President U Thein Sein, opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and Myanmar’s most notorious drug dealer, Lo Hsing Han, were all in the news in the past week or two.
The latter, who was daftly dubbed the “Godfather of Heroin” by the US government, 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 had interviewed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He was a relief, because he simply spoke his mind, whereas with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and even U Thein Sein it is never clear whether their words reflect their true sentiments.
Indeed, when I first met U Thein Sein up in northeastern Shan State, he said so few words that it was hard to 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, which is plagued by ethnic strife, drug dealing and cross-border incursions.
How he was appointed to that post remains perplexing, as is the way he was later chosen as prime minister of the military government and, two years later, as Myanmar’s president.
Still, we should be thankful it happened. And if proof is needed of that, consider his speech on July 15 to the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House in London.
U 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 U Thein Sein’s amazing reforms have even included embracing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She 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 Lo Hsing Han and his son, Steven Law.
Aside from pocketing dollops of dosh from cronies like U Kyaw Win and U Zaw Zaw, and having the latter build a spiffy pink wall round her Inya Lake compound, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recently accepted free flights for life from U 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.
Daw Aung San 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 U Tay Za’s lackeys explained that it was done because they have “deep heartfelt respect, admiration and appreciation of everything Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has done in her lifetime”.
Sure they do. They just forgot to mention it before U Thein Sein became president. And while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was accepting yet more goodies from the sanctioned cronies, U 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 take “a zero-tolerance approach” to any renewed communal violence.
Indeed, he has already acted. Earlier this month, he unilaterally disbanded the Na Sa Ka border security agency, which has been blamed for many of the atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.
“His removal of an agency created for oppressive purposes, and with an institutional culture of corruption and abuse, can only be a good thing,” the International Crisis Group said.
All these good things sound like an election platform but U Thein Sein said in Paris on July 19, “As of now, I have not prepared myself to run for the 2015 presidential election.”
Let us hope he reconsiders.