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Asia

Myanmar elects former general as president

Parliament has elected the former prime minister and ex-general Thein Sein. Analysts say the key figure is the senior general in the former military junta, Than Shwe, who remains highly influential behind the scenes.

Thein Sein is a former general

Thein Sein is a former general

The election Friday of Thein Sein marked a further step in the formation of a new government after the November parliamentary elections.

The elections, disputed by the international community and marred by allegations of fraud, saw the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) win almost 80 percent of the elected mandates. In addition, under the constitution of Myanmar, also known as Burma, a quarter of the seats in parliament are allocated to the military.

International face of the junta

Former Prime Minister Thein Sein, 65, had graduated from the Defense Services Academy, an elite military school in 1968, and had held the post as secretary No 1 after the downfall of former spy chief, General Khin Nyunt in 2004.

A quarter of Myanmar's parliament seats are allocated to the military

A quarter of Myanmar's parliament seats are allocated to the military

Since taking up the prime ministerial post in 2007 Thein Sein’s main role has been as the international face of the junta, except for major state visits to India and China by Myanmar’s Senior General Than Shwe.

Aung Myo Min, director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, said the election of Thein Sein as President highlights how Myanmar is tightly controlled by the military. He added he was not surprised because, "he was backed by the military and also the USDP. This clearly shows that Burma is not a democracy but back to the military. He changed the uniform but he is still the same person, with same policy and the same representative of the military."

Key post is military commander

Aung Myo Min says the military’s tight grip on power is also evident by the choice of one vice president from the military and another vice president from the governing USDP.

Under the constitution a national security and defense council, an executive body, will run the country headed by the president and commander in chief after being endorsed by parliament.

In a recent interview, opposition leader Aung San Su Kyi said the key post in the government remains that of the armed forces commander rather than that of the president.

Control behind the scenes

78-year-old Than Shwe maintains control from behind the scenes

78-year-old Than Shwe maintains control from behind the scenes

Senior General Than Shwe - now 78 – had been tipped by some analysts to take the post of president himself. Human Rights Watch representative in Thailand, Dave Mathieson said Senior General Than Shwe’s role appears to be in maintaining control from behind the scenes. "Whether he has an official position or is retired - for the foreseeable future he’s still going to be the key figure in all of this." He added, "at the moment Than Shwe is still the supreme commander of the military, and whether he stays in that position or becomes the head of this national security defence council – the power in Burma will still reside within the military."

Mathieson said Thein Sein’s role as president is largely symbolic, as he doesn’t expect his tasks to change much. He said Sein has "basically got to regulate military rule ostensibly as a civilian. He’s got to maintain the illusion that this was a democratic election."

Thein Sein’s next step will be to select a cabinet although analysts say those appointed will also need the backing of Than Shwe who has wielded wide powers since he came to office in 1992.

Author: Ron Corben (Bangkok)
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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