As election nears, Myanmar's reserved leader trumpets achievements

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 18, 2015 5:51 AM

By Hnin Yadana Zaw and Aung Hla Tun

YANGON (Reuters) - For a leader non-committal about his future and sitting out Myanmar's upcoming election, there is more than a whiff of a presidential campaign in Thein Sein's uncharacteristic moves to flaunt his achievements.

Ethnic minority people in far-flung regions are chatting on smartphones, streets full of cars are illuminated by long-absent power, rebel groups are talking peace and the media is basking in newfound freedom.

And it is all thanks to the elderly former soldier.

That is the message of rapid change in Myanmar that President Thein Sein is reinforcing ahead of a Nov. 8 election on a video posted on his office's Facebook page, crammed with footage of new ports and factories, ATM machines, construction sites and stacks of cash being counted at new banks.

"The person who brought these changes is President Thein Sein... (he) led the ambitious reform process and brought hope to the country," read the subtitles on a slick, four-minute montage entitled "Forward Myanmar".

"Myanmar, once a closed-door country, is now opening up to the world, with political, economic and social changes ... It is President Thein Sein who enabled everyone to use mobile phones."

The president's message notably appears to tap growing Buddhist nationalism that has worried the West, trumpeting Thein Sein's disenfranchisement of minority Rohingya Muslims and his approval of draconian religion laws that have outraged an international community that rallied behind his government.

This week, several foreign missions in Myanmar called for a spirit of tolerance, mutual respect and equality under the law to ensure that the elections are "peaceful and inclusive".

The signatories of the appeal, which included top diplomats from, among others, the United States, Japan, Britain and France, said the election will be critical for the transition to democracy.

WISHES OF THE PEOPLE

Thein Sein, 70, decided not to run for a parliamentary seat due to his ailing health, but he is eligible for a second term as president, which he says would depend on the "wishes of the people".

The vote is the first general election in more than half a century to take place under civilian rule and all bets are off as to what kind of government will emerge.

Thein Sein may not have the charisma of the wildly popular opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but his reforms and backing from a powerful military that gets a quarter of seats in the parliament means a second term is a possibility, via a post-election parliamentary vote.

In the first official campaign speech on state-owned television channel late on Thursday, Thein Sein's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) reiterated its willingness to amend the constitution after nationwide peace talks with ethnic minority rebel groups have been concluded.

USDP Sectary General Tin Naing Thein said the new constitution should include "necessary legislative provisions concerning development of democracy," but did not elaborate or mention provisions banning Suu Kyi from being elected because her children have British citizenship.

Tin Naing Thein said the military would retain its powerful position in politics for now, adding that once nationwide peace and reforms had been accomplished, it would limit itself to the country's "defense responsibility".

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)