The Listener-In-Chief
On the road with Burma’s reformist president.

{1st Photo Caption: Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images}

The Listener-In-Chief
On the road with Burma’s reformist president.

NOVEMBER 19, 2013, 5:26 PM

RAKHINE STATE, Burma — There are no bullet-proof limousines, sophisticated communications systems, or media gaggles when you travel with Burma’s president. Instead of the lavishly-equipped jets used by western leaders, a humble European-made ATR-42 propeller plane and some aging Russian helicopters recently carried President Thein Sein and his team of about 40 top ministers, officials, and military brass around the country’s troubled western region.

The three-day trip, by air and road through sprawling Rakhine state was unusual for the low-key president — not only because of its high-powered composition (including five cabinet ministers and a few generals) and geographic scope (from remote settlements to ancient pagodas and refugee camps). It also provided a rare close-up of the diminutive former general who has, improbably, initiated one of the boldest reform programs that Burma — and indeed, the developing world — has ever seen. In the process, it yielded glimpses into the inner workings of Burma’s reformist administration as well as the dense, dark forces behind the sectarian violence that has caused hundreds, or possibly many more, deaths and displaced more than 140,000 people, mainly Rohingya Muslims, since mid-2012.

Rakhine (sometimes known by its ancient name, Arakan) is one of Burma’s poorest regions; about half its 3.8 million people live below the poverty line of about $1.20 a day, double the national average of 26 percent. At least one third of the population is Muslim; most — but not all — are stateless Rohingya Muslims, widely seen by the majority Burman population as illegal interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh, although many have resided in Burma for generations.

It is a toxic mix, fuelled by poverty and seething religious and racial resentments. The human toll can be seen in the tin-roofed refugee camps near the state capital, Sittwe, and damaged mosques and villages scattered around the state. The economic costs of religious violence and decades of official neglect are glaringly evident. Many destinations on our trip lacked even basic cell phone coverage. The bumpy roads were often unpaved, and water and electricity supply was patchy.

The days, starting at dawn and stretching into the night, were packed with meetings and site visits to villages, pagodas, refugee areas, and army bases. At every stop, officials in cars of varying ages, security men on small motorbikes, and even antiquated fire trucks received the presidential team. The meeting halls, where we sat on plastic chairs on concrete floors, were inevitably stifling. Yet every event, from talks with civic leaders and meals at military bases to sessions with local business, happened with clockwork precision. So too did the “power tea breaks,” in which the president and his team conferred several times a day.

In one such huddle, over coconut drinks and sticky rice cakes near the seaside town of Thandwe, the president and his team debated emergency responses to the latest wave of sectarian violence. Just two days earlier, Buddhist mobs had attacked Muslim communities in villages some 10 to 20 miles away, killing at least seven people, torching homes, and displacing 500.

It was the latest in a series of vicious attacks on Muslim communities that have blighted Rakhine state and other parts of Burma since mid-2012. Human rights groups, citing repeated failures to halt the violence, have accused the government and security forces of complicity in — or even orchestrating — systematic ethnic cleansing. Local groups have in turn accused international organizations and western governments of pro-Muslim bias.

Thein Sein has rejected such charges, insisting that security forces were inadequately equipped for spontaneous outbreaks of mob violence, while admitting shortfalls in government responses. He has also publicly blamed “extremists and political opportunists” for exploiting tensions, giving weight to media reports that political and business elements are financing Buddhist extremist groups.

Citing “dark forces,” one advisor told me that the Thandwe attacks, while focused on just one area, were “even more sinister” than last year’s widespread violence, as they were directed at local Kaman Muslims who, unlike the Rohingya, are recognized as Burmese citizens. In Thandwe, the Kaman live alongside and trade with their Buddhist neighbors, unlike the often voluntary segregation of Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists elsewhere in the state.

One presidential advisor, who, like his colleagues, insisted on anonymity, called it “the work of an unholy alliance,” spanning ultra-nationalists, rightwing religious extremists, local businesses, and even, he said, elements of the “hard left” who oppose moderate progressives such as the Generation 88 group of former political prisoners. Lowering his voice, the official confided: “You can also include some powerful forces in parliament who have aligned with disaffected business people threatened by the president’s reforms. These people don’t want the president to succeed.”

