Thein Sein hails ‘triumph’ of democratic transition

Naypyidaw, January 28

President Thein Sein hailed the “triumph” of Myanmar’s transition of power today, in a last address to a military-dominated Parliament before it makes way for a historic new legislature led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party.

The Southeast Asian nation, choked for decades under junta rule, is on the cusp of a remarkable political handover after Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy thundered to victory in November elections. Myanmar’s people are hoping her government can reboot a country eviscerated by army rule that battered the economy and repressed dissent.

“Even though there were difficulties and challenges, we were able to bring a democratic transformation eventually,” Thein Sein said addressing the military-stacked legislature for the last time. “This is a triumph for all Myanmar’s people,” he added.

Thein Sein, who under drawn-out handover rules retains his post until the end of March, has been a key player in Myanmar’s astonishing reform process. He was among a host of military figures who shed their uniforms to form a government in 2011.

Initially that government was viewed with suspicion as a civilian front for the army’s continued domination.

While the army retains major clout -- a quarter of parliamentary seats are ring-fenced for unelected soldiers -- sweeping political and economic reforms have surprised the international community and encouraged a flood of foreign investment.

They also culminated in November’s polls which passed peacefully and saw Suu Kyi’s party scoop nearly 80 per cent of elected seats in the national parliament.

The new NLD MPs, many of whom are political novices, will take their seats on February 1 following the final day of a lame duck session by the outgoing parliament on Friday. Suu Kyi, 70, carries the nation’s expectations on her shoulders, after a decades-long struggle against junta repression.

The Nobel laureate faces a formidable challenge in an impoverished nation, blighted by corruption and torn by ethnic minority civil wars and religious divisions.

She is barred from the presidency by the junta-era constitution that many believe was designed specifically to exclude her, but has vowed to rule through a proxy, who is yet to be named in public.

Faced with Suu Kyi’s massive popular mandate, Thein Sein and powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing have pledged to support the transition. A flurry of political plays have dominated the days leading up to the handover, leaving analysts struggling to decipher their meaning in a country where decision-making has long been made in secret. Parliament today approved a controversial bill that shields former presidents from prosecution for acts during their term in office, while granting them indefinite bodyguard protection.

Observers say Suu Kyi, who held talks with Min Aung Hlaing on Monday, is seeking to find ways to placate the military.

But dealings with the army come fraught with anxiety for the former political prisoner and her party.

The NLD is haunted by memories of its election landslide in 1990 that was ignored by a junta that went on to tighten its grip on power for two more decades.

Thein Sein shrugged off the near-annihilation inflicted on his party at the polls, saying he had not launched the reforms in order to hold on to power.

“During the last five years we have built a better foundation for the next government, who won the 2015 election. I did not do this with the expectation of being a second term president,” he said.

He listed the fragile peace process, and better access to health care and education as his main reforms.

His government also removed draconian pre-publication press censorship and opened telecoms to foreign investment, allowing millions of people cheap access to mobile phones -- and the Internet -- for the first time.

Thein Sein’s speech sparked mixed reaction online, with comments praising his legacy off-set by others wishing him good riddance.

“The bit I liked most was: ‘Our government’s term will end at the end of March’,” said Ko Moe Zaw Win, posting under a transcript of the speech on the president’s office Facebook page.