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Myanmar president rising

18 Barack Obama and Thein Sein

It is now clearer than ever why the popularity of Myanmar’s President Thein Sein is soaring while that of the iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is tumbling.

The most pertinent signal occurred two weeks ago when Thein Sein became the first Myanmar head of state in nearly a half century to visit Washington, DC.

Yes, Suu Kyi went to the United States last September and met President Barack Obama, but it was a private visit devoid of the White House glitz and hoopla accorded to Thein Sein.

In the Oval Office, it was evident that Obama and Thein Sein hit it off and were genuinely on the same wavelength, which had not been the case when Obama met Suu Kyi last year.

Back then, the US president took umbrage at the way she urged him not to go to Myanmar yet because she doubted that Thein Sein’s reforms were sincere and would continue.

Obama, however, had already decided to seize the moment and visit Yangon en route to the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh last autumn, and he was not going to be dissuaded by the Lady’s partisan qualms.

She was visibly miffed when he spurned her advice, which was really given because she did not want Thein Sein to get the kind of rapt publicity in America that she has been used to getting all for herself.

Well, that was one small thing. Then, at last month’s White House meeting, Obama continually referred to his guest’s country as “Myanmar”.

That was no small thing. He studiously avoided using the old colonial name “Burma”, which is still preferred by Suu Kyi and her sycophants.

Coined by the British, the old name refers to the majority Bamars of the central plains, who are Buddhist and regard themselves as superior to the minorities around the perimeter of the country.

It is a racist term that is never used by indigenous speakers, who always call their country Myanmar, an inclusive name that embraces all the ethnic and religious groups.

So that was another thing. Then, in a much lauded speech at Washington’s School of Advanced International Studies, Thein Sein distinctly said “Muslims” several times.

And that was no small thing, given the visceral animosity of the majority Bamars towards his nation’s small Islamic community.

Thein Sein bravely said that his government must provide better protection for Muslims from attacks by Buddhist bigots, as happened again in Lashio last week.

For what it is worth, he graciously avoided noting how Suu Kyi seems to find it difficult to talk about this subject and how she has kept relatively mute about the murderous pogroms targeting Muslims.

Said Jim Della-Giacoma, the Asia program director for the International Crisis Group: “Suu Kyi’s near-silence on this issue has underlined how far out in front of popular opinion Thein Sein has been.”

While stressing that much still needs to be done, Obama used the Oval Office meeting to praise Thein Sein’s leadership “in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform”.

Said Obama: “We’ve seen credible elections and a legislature that is continuing to make strides in more inclusivity and greater representation of all the various ethnic groups in Myanmar.”

Thein Sein replied in kind and promised to free more political prisoners and resolve the ethnic conflicts not just by ceasefires, but by incorporating the minority parties into the mainstream.

Frankly, the Oval Office encounter was incredible, given that three years ago all Myanmar’s political leaders were banned from visiting the US.

Today, American officials laud Myanmar as a model of emerging democratisation for the likes of dictatorial Laos and Vietnam.

And while the rewards are self-evident, one item stood out: the American Centre in Yangon, which trains political and civil society activists, now has the highest attendance of any such centre in the entire world.

And that is no small thing either.



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