Thein Sein is well aware of “enemies within,” one of his ministers told me. When travelling with the president, you quickly learn that the outward appearance of this small, bespectacled man in his longyi sarong is deceptive. He has an almost academic air about him, and shuns displays of wealth and power. When his monthly salary of $5,000 recently became an issue in parliament, he offered to take a pay cut to $3,000 — though government records indicate he has accepted just $1,500 a month since taking office in early 2011.

The president is 68 and wears a pacemaker. Yet members of his inner team describe him as formidably determined and “indefatigable” in a slow, deliberate way — characteristics that propelled him from a childhood in a poor rural village through a military career encompassing areas of intense conflict in ethnic regions to the top echelons of a harsh military junta. Throughout endless meetings, he speaks tirelessly in a low, steady voice, without notes or prompts. He is typically unruffled and, his aides say, almost never loses his temper.

“Initially, when he became president, people close to the former regime thought they could control him because he is quiet, he listens, he seems pliable,” a deputy minister said, adding emphatically: “They were wrong.”

At a civic gathering in the Muslim-dominated northern town of Maungdaw, scene of some of the worst religious violence last year, Thein Sein ignored the ceremonial desk on the podium and walked into the crowd of 60 or so Muslim and Buddhist leaders. He then conducted a one-hour meeting standing in their midst.

“The violence [here] affected the country in almost every way,” he said. “It should never have happened. To rebuild, to achieve growth and provide jobs, it is crucial for both communities to co-exist peacefully.” In what became a mantra of his three-day trip, he asked: “Can you, both communities, promise to work together and consult each other?”

“Yes, we can,” came a chorus.

What Thein Sein lacks in quick wit and visible dynamism he makes up for with considered strategizing and quiet determination. But his fondness for frequent consultations with trusted advisors sometimes frustrates those around him, who privately wish for quicker decision-making.

As a consensus-seeker, Thein Sein often turns to the six so-called “super ministers” of his inner cabinet, the Office of the President, particularly his key confidantes U Soe Thane, a former navy chief who is the administration’s ebullient economic tsar, and U Aung Min, a former army general who heads peace negotiations with ethnic armed groups.

He also consults a broad range of interest groups, from civic l
eaders to academics, in a constant effort to balance different elements. His urge to build bridges is an essential trait for a leader presiding over such a radical shift from military dictatorship to unruly democracy. But it has also riled powerful entrenched interests, generating resistance in circles spanning business, politics, and the military.

Perhaps in recognition of political fragilities, the general-cum-president errs on the side of caution, some insiders say. “He is always striving to achieve consensus, but that can really take time,” says one advisor. In a country as polarized as Burma, it might seem a futile quest. For Thein Sein, it is a vital part of the balancing act. For outside observers, it raises the question of how much this president is in the driving seat.

Under previous military regimes, the “senior general,” Burma’s highest military rank, was an absolute dictator. Now, amid an increasingly vibrant democracy, the president must deal with a ferociously active parliament, which often rejects his suggested changes to legislation and has criticized his senior ministers for overstepping their authority.

Now classified as a civilian, Thein Sein must also accommodate an institutionalized role for military representatives in his cabinet. They are entitled under the 2008 constitution (drafted under the previous military regime) to three key posts of a current total of about 37: the powerful home affairs, border affairs, and defense portfolios. The military ministers are chosen by the commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who also appoints active officers to 25 percent of seats in national and regional legislatures.

Again, many wonder to what extent Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government is in thrall to the same military that brought him to power. Like so much in Burma, the answers lie between the extremes. According to seasoned Yangon diplomats, the military’s grip is diminishing (despite a widespread view that the generals still pull the strings).

The institution’s grasp on local government structures — controlled through the home affairs ministry — is still strong. But that once pervasive grip of the military is under pressure, not least from Thein Sein’s ambitious government decentralization program and his gradual “civilianization” of government. In the past 18 months, more than 800 mid-level military personnel have been moved out of the bureaucracy — many transferred back to the military or police, according to advisors.

