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Thein Sein as the world's most popular man?
Publication Date : 23-10-2012
Rediscovered after more than five decades hidden away from the world, Myanmar is like a rare jewel suddenly drawing everyone's attention.
But to get a peek at the treasure, you first need to get acquainted with its owner. For now, the man in question is Myanmar President Thein Sein.
The past two years has seen three meetings between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Thein Sein, the latest one in New York where Thein Sein was attending the UN General Assembly.
And while Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra already has a long list of men clamouring for her attention - from her brother Thaksin to her husband and her son - Thein Sein is apparently a new addition.
She was reportedly furious with the Foreign Ministry for failing to prevent Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from overshadowing Thein Sein during her Bangkok trip.
Indeed, Suu Kyi upstaged everyone at May's World Economic Forum event, including our leader. It was no surprise then that Thein Sein changed his mind at the last minute and cancelled his May visit. It took a month before another date was fixed, but then that visit was postponed too.
Our source reveals that a desperate Yingluck pulled out all the stops to get him to Bangkok. The wooing finally paid off, and in July Thein Sein became only the second Myanmar leader after U Nu decades ago to make a state visit to Thailand. Then she was successful in arranging a second date, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. This paved the way for another meeting with Thein Sein, in Myanmar next month.
Needless to say, centuries of conflict between the two countries has not dampened Thai hopes of playing a major part in rebuilding Myanmar. Thailand has already invested in the country to the tune of US$10 billion and more is expected, particularly with the development of the Dawei special economic zone, a project worth around US$80 billion.
Thein Sein is widely regarded as the driving force behind the recent reforms, which kicked off when he came to power in late 2010. It explained why European leaders at the UN in September were thrilled to hear that he would be opening their high-level conference. They all fell silent as he walked to the stage. Nobody complained when, straight after cutting the ribbon, he gave a quick wave and left. They were just happy to see he was in good health.
He is also well liked by businesspeople at home.
Visiting Bangkok last week as a speaker at Bangkok Bank's conference on Myanmar, Serge Pun Serge Pun, chairman of Serge Pun & Associates (Myanmar), had nothing but praise for the former general.
"Thein Sein is a very special person, a righteous and 'clean' general," said Serge, adding that he had never heard anybody accuse him of corruption. When the junta was in power, a group of businessmen left a package on the table after a meeting with Thein Sein. According to Serge, he told them "Please take this. I have enough to eat."
When he was a soldier, he followed orders. But when asked to do something that went against his moral code, he always refused, said Serge.
To Serge, a businessman who has had six profitable years in Thailand after success in Hong Kong, Myanmar will be blessed if either Thein Sein or Suu Kyi ends up as the winner of the 2015 election.
"The two leaders share certain personality traits and this is binding them together. It took Aung San Suu Kyi six months to judge that Thein Sein can be trusted, and she supported him," he said.
Thein Sein was last week re-elected to his other role as chairman of Myanmar's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). He quit his post in the military and formed the USDP in April 2010 to run for the November 2010 multi-party general election, in which he was elected to the House of Representatives (the Lower House). He became president of the country in February 2011, taking up a five-year term at the helm as mandated by the constitution.
It seemed he charmed everyone who encountered him during last month's international tour. In the US, he met with members of the Asia Society, as well as leaders of the European Council, the US-Asean Business Council and the US Chamber of Commerce. He vowed that his country would participate more actively in UN activities in various fields, and would face future challenges in a bold and resolute manner, while standing as a responsible and respectable nation on the world stage. "Myanmar is now ushering in a new era," he said.
On September 14, the United States and the European Union announced their intentions to lift some import sanctions, which are a major barrier to Myanmar's economic growth.
Time is moving fast for the country. Google "Thein Sein" and you get 357,000 results. That compares to 15.9 million for "Suu Kyi" and 226 million for "Barack Obama". Yet that's not bad. The gem has only just been put on exhibition. Wait till its guardian is re-elected.