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Minister's memoir highlights roots of Myanmar reform

Leading reformer gives first insider's glimpse into Thein Sein administration

Soe Thane, then a Myanmar government minister, speaks to the Nikkei during the 2015 Future of Asia conference in Tokyo. (Photo by Masayuki Kozono)

SINGAPORE -- Myanmar's opening to the world in 2011 left lingering questions about the impetus for its dramatic shift. Why did a harsh and secretive military regime spawn a quasi-civilian government, led by a mild-mannered retired general called Thein Sein? And why did it then lay the groundwork for the rise of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a past target for vilification by the same generals who released her in late 2010 from years of house arrest.

In late 2015, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy trounced Myanmar's military-backed ruling party in the first free and fair polls in decades. True to his promises, President Thein Sein handed power to the NLD government in early 2016.

National League for Democracy party leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at the Myanmar parliament in Naypyitaw on Nov. 16, 2015 for the first meeting of the lower house after the NLD's election victory.   © Reuters

Since then, the former president and his inner circle have stayed silent, turning down interview requests and shunning publicity. But seven years after the elections that brought Thein Sein to power, a key figure in his administration, former navy chief and economic "super minister" Soe Thane has broken the silence.

In a new book, "Myanmar's Transformation & U Thein Sein: An Insider's Account," Soe Thane gives an unprecedented glimpse into the inner workings of the Thein Sein administration, and sheds light on its moves to open up Myanmar, battle reactionary forces and adopt international norms.

In chapters tackling subjects as diverse as foreign policy and the shift from China to the West, economic liberalization, political upheavals, the roots of the Rakhine crisis and the fight against corruption, he discusses key decisions including the release of political prisoners, the move to suspend China's multi-billion-dollar Myitsone Dam project, economic liberalization initiatives and the peace process with ethnic armed groups.

The self-published book features long quotes from Thein Sein's speeches, lists of personnel and government finances, and descriptions of official meetings. But it also exposes dissent within the ruling party and cabinet, and external pressures applied by governments and multinational companies. There are stark descriptions of internal efforts to unseat the president and his battles with protectionist and ultranationalist forces.

"I wrote the book because I felt sad that a genuine reformer and a brave leader would go into obscurity. I wanted to give credit where it was due -- and I believe the history of events serves as a useful tool in learning lessons for the future," Soe Thane told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview.

In recent months, a mass exodus of Rohingya Muslim refugees to Bangladesh amid international accusations of ethnic cleansing has shattered Western perceptions of Suu Kyi's reformist credentials, of the military's willingness to reform, and of the country as a whole.

In the eyes of Soe Thane -- and outsiders who welcomed the government's democratization efforts -- the fact remains that vital reforms, ranging from free elections to prisoner releases and economic liberalization, flowed from the regime change of 2011. Yet, mystery still surrounds the shift.

Hard questions

Soe Thane and others in Thein Sein's inner circle have informally acknowledged that the decision to open up came from one authority -- former dictator Than Shwe, head of Myanmar's ruling military junta from 1992 to 2011. But the book only hints at the reasons he launched the so-called "road map to discipline flourishing democracy" -- and why he chose the unassuming Thein Sein, his low-key prime minister, to head the transitional government rather than the clear favorite, former general and junta number three Shwe Mann.

There is no single answer -- except, perhaps, the words of Than Shwe himself, who told his inner circle in 2009 that a "military regime was not appropriate for 21st century Myanmar," Soe Thane told the NAR.

Reinforcing that view was the junta's recognition by the mid-2000s of the increasingly urgent need to overhaul the moribund economy, damaged by years of mismanagement, and the need to gain acceptance from the West, particularly from Washington. Both goals were intrinsically linked, Soe Thane said in the interview, "and to achieve one required progress on the other."

Thein Sein was saddled with a pre-ordained cabinet when he came to power, including some old-style hardliners deeply opposed to liberalization, together with a handful of reform-minded ministers. With a style often criticized as abrasive by his detractors -- and welcomed as "can do" by his supporters -- Soe Thane set in train some radical reforms.