Military-backed businesses meanwhile have seen their cozy monopolies broken up; the institution’s vast holding companies have been required for the first time to pay taxes; and many officers in the upper echelons of government have been replaced by technocrats, academics, and even business representatives.

While more than half the total 93 or so in the expanded cabinet, which includes deputy ministers, have military backgrounds, they are nearly all long-retired officers. In cabinet meetings, say insiders, military ministers increasingly stick to security, their traditional area of expertise. The real challenge for Thein Sein is in the field, where he is still trying to curb the military conduct of campaigns in ethnic areas, primarily in northern Kachin state where fighting goes on despite the government’s strenuous efforts to agree to a ceasefire with rebel leaders.

On the recent Rakhine trip, the generals participated in town hall meetings but also held their own huddles, usually in the military bases that hosted the presidential team for meals and accommodation. (In the photo above, Thein Sein speaks at one such meeting in a military guest house in Thandwe.) In team meetings, though, the interplay between the president, the generals, civilian ministers, and retired military officers was broadly consultative. Active generals from both cabinet and armed forces behaved like ministers deferring to the president.

In terms of international image, the Rakhine situation has been one of Thein Sein’s most difficult challenges and his biggest vulnerability. Today the UN General Assembly passed a resolution on Burma’s human rights record, despite intensive lobbying by the government. This year, the overall message, wording, and criticisms are not as harsh as in previous years.

The document highlights “serious concerns” about the plight of Rohingya communities and urges more action from the government. It also praises “positive developments,” including the continuing release of political prisoners. In step with Thein Sein’s pledge to release all political detainees by year-end, a further 69 were released last week, leaving less than 60 from earlier times. Despite its earlier opposition to the resolution, Burma — along with key sponsors the United States and the European Union — accepted the final draft text, reflecting Thein Sein’s pragmatic approach to diplomacy. Even some important Organization of Islamic Conference countries approved it.

In a bid last year to resolve tensions, Thein Sein appointed a special commission to investigate the Rakhine violence. The resulting report blamed both Muslim and Buddhist Rakhine communities and included recommendations to help both sides — in a clear effort to calm tensions. Significantly it urged better conditions in refugee camps and more controversially, relaxation of citizenship criteria for stateless Rohingya. Some measures are underway, but stubborn historic prejudices and paranoia about “Muslim encroachment” mean that the process is painfully slow. Diplomats hope the UN resolution will hasten that process. That clearly depends on how much Thein Sein is willing to take on the “dark forces.”

In Rakhine, bitter divisions merely compound the state’s increasingly dire economic situation — a plight that clearly prompted Thein Sein to prioritize the region in his new drive to deliver reforms to the grassroots.

Undoubtedly, the timing of the Rakhine visit also reflected concerns about Burma’s image just before taking over the 2014 leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and ahead of the country’s December debut as host of the Southeast Asian Games. Debate over the Myanmar resolution at UNGA was clearly another factor. Such events — so crucial to Burma’s acceptance on the world stage — are also driving Thein Sein’s push to accelerate reforms.

Judging from the animated discussion in Thein Sein’s Thandwe huddle, the “dark forces” hit a political nerve. At one point, Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant-General Ko Ko briefed the team on his visit to the damaged villages and suggested ways to increase local security and shelter the displaced. Earlier this year, the general expressed doubts that Muslim communities were being systematically targeted. Now, he indicated, there was little question in his mind.

Thein Sein listened intently, asking questions or interjecting as other team members explained the impact of local tensions on their sectors. A deputy minister compared Thein Sein’s approach with the authoritarian ways of his predecessors: “This president listens. You don’t feel nervous saying what you think. Of course he has his own ide
as, but he listens. This never happened before.”

Quick government responses are also a new development. Within days of the Thandwe attacks, police had detained nearly 80 people including prominent local figures. A month later, 61 — mostly Buddhists — had been charged with offenses including murder.

