Naypyitaw on Armed Forces Day on March 27. Their appearance at the commemoration hosted by the current regime proves that they are all in solidarity with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing.

Ex-president U Thein Sein during the consecration ceremony of a pagoda in Naypyitaw on May 14, 2022.

U Thein Sein was there as Min Aung Hlaing paid respects to retired generals. He was one of the two attendees who gave words of advice to Min Aung Hlaing, his wife and audience. What he said is unknown, but he reportedly did not say a word about the post-coup turmoil.

U Thein Sein was last seen in public on May 14 when he consecrated a pagoda in Naypyitaw’s Oketarathiri Township.

Ex-president remains a VIP

As an ex-president, U Thein Sein, who lives in a palatial mansion which he inherited from the former junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), continues to enjoy a state-level remuneration package.

Two months before he stepped down as the president after the USDP’s defeat in the 2015 general elections, he signed the ‘Former Presidents Security’ bill into law.

The law is designed to shield ex-presidents from prosecution for crimes committed during their term of office. U Thein Sein is already protected from prosecution under the provisions of the military-drafted 2008 constitution.

Article 445 of the constitution grants immunity to all members of the SPDC, of which U Thein Sein was a senior member.

Under the Former Presidents Security Law, U Thein Sein is guarded by a team of armed personal bodyguards arranged and paid for by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Former presidents and vice-presidents also enjoy a political pension gratuity, a monthly pension and other allowances and entitlements. Living a comfortable life, U Thein Sein is apparently not concerned with what Min Aung Hlaing is doing to the Myanmar people.

The ex-soldier said he has been enjoying Dhamma, and that painting watercolors improves his concentration and helps his meditation.

When his two former assistants visited him, he asked them “to take landscape photos for him so that he can paint pictures of them”.

This means he will continue to create paintings instead of telling Min Aung Hlaing to stop his violence against the Myanmar people.

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