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CITATION: Linchpin of democratic reform in Myanmar

Published on Dec 15, 2012 6:00 AM
Myanmar President Thein Sein speaks at the Asia Society in New York in this Sept 27, 2012, file photo. The Straits Times is privileged to name President Thein Sein as the recipient of its inaugural Asian of the Year Award. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

EVERY so often in history, a person emerges who might seem the most unlikely torch bearer for dramatic changes to his nation's attitudes, discourse and politics.

In Myanmar, once reclusive and long regarded as a pariah state by Western democracies, President Thein Sein has been such a leader.

The soft-spoken, mild-mannered former general, a heart patient who lives with a pacemaker in his chest, was installed as President of Myanmar last year. It was part of a carefully calibrated architecture engineered by the former military dictator, Senior General Than Shwe.

Mr Thein Sein was appointed to the post in the wake of the victory of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in what was widely seen as a sham election.

Now 67, he surprised everyone by laying out a bold plan for reform, designed to ease the military's grip on democratic freedoms, open the country to foreign aid and investment, and mend fences with the international community.

His actions have been a vindication of Asean's conviction to lend diplomatic support to Myanmar, a fellow member, even as key states like Singapore worked behind the scenes to promote the very measures the country is now taking.

The results have been spectacular. Mr Thein Sein's sincerity has been endorsed by Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Foreign investors have been flocking to the country. United States President Barack Obama has come calling, and the US and European Union have lifted almost all of a slew of tough economic sanctions. Some see Myanmar as Asia's next big economic frontier.

It is all part of a transformation that has been breathtaking in its sweep and speed. Change has come from within, orchestrated by the military elite at a pace of its own choosing.

President Thein Sein is today hugely popular in his own country and widely respected abroad. But he is also in a key position as the linchpin of the democratic reform process. The surge of hope remains laced with concern, given Myanmar's underlying social and ethnic tensions and grossly underdeveloped economy.

It is an unenviable challenge and, as Myanmar prepares to host the Asean Summit in 2014, one that the entire world is watching.

For these reasons, The Straits Times is privileged to name President Thein Sein as the recipient of its inaugural Asian of the Year Award.

"There was a time when Myanmar's generals were known for holding lavish weddings for their children," said Mr Warren Fernandez, editor of The Straits Times.

"The steps taken by Thein Sein have put Myanmar back in the news, but this time for better reasons. His bold and brave efforts will give his people hope of joining their Asian neighbours in their march to modernity.

"For this hope to be realised, follow-through measures will be critical. We at The Straits Times will follow developments in Myanmar closely in the years ahead with a critical, yet sympathetic, eye."