Childhood poverty inspired Thein Sein's success
NAYPYIDAW - The opulent presidential palace in Naypyidaw is a far cry from the humid hamlet of Kyonku in the Irrawaddy delta where Mr Thein Sein's father supplemented his meagre teacher's income by weaving bamboo mats.
But on reflection, it was his hardscrabble beginnings in Kyonku that inspired and drove the future president.
"In terms of the most inspiring event in my childhood, it was poverty," the 67-year-old former general told The Straits Times in an interview on Thursday.
"Poverty was the largest challenge, but I tried my best and rose to this position. That is why poverty reduction policies are so dear to me and a priority of the reform process," he explained.
After finishing high school, he joined the Defence Services Academy because his family could not afford to send him to university.
At the academy, alongside military training, he studied such subjects as geography and political and social sciences, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
"All that helped me to become what I am now," he said.
"And after I joined the military as a second lieutenant and rose to general and then took other posts, Secretary One (in the former military regime) and then prime minister, I developed an understanding of the country and the people - which I believe is why I was elected to this post," he added.
One of the two top priorities of his wide-ranging reforms is aimed at bringing about political stability and enhancing the legitimacy of the state.
"Only through that can we bring about the rule of law," he said.
The other top priority is socio-economic development, which is "the will of all the people".
"To bring about political stability and rule of law and security of the citizens, what I have initiated is negotiation and dialogue with other political groups and forces. If we can reach them with the common goal of development, we can bring about the political stability that we need."
As the country's fourth-ranking general, Mr Thein Sein eventually became a member of the State Peace and Development Council - the official name for the erstwhile military regime.
He was in his 40s when he made his first overseas visit to China and Singapore.
In 2007, he was appointed prime minister by the regime.
Following his election as President in March last year by the country's new Parliament, he was initially dismissed as a puppet of the former junta chief, Senior General Than Shwe.
But Mr Thein Sein showed he was no one's puppet and his popularity grew. He was re-elected recently as head of the military-supported Union Solidarity and Development Party, which, together with military-appointed members, has a majority in Parliament.
It has been said that the President never used his clout to favour his home village, which is still served by rutted muddy roads and a sporadic electricity supply.
His two daughters, both in their 30s, lead quiet lives in Yangon; not much is known about them. One of the daughters, it is said, would take the public bus to work in her younger days even though her father was a general.
Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Mr Thein Sein is that he has been remarkably low profile.
He is said to listen carefully to advice. He answers questions thoughtfully. Those around him remark that he uses power softly, almost like moral suasion. He receives visitors in a plush palace but is unassuming, and seems genuinely warm. When he fell ill briefly early this year, get-well messages popped up on the Internet in Myanmar - an astonishing phenomenon in a country used to silently seething against suffocating military dictators.
"After a long line of generals-turned-heads of state who were loathed and feared and made fun of, Thein Sein is a welcome change," said Dr Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner who is now director of the Tampadipa Institute, a Yangon-based training and development organisation.
"I would say no military leader for a long, long time has enjoyed so much public support."
The President's personal trump card is not just his avuncular and persuasive manner; it is that he is seen as honest and incorruptible.
"The key thing is his moral authority," said Mr Zaw Oo, a political commentator and former dissident who fled the country in the 1980s and returned after the power transition.
"He is perceived as squeaky clean. Nobody dares accuse him of any self-interest."
When asked about his role models, Mr Thein Sein told The Straits Times: "If you look at our country's history, the one and only role model I have is our independence hero, General Aung San."
The charismatic and fiercely nationalistic General Aung San, who is the father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated in 1947.
Mr Thein Sein said he has also been inspired by Asian leaders like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Lee Kuan Yew and Park Chung Hee.
"I believe to become a leader of this country is to know the common goal and the interests of the people, and if you are fulfilling the common goals and interests, you will be successful," he said.
A culture of open discussion, debate and tolerance will be his most significant legacy to future leaders of Myanmar, says President Thein Sein, who has won international praise for his reforms.
In an interview with The Straits Times at the presidential palace in Naypyidaw, the 67-year-old leader, who is The Straits Times' inaugural Asian of the Year, said: "My political legacy to the next generation is to demonstrate that we have to embrace diversity; we have differences, but we can work towards a common goal for this country... We can work together even with the political rivalry of the last two decades."
Pointing to opposition National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's rehabilitation after almost two decades of house arrest and her becoming a legislator, he added: "If we can work with her, that will be a demonstration that we can work with other political groups, and next-generation leaders can possibly learn from this."
Mr Thein Sein's reform agenda was initially greeted with widespread scepticism. But he freed scores of political prisoners, lifted media curbs, launched a slew of legal reforms and established a mutually trusting relationship with Ms Suu Kyi, who has endorsed his sincerity.
Given Myanmar's turbulent history, another big challenge for the President is to end the country's bitter ethnic conflicts.
He pointed to breakthroughs in the peace process to underscore the importance of dialogue.
"When the new government took over, we had 11 ethnic groups to negotiate with. To have peace in this country depends on the policy of the state. So, if the state, the government, considers all other ethnic groups as friends and not as enemies, then we can start talking." Since then, the government has reached ceasefire agreements with 10 ethnic groups, he said.
HIS ROLE MODEL
If you look at our country's history, the one and only role model I have is our independence hero, General Aung San. I also take the good parts of the state-building process that other Asian leaders initiated, (people) like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Lee Kuan Yew, Park Chung Hee.
Our foreign policy is to be friends with all... whether they are from the West or East. In terms of China and the US, China is our neighbour and a good, old friend. We value Asean membership and consider ourselves a family of nations working together. We will try our best not to be influenced by any other nation.
To have peace in this country depends on the policy of the state. So, if the state, the government, considers all other ethnic groups as friends and not as enemies, then we can start talking.
I believe to become a leader of this country is to know the common goal and the interests of the people, and if you are fulfilling the common goals and interest, then you will be successful.