BANGKOK Nov 16 There is a Jekyll-and-Hyde
quality to President Thein Sein, the bookish-looking former
general Barack Obama will meet on Monday during the first visit
by a U.S. president to Myanmar.
Thein Sein has been both a dictator's henchman and a man
widely seen as a Nobel Peace Prize contender. He rose to power
in a rabidly anti-American military junta, yet spearheaded its
efforts to build better relations with the United States.
His past remains opaque, even as he leads Myanmar into a new
era of transparency after nearly five decades of dictatorship.
When his quasi-civilian government took power four months
after a rigged election in November 2010, Thein Sein was easy to
dismiss as a puppet for a still-powerful military lurking behind
a new democratic facade. Few predicted what happened next.
Thein Sein launched an ambitious programme of political and
economic reform that could transform the impoverished nation of
60 million people also known as Burma.
He released political prisoners, scrapped censorship,
legalised trades unions and protests, sought peace with ethnic
minority insurgents and pushed through legislation on everything
from land reform to foreign investment.
Thein Sein's reputation as a corruption-free moderate among
hawkish hardliners has earned him widespread praise from world
leaders, top economists and Nobel Peace Prize winner and
opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
For years the junta's greatest foe, Suu Kyi was released
from house arrest a week after the November 2010 election. She
met Thein Sein nine months later and, in a critical endorsement,
declared him "sincere" about reforming Myanmar.
With his reformist zeal and growing domestic popularity,
Thein Sein was widely tipped to win the Nobel Peace Prize in
A Western diplomat who has met the bespectacled, soft-spoken
president many times described him as "modest, courageous and
"Those who knew him before he became president felt that he
was aware of the poverty of his people, had seen the progress
made by others in the region and recognised the need for
change," he said.
"HIS OWN VISION"
Those comments were echoed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban
Ki-moon, who got to know Thein Sein when he was the military
regime's prime minister from 2007-2011. He felt Thein Sein had
been inspired by the world around him.
"He must have seen and heard the real situation ... the
international perception and Myanmar's image," Ban told a group
of journalists during his last trip to Myanmar in May.
"As soon as he became president, he has his own visions to
make his country better and more prosperous, where human dignity
would be respected."
But Thein Sein's reputation still suffers from his role as a
loyal servant to former dictator Than Shwe, who during 19 years
in power jailed political opponents, gunned down pro-democracy
protesters and commanded a military accused of killing, raping
and torturing members of ethnic minority groups.
Thein Sein was described last year as "Than Shwe's most
malleable puppet" by Irrawaddy, a prominent Myanmar news service
long based in neighbouring Thailand.
A man of humble rural beginnings and son of a landless
farmer and monk, Thein Sein joined the military in his early
20s. But he was always more of a bureaucrat than a soldier,
serving as Than Shwe's personal assistant in the 1990s.
He kept his reputation as "Mr Clean" despite four years as a
commander in the lucrative drug-producing Golden Triangle
region, where several successors were tarred with allegations of
smuggling and abuse of power.
In a 2001 speech to officials in the Golden Triangle, Thein
Sein referred to two suspected drug-lords as "real friends",
according to Bertil Lintner, the author of seven books on
The two suspects were leaders of the United Wa State Army,
described by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as
"Southeast Asia's leading heroin and methamphetamine trafficking
Under the dictatorship, regional commands often served as
springboards to higher office. In 2003, Thein Sein was given a
senior position in the State Peace and Development Council, as
the military junta was then known, becoming part of Than Shwe's
secretive and paranoid inner circle.
A 2007 U.S. Embassy cable described him as a "consummate
He was prime minister when the regime sparked international
outrage by crushing pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist
monks. He also presided over a national convention to draft the
2008 constitution, which enshrines the military's powers and
privileges, and was dismissed by the White House at the time as
The convention, which was boycotted by Suu Kyi's National
League for Democracy party as undemocratic, lasted 15 years.
"Actually, we could have wrapped all of it up in a day, but
there's a need to make it look good, isn't there?" Thein Sein
said in 2007, according to the Shan Herald Agency for News, a
website run by exiles in Thailand.
The following year he led the widely criticised response to
Cyclone Nargis, which killed at least 130,000 people and
flattened villages across the Irrawaddy River delta.
The junta initially denied entry to international aid
agencies and was so tardy in providing its own humanitarian
relief that the international community considered delivering
aid by force.
But Thein Sein is also said to have "appealed directly" to
the much-feared Than Shwe to belatedly allow foreign aid workers
into the disaster zone, according to a 2008 U.S. diplomatic
The devastated areas included Konkyu village, Thein Sein's
As Than Shwe's prime minister, Thein Sein led the junta's
attempts to improve ties with the United States during an August
2009 visit to Myanmar by Senator Jim Webb. "The generals left no
doubt they are reaching out," said a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable.
As president, Thein Sein seems to have distanced himself
from his junta days. In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in
New York in September he referred to the past government as
"authoritarian" and in an address to parliament in March spoke
of the need to "root out the evil legacies deeply entrenched in