Not just Suu Kyi: How a former general is opening up Myanmar

President Thein Sein has advanced reforms partly through his choice of advisers, allowing critical voices to be heard even before today's freer elections. 

Myanmar president Thein Sein addresses his country's parliament on March 1.

President Thein Sein, the former general now spearheading a political and economic liberalization drive in Myanmar, may have been a senior member of the last dictatorial military junta, but he appears to have the merit of an open mind.

Exhibit A: The man he named to head his presidential advisory team on economic policy, U Myint, is a good friend and ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition and the military’s most outspoken critic. (Ms. Suu Kyi's party says she has won her constituency in today's voting, which would put the Nobel Peace Prize winner in public office for the first time.) 

Mr. U Myint is a member of a nine person panel that is playing a key role in greasing the wheels of reforms underway for the past year by forging the sort of link between the rulers and the ruled that Myanmar has not known for half a century. Three deal with economic issues, three with political affairs, and three with legal matters.

The nexus that they have created between civil society and the government was on dramatic display last September, when President Thein Sein announced the suspension of work on a $3.6 billion Chinese project to build a dam at Myitsone, in northern Myanmar.

Environmental groups had been protesting this dam, in the watershed of the Irrawaddy river, for a long time. As censorship relaxed under the quasi-civilian government that took office a year ago, the environmentalists found journalists ready to write about the studies they had done. Public opinion turned against the dam.

Thein Sein has a team reading the local and international press for him, and keeping him abreast of the public mood. But the anti-dam forces’ trump card was U Myint, and they took their case to him.

“U Myint has connections with the people and access to the president,” says Kyaw Thu, a civil society activist who coordinated a campaign by anti-dam environmental groups. “Now we have a new mechanism that has opened up access to people high up, in parliament and in government.”

If it was a bold move by the president to invite U Myint to direct economic policy reform, it was equally bold of U Myint to accept the job. He did so, he said at the time, without knowing how much influence he would have, but in the spirit of national reconciliation – a leitmotif of Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign for a seat in parliament at the by-elections being held today.

Not all the presidential advisers have such an independent background; the head of the legal team is a police colonel, and the top political adviser, Ko Ko Hlaing, is a former army officer who was working on an international news show at the state-run TV channel when he was tapped for his new job. But all of them are seen as reform-minded, most have enough international experience to know how things are done in countries that are not military dictatorships, and several of them are happy to talk both to the media and to nongovernmental organizations.

In the old days of a hermetically sealed military government “no one had access to the senior General,” says Kyaw Thu. “Today, our arguments reach the president.”

* Editor's Note: Our correspondent in Yangon could not be identified for security reasons. 

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