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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - One steamed hat, please

One steamed hat, please

We all make mistakes. I am the bozo who thought President Barack Obama would not visit this region right after the American elections. Of course, he came.

A colleague now has a hat waiting for me and asks how I’d like it cooked – normally, I prefer them steamed with a black bean sauce.

It won’t be the first time I’ve had to eat my hat. In 2000, on a tour of opium eradication schemes in northeast Myanmar, I attended talks given by senior military and police officers.

One of them was the regional commander, Maj-Gen Thein Sein, a balding, bespectacled, mousy-looking man, who left most of the spiel to his police sidekicks.

Knowing that the commanders are important men, however, I watched him for signs that he might be destined for greater things.

My notes bear testimony to my impercipience: “Thein Sein speaks poor English. He’s a quiet reserved guy, kind of weedy and clearly going nowhere.”

Ouch, pass the hat. He was soon promoted, became prime minister in 2007 and finally Myanmar’s first elected president in March, 2011.

He has introduced a raft of reforms that have astounded the world and almost eclipsed the iconic opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Indeed, the respected International Crisis Group emulated my gaffe when it forecast that changes under Thein Sein’s government “would be incremental rather than dramatic”.

In fact, as the group’s Southeast Asia director Jim Della-Giacoma admitted a week ago: “They have been dramatic.”

So dramatic that the man I termed mousy and going nowhere now gets the kind of global plaudits formerly monopolised by Suu Kyi.

In April, the Crisis Group will present him and former Brazilian President Lula da Silva with its prestigious In Pursuit of Peace Award in New York.

It is intriguing that it is going to Thein Sein and not the Lady. But then her recent actions indicate that he is a wiser choice.

Let’s face it, she betrayed her status as an exemplar of democracy by refusing to speak out in defence of the persecuted Muslim Rohingya and the mostly Christian Kachin.

Worse followed this month when she embraced the formerly despised business cronies who milked the country for their own personal gain – and who effectively kept the military in power.

On January 9, asked about her National League for Democracy accepting large sums of money from these crooks, she dissembled by talking about her distaste for grudge politics.

Said Suu Kyi: “If the cronies support the NLD and other charitable organisations, then let them. Instead of using their money for something wasteful, they are using it to support those in need. It is a very nice thing.”

Aw, Suu, say it ain’t so. You know, ivory chopsticks and shark’s fin soup are pretty nice too. What really grates is that when aid agencies sought to provide humanitarian relief to Myanmar’s impoverished people during the crushing years of military rule, she counselled against it.

In her view, if the regime handled aid distribution, much of it would go to military families – or even be sold privately.

“This is what we want to guard against,” she told me personally at the time.

But she knew full well that the government had to oversee imports, aid included, and she knew that because of that the agencies monitored them very closely; but still she objected – and so the aid stayed out.

Yet now we must believe that aid for her party – black dough from Tay Za, Kyaw Win and other reviled cronies – will all go to her party’s coffers and not a cent will find its way into the back pockets of NLD officials.

Well, we too should not bear grudges, but it would be nice if Suu Kyi could also admit that she has made some bad calls in the past.

I have a nice steamed hat with bean sauce I could share with her.

Contact our regional insider Roger at



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