Burmese parliament chooses junta insider Thein Sein for president

By Tim Johnston
Friday, February 4, 2011; 5:08 PM

BANGKOK - Burma's parliament elected former prime minister Thein Sein president Friday, reinforcing fears that the military establishment that has run the country for almost a half-century intends to keep a firm grip on power.

Thein Sein, who was himself an army general until he resigned to run in last year's elections, has a record of loyalty to Senior Gen. Than Shwe, who has ruled Burma since 1992, making it unlikely that there will be any immediate change in direction under the new government.

The parliament, formed as a result of November's elections, which were boycotted by some opposition parties, met Monday for the first time in more than two decades. But critics say that the new power structure is designed to put a democratic veneer on the generals' continued rule and that Thein Sein's appointment supports that argument.

"He's Than Shwe's puppet," said Khin Omar, the head of the Network for Democracy and Development, a longtime critic of the government. "They have changed the name, but it is the same old wine in new bottles."

But advocates of greater engagement with Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, say that despite the familiarity of the names, the underlying power structure has changed.

"This is the safest possible transition for Than Shwe, but that doesn't mean nothing will change," said Richard Horsey, an analyst who has worked for the United Nations in Burma.

"He's splitting power up to prevent a new strongman emerging to challenge his power, his legacy and his business empire," Horsey said of Than Shwe. "We have a new context in which power is deployed and policy is created."

Burma's new constitution gives a powerful executive role to the presidency. One of Thein Sein's first jobs will be to appoint the commander in chief of the armed forces, a role that many observers believe Than Shwe has reserved for himself.

Little is known about the early background of the new president. A career military officer, he seems to have risen to the top by following orders and not making waves.

He has largely avoided becoming embroiled in the corruption that pervades the upper reaches of the Burmese establishment, but there are rumors that he has an interest in a gold mining operation in the north of the country.

Thein Sein, 65, is no democrat in the traditional sense - he was serving as caretaker prime minister when Burmese authorities cracked down on protesters in September 2007, killing more than 100 people - although he has been a force behind the junta's move toward what they describe as "discipline-flourishing democracy."

In 2004, he was appointed to head the National Convention, the body that drafted the controversial constitution that guarantees the army 25 percent of the seats in parliament , gives the military the right to draw up its own budget and appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs and border affairs, and in effect excludes Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel laureate, from any meaningful political role.

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