Junta Insiders Named Leaders

Burma's president and vice-presidents are picked from the dominant military-backed party.
2011-02-04
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State television showing Burmese President Thein Sein (C) shaking hands with an MP in Naypyidaw, Feb. 4, 2011.
State television showing Burmese President Thein Sein (C) shaking hands with an MP in Naypyidaw, Feb. 4, 2011.
AFP/MRTV

Two ex-generals and a doctor have been picked by Burma's newly elected parliament to lead a civilian administration, but analysts say military strongman Than Shwe is expected to pull the strings from behind.

Current Prime Minister Thein Sein, a career soldier and general who joined the military junta in 1997 under paramount leader Than Shwe, was chosen Friday to become president under the country's first civilian administration in half a century following much-criticized November elections.

Parliament, more than 80 percent controlled by serving or retired military men allied with the junta, also appointed two politicians from the dominant army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party as vice-presidents.

They are Tin Aung Myint Oo, another retired top general, hardliner and Than Shwe ally, and Sai Mauk Kham, a little-known ethnic Shan politician and medical doctor whose rise is viewed as a move to appease Burma's numerous ethnic groups, many of which have been battling the government for decades.
 
It is not clear whether 78-year-old Than Shwe will relinquish firm control over the armed forces and other security apparatus.

Diplomatic offensive

Following his promotion, Thein Sein will appoint a government and will lead a possible diplomatic offensive by the junta to ease Western sanctions imposed on the military-ruled country.

He has been Than Shwe's point man in talks with U.S. officials and with the governments of neighboring Southeast Asian states during the junta's brutal rule, including the bloody crackdown on monk-led protests in 2007 that raised an international outcry.

"Thein Sein served under Than Shwe in the 88th brigade. He was involved in staff management duties rather than military operations. So, he wins the trust of Than Shwe in management and administration," said Htay Aung, a Thailand-based military analyst.

"As prime minister he has some experience in international relations, especially among countries of ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] such as Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia," said Sai Myint Thu, secretary of the Thai-based Network for Democracy and Development.

"Than Shwe would have considered Thein Sein's advantage as the pointman in talks with officials under U.S. President Barack Obama," he said.

The Obama administration broke from previous U.S. policy on isolating Burma and sent senior diplomats to meet with Burmese government officials as part of its strategy to counter the rising influence of China in Southeast Asia.

Sanctions

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said this week that Washington would continue to engage the Burmese government even though the November elections were "fatally flawed," democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's party remains outlawed, and most political prisoners continue to be locked up.

Campbell also said it was premature to lift sanctions on Burma as sought by its Southeast Asian neighbors and some governments in Europe.

"The U.S. nevertheless still believes that a form of engagement to test the leadership in terms of its goals and ambitions is an appropriate next step," he told reporters.

"We will be watching carefully and closely for positive signs, but also stand ready to take steps should there be a continuation of negative trends," he said, without elaborating.

The convening of the Burmese parliament in the Naypyidaw capital on Jan. 31 took the country towards the final stage of the junta's so-called "roadmap" to a "disciplined democracy."

A quarter of the parliamentary seats were kept aside for the military even before the country's first poll in 20 years in November, which was labeled as a farce by Western governments, rights groups, and some Burmese opposition groups.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, which won the previous elections in 1990 but was not allowed to govern, did not contest the polls. She was released from house arrest after the vote.

'Proud moment'

The appointment of Sai Mouk Kham, an ethnic Shan, as vice-president in the new administration was viewed largely as a positive move although some doubted he would be given any major role.

"Nobody expected a civilian ethnic Shan doctor to become a vice-president," said Sein Kyi, editor of the Shan Herald Agency for News. "From the common public point of view, it is a joyful and proud moment, but we have to wait and see to the end."    

But Colonel Sai Lou Sai of the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), which has been openly battling the junta, said he did not expect major reforms from Sai Mouk Kham.

"There is no key role for ethnic nationalities in the junta-ordered constitution," he said.

Reported by Zaw Moe Kyaw, Nyan Winn Aung and Nay Rein Kyaw for RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Soe Win. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

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