Presidential “meet-and-greet” missions and regular radio broadcasts are another hallmark of Thein Sein’s administration. As president, he has been more visible than his predecessors, starting from his time as prime minister under Than Shwe from 2007 to 2011. In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the country in 2008 and killed a staggering 140,000-plus people, he oversaw relief efforts and bore the brunt of international criticism over Than Shwe’s initial moves to block foreign efforts.

Less known is Thein Sein’s earlier interest in Rakhine state as prime minister, and his warnings to fellow junta members of festering religious tensions and deepening poverty there. He visited all 17 townships of Rakhine back then, and proposed economic programs including the construction of factories and roads. His ideas were ultimately rejected by Than Shwe. Whether Than Shwe realized the full extent of the changes envisaged by his mild-mannered prime minister is not clear. But he chose Thein Sein as his successor to run in the 2010 elections. The polls were widely condemned as flawed but swept Thein Sein to power.

On this trip, Thein Sein revived his ideas, announcing initiatives to build power plants, airports, and to improve electricity and water supply. “Things have changed, we have shifted to a bottom-up and people-centered approach — but you must all work together for economic development,” he repeatedly told community leaders.

Thein Sein is unlikely to seek another term in the 2015 elections, a matter he discussed with the ambitious parliamentary speaker, Shwe Mann, who announced it publicly in October — angering the president’s supporters. Widely seen in 2010 as Than Shwe’s top choice as successor, the speaker has always felt keen rivalry with Thein Sein, say people who know both men.

Thein Sein’s decision to bow out of politics at the end of 2015 is not final, say some advisors, expressing more hope than conviction. But it has fed further speculation about likely presidential contenders. Much depends on the push from some quarters for constitutional change. It will determine the future of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is barred from the presidency by constitutional provisions against Burmese who marry or have children with foreigners. She had two children with her late husband British academic Michael Aris. Like Shwe Mann, she has declared her ambitions, and has turned from supporter to harsh critic of the president. In what many see as early electioneering, she has been telling the world that “almost nothing has changed” under his leadership.

For Thein Sein, a devout Buddhist, “preserving stability” (a frequent exhortation) means trying to satisfy all sides — a near-impossible task in the sectarian battleground of Rakhine state. In Mrauk-U, the former state capital, and Kyauktaw, a short helicopter ride away, the president visited sacred Buddhist sites including an ancient temple and one of Burma’s most revered Buddha statues, the Maha Muni, where he bowed to the floor.

Unlike western leaders, he pays little attention to PR strategy. Local journalists — let alone foreign media — are rarely briefed and almost never invited on presidential trips. On this trip, nobody briefed the lone foreign journalist.

His relative indifference to spin has its minuses. He was reportedly shaken earlier this year, when harshly lampooned by the Washington Post for his convoluted responses to questions about the 2008 constitution.

In a brief interview during his trip, by contrast, his answers were measured. The emphasis was on economic development, reform, and the need for foreign investment. “The turbulence has been largely confined to this area [Thandwe] this time, although the most important thing is to achieve peace and tranquility throughout the state,” he told me. “I will make renewed efforts, but for proper development, it’s so important not to discriminate between race and religion.”

The two key priorities, he said, were economic development and the “proper protection of human rights” — a phrase no predecessor ever uttered. “But these two need to be balanced, we need investment, growth, jobs,” he added.

While Thein Sein’s belief in consensus-building is often misinterpreted as indecision, his ambitions to accelerate reforms, court local communities, and pursue fraught ceasefire negotiations sit at odds with the priorities of an aging, one-term president.

What, then, is the president’s rationale if he does not intend to run for another term? “Simple. We have to deliver on what we promised,” said U Soe Thane, the economics tsar (and ex-Navy chief) who is also driving the government’s radical decentralization plan . “We don’t have much time. It is beyond politics. It is important — it’s our country’s future.”

Thein Sein is “a true believer,” Ye Htut, presidential spokesman and deputy minister for information, told me. “He says you can’t kick out all the Muslims, even though Buddhist extremists in Rakhine think you can. He tells them why we must deal with the Muslim issue.”

All this reinforces what skeptics are only just acknowledging: that Burma’s traditional power centers are breaking up. The juggernaut may be a “bottom up” effort. But the driver is clearly at the top.