Among the most striking was the abrupt cancellation in late 2011 of the $4.3 billion-Myitsone Dam project, a massive Chinese-backed hydropower scheme in northeastern Myanmar. Soe Thane and his team also pushed for looser conditions for foreign investment, the release of political prisoners, dismantling of "crony" monopolies and a lifting of media censorship.

It was the Myitsone decision -- and the resulting damage to Myanmar's close ties with China -- that made the world take notice. Up to then, the West had treated Thein Sein as just another military leader. But, responding to intensifying protests by environmentalists and Suu Kyi, Thein Sein abruptly announced that the dam project -- a deal sealed under the junta -- would be suspended for the term of his government.

"We had to make that decision for the sake of the country's stability, but we knew we would lose face with investors and the Chinese government, which was naturally unhappy...," Soe Thane writes in the book. Internal treachery compounded China's displeasure when powerbrokers within Thein Sein's own party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, "ignited [further] distrust in bilateral relations by putting the blame ... entirely on President Thein Sein" while visiting China after the Myitsone decision, Soe Thane writes.

From there, Beijing began losing trust in the new government and relations "became strained," he writes. The ultimate cost to the Thein Sein government was high, but Soe Thane indicated in the interview that he has no regrets.

Another challenge for Thein Sein was the eruption of sectarian tensions in Rakhine state -- initially triggered by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by some Muslim men in May 2012. Soe Thane hints at dark forces -- such as ultranationalist groups -- that set out to undermine government authority. He also mentions "weakness and subsequent mishandling" of local tensions by regional officials.

In subsequent communal violence, more than 140,000 people, mainly Rohingya Muslims, were displaced in Rakhine State and housed in makeshift camps; many are still there today. Tens of thousands more fled by boat in 2012-14. The crisis then was markedly different from the recent exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees into neighboring Bangladesh, triggered by an extreme response by security forces to attacks by Rohingya militants on police and military facilities in late 2016 and August 2017.

Some former officials in the Thein Sein administration note that relatively good relations between the military and the government helped to contain a festering situation in earlier years. In his book, Soe Thane writes that the government tried hard to contain communal tensions, detailing extensive tours by Thein Sein and his ministers throughout Rakhine to meet Muslim and Buddhist leaders in 2012-15.

He declined to comment on the current government's handling of the refugee exodus and the military's widely condemned role. "The situation is now on a different plane," he said. But, citing passages in his book, he said that "similar principles apply now, both for short and long term, proper assistance and support need to be given ... the root cause [of conflict] lies in poverty, with little or no development at all ..."

Another issue that has embroiled the current and previous government is the peace process. Thein Sein and a team led by Aung Min, the minister in charge of peace negotiations, oversaw a ceasefire agreement in late 2015 with eight out of about 21 ethnic armed groups. Even so, the government had to fight efforts to sabotage the process: "People who did not wish to see the peace process succeed seemed to be everywhere, both inside and outside the administration," Soe Thane writes.

Nevertheless, he argues, the earlier efforts paved the way for the new government to hold negotiations with a broader collection of ethnic armed groups. He would not comment on disagreements now plaguing the peace process, but pointed to the uncertainty that faced Thein Sein's administration in its early years.

Myanmar people living in Malaysia display placards outside the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur in 2011 in protest against the Myitsone dam project.   © Reuters
Former Myanmar President Thein Sein (center) signs a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in Naypyitaw in October 2015.   © Reuters

"I would honestly like to admit that [our] government... did not really know the reality of democracy," he writes. "We had never expected that we might be confronted with so many obstacles and challenges. We were just determined to try our utmost... with only theoretical knowledge of a democratic government system but no practical experience at all."

Soe Thane said he wrote the book with tomorrow's students and leaders in mind. "Nation builders, politicians, youth -- they all need a record of recent events, something to learn lessons from. I wanted to share my experiences, as the first administration to take Myanmar from a military-led system to a broadly democratic one. It could help next generations to look into and learn from the past."

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