Guest Column

The World’s Least Scrutinized Head of State?

By Mark Farmaner 18 July 2014

Search “Thein Sein profile” on the Internet and surprisingly few profiles will appear. There is a profile on the BBC website from 2012, reflecting the rather giddy initial international response to President Thein Sein’s reforms, and there are brief one- or two-page profiles on a few other websites, but nothing in-depth.

Many profiles seem to share similar themes. Thein Sein is described as a “quiet man,” “humble,” “not a politician,” and “reluctant’ to become president.” He is described as not corrupt and relatively untainted, even as “Mr. Clean.” Frequent reference is made to his having a pacemaker. Occasional reference is made to Cyclone Nargis, which his aids brief was the turning point in his realizing the need for reform.

These similarities could simply be down to media copying each other. Or it could reflect a more concerted and deliberate public relations effort to brand Thein Sein as different from his predecessors. Instead of a power-hungry general, he is a reluctant leader, the quiet and humble man, struggling to introduce reforms despite opposition and ill health.

None of the profiles detail his personal involvement in human rights abuses while serving as a senior leader of one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships. Given how much the international community has staked on Thein Sein being honest and true to his word, it is surprising how little scrutiny of him there has been. There is no book or documentary about him, nor are there academic papers. Governments seem unconcerned about his past. Media seem uninterested.

Surely though, in assessing the reform process in Burma, which is an entirely top-down process, examining the man leading the reforms is essential.

In July 2013, Burma Campaign UK published a briefing paper with details of his role at the top of the dictatorship, and how he was one of the few senior generals ever to be personally named by the United Nations for ordering his soldiers to commit human rights abuses. It highlighted allegations of corruption, close relationships with drug dealers, his praise of North Korea, the mass use of rape by soldiers under his command, his ordering of land confiscation, and how he was the one who was in charge of drafting the 2008 Constitution, which so many agree needs to be reformed.

We hoped that publishing this briefing might prompt some governments to pause and consider exactly what kind of man they were heaping so much praise on. We hoped that it might prompt some media to be more curious about the man himself. Is he really what he claims to be? What does his past tell us about the kind of man he is, and in turn, what does this mean for the prospect of genuine reform? We were to be disappointed. Thein Sein’s past remains almost completely free of scrutiny.

Looking into his past, at Burma Campaign UK we became increasingly convinced that he was not the kind of man likely to be a genuine reformer. He was a longtime soldier, was in the inner circle of the previous dictator, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, and was trusted implicitly by him. Than Shwe repeatedly promoted Thein Sein to key positions, and hand-picked Thein Sein as president to take over when he stood down.

The UN special rapporteur on Burma described how in 1998 and 1999 Thein Sein ordered his soldiers in Shan State to commit human rights abuses. He ordered the illegal confiscation of land, and farmers ejected were then subject to extortion and forced labor. Shan human rights groups documented about 45 cases of rape by soldiers under his command. His headquarters in Shan State was ringed by incidents of rape.

His role in the crushing of the uprising in 1988 is still unknown, although a US cable released by WikiLeaks said he had “distinguished” himself in the crackdown. Thein Sein has stated that the crushing of the uprising “saved the country.”

Perhaps the most important experience the international community should pay attention to is his long experience in dealing with the international community, and how in this time he has become a master at the tactic of dangling the prospect of change to alleviate international pressure, stretching this out as long as possible, and then making last-minute promises or small concessions when patience finally runs out. His record 10 years ago as chair of a committee to end recruitment of child soldiers is a classic example of this. He signed another agreement to end recruitment of child soldiers two years ago. He broke this agreement as well.

Concern is now growing about the stalling and backsliding of the reform process. Some governments are privately becoming quite concerned. Perhaps if they had paid a little more attention to the kind of man he is, and his actions, rather than the promises he made, they would have been a little more cautious, and today might not be so surprised by recent developments.

Already though, there are signs they are ready to repeat the mistake. Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann is becoming the new favorite “reformer.” Search for “Shwe Man profile” and you will find even fewer results than for Thein Sein. Before backing him as the next reformer, the international community should ask him to detail exactly how he earned the honorific “Thura.” This rarely awarded medal was reportedly given to him for outstanding bravery while fighting in Karen State. The horrific human rights violations committed there by the Burma Army, which deliberately targeted civilians and broke international law, have been widely documented. What else does he have in his past? Will anyone even ask?

Mark Farmaner is the director of Burma Campaign UK. Twitter: @MarkFarmaner