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.
President Thein Sein, the former general now spearheading a politicalÂ and economic liberalization drive in Myanmar, may have been a seniorÂ member of the last dictatorial military junta, but he appears to haveÂ the merit of an open mind.
Exhibit A: The man he named to head his presidential advisory teamÂ on economic policy, U Myint, is a good friend and ally of Aung San SuuÂ Kyi, leader of the opposition and the militaryâ€™s most outspokenÂ 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.)Â
Mr. U Myint is a member of a nine person panel that is playing aÂ key role in greasing the wheels of reforms underway for the past yearÂ by forging the sort of link between the rulers and the ruled thatÂ Myanmar has not known for half a century. Three deal with economicÂ issues, three with political affairs, and three with legal matters.
The nexus that they have created between civil society and theÂ government was on dramatic display last September, when PresidentÂ Thein Sein announced the suspension of work on a $3.6 billion ChineseÂ project to build a dam at Myitsone, in northern Myanmar.
Environmental groups had been protesting this dam, in theÂ watershed of the Irrawaddy river, for a long time. As censorshipÂ relaxed under the quasi-civilian government that took office a yearÂ ago, the environmentalists found journalists ready to write about theÂ studies they had done. Public opinion turned against the dam.
Thein Sein has a team reading the local and international press forÂ him, and keeping him abreast of the public mood. But the anti-damÂ forcesâ€™ trump card was U Myint, and they took their case to him.
â€śU Myint has connections with the people and access to theÂ president,â€ť says Kyaw Thu, a civil society activist who coordinated aÂ campaign by anti-dam environmental groups. â€śNow we have a newÂ mechanism that has opened up access to people high up, in parliamentÂ and in government.â€ť
If it was a bold move by the president to invite U Myint to directÂ economic policy reform, it was equally bold of U Myint to accept theÂ job. He did so, he said at the time, without knowing how muchÂ influence he would have, but in the spirit of national reconciliationÂ â€“ a leitmotif of Aung San Suu Kyiâ€™s campaign for a seat in parliamentÂ at the by-elections being held today.
Not all the presidential advisers have such an independentÂ background; the head of the legal team is a police colonel, and the topÂ political adviser, Ko Ko Hlaing, is a former army officer who wasÂ working on an international news show at the state-run TV channel whenÂ he was tapped for his new job. But all of them are seen asÂ reform-minded, most have enough international experience to know howÂ things are done in countries that are not military dictatorships, andÂ several of them are happy to talk both to the media and to nongovernmental organizations.
In the old days of a hermetically sealed military governmentÂ â€śno one had access to the senior General,â€ť says Kyaw Thu. â€śToday, ourÂ arguments reach the president.â€ť
* Editor's Note: Our correspondent in Yangon could not be identified for security reasons.Â