In reform-bound Myanmar these days, many may see a quaint reversal of roles. An erstwhile autocrat is pushing national reform and harmony against tough odds, while an idolized democrat makes friends among the rich and infamous.
All those characters were in the news lately. President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi were joined in their usual headline-making by the country’s most notorious drug dealer, Law Sitt Han.
Daftly dubbed the Godfather of Heroin by the U.S. government, Law died earlier this month at his Yangon home.
It was there, at the turn of the millennium, that I met the irascible but genial old codger a day after I interviewed Suu Kyi. He was a relief, because he simply spoke his mind, whereas with Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, it is never clear whether their words reflect their true sentiments.
Still, while politicians rarely say what they think, what they do often gives them away.
Take Thein Sein. When I first met him up in northeastern Shan State many years ago, he said so few words that only a telepath could know what he was thinking. He appeared rather shy, mousey even, so it was a shock to learn that he was the military commander of that volatile region of ethnic strife, drug dealing and border incursions.
How he was appointed to that post remains perplexing, as does his later selection to head Myanmar’s then-military government, and two years later his election as president.
Still, we should be thankful it happened. And if proof is needed of that, consider his July 22 speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House in London.
Thein Sein noted that his government had passed a new constitution, held elections, lifted media and internet censorship, and introduced laws to protect freedom of association and expression.
Had he voiced such intentions back in Shan State more than a decade ago, he would not only have been ridiculed; he would have been locked up.
Yet here we are, and Thein Sein’s amazing reforms have even included Suu Kyi, who has also surprised us, but in ways that have disturbed party acolytes and fawning Western diplomats.
It is not so much her intimacy with the former army dictators, but her embrace of the crony businessmen who kept the military in guns and roses for decades—rather as did Law Sitt Han and his son, Steven Law.
Aside from pocketing dollops of dosh from cronies like Kyaw Win and Zaw Zaw, and having the latter build a spiffy pink wall round her Inya Lake compound, Suu Kyi recently accepted free flights for life from Tay Za.
He is Myanmar’s most notorious crony, and three years ago he set up Asian Wings Airways to skirt sanctions imposed by the United States on his other domestic carrier, Air Bagan.
Suu Kyi has now become an instant platinum frequent flyer on Asian Wings, so she can take flights, along with two other people, for free.
One of Tay Za’s lackeys explained that it was done because they have “deep heartfelt respect, admiration and appreciation of everything Suu Kyi has done in her lifetime”.
Sure they do. They just forgot to mention it before Thein Sein became president. And while Suu Kyi was accepting yet more goodies from the sanctioned cronies, Thein Sein was promising more reforms and the release of all political prisoners by the end of the year.
He tacitly mocked her shamefully muted criticism of anti-Muslim pogroms by vowing at Chatham House that his government would follow “a zero-tolerance approach” to any renewed communal violence.
Indeed, he has already acted. Earlier this month, he unilaterally disbanded the Nasaka border security agency, which has been blamed for many of the atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.
Said the International Crisis Group: “His removal of an agency created for oppressive purposes, and with an institutional culture of corruption and abuse, can only be a good thing.”
All these good things sound like an election platform, but Thein Sein said in Paris on Friday: “As of now, I have not prepared myself to run for the 2015 presidential election.”
Let us hope he reconsiders. Then the people of Myanmar could get to choose between a leader keen to advance reform and perhaps little else, and another who might just want his job and maybe little more.
Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.