The Burma government’s critics and supporters tend to agree on one thing at least: that in the three years since Thein Sein became president in March 2011, his administration has seen plenty of highs and lows on the reform path he has undertaken.
Although he may not be up to a “level-5 leader” standard, which American business consultant James Collins describes as the peak of a five-tier hierarchy of leadership ability, Thein Sein does appear embody a “paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will”—the ingredients for great leadership, according to Collins.
Aung San Suu Kyi, after her first meeting with Thein Sein in 2011, called him “an honest, open kind of person” with a genuine desire to reform the country. That judgment alone does not ensure success, however, for the head of a government in transition. The power structure in Naypyidaw was dramatically in flux three years ago, transition from sorely authoritarian rule to a nominally elected government comprised of reform-minded soldiers-turned-politicians. The president’s honesty and professional have been tested from the outset in managing Naypyidaw.
The new power structure enshrined in the controversial 2008 Constitution provided a perfect opportunity for a freshly inaugurated government to execute the reform agenda Thein Sein set in an attempt to bring the failed-state-to-be back from the brink. Burma faced daunting challenges in 2011, many of which persist to this day—widespread poverty, an underdeveloped economy burdened by US and EU sanctions, a lack of administrative and institutional, rampant corruption and intensifying ethnic armed movements for self-determination.
While many of them can be rightly described as challenges inherited from the old regime, in which Thein Sein was No. 4 in the heirarchy, the president also faces threats that have cropped up since his inauguration. Escalation of religious violence between Muslims and Buddhists, for example, and competition for influence in Burma between the world’s major powers, China and the United States.
Under these challenging circumstances, there was never really any way for the president to prepare for the job of running Naypyidaw. It was always going to be a “learn by doing” experience, combined with a constant search for competent assistance and sound advice.
In the latter pursuit, like many other modern executives, he has used the available resources and management tools at his disposal to tackle various issues that have come across his desk. This has included the appointment of Aung Min and Soe Thane to his inner circle of ministers, and occasional cabinet reshuffles as he has seen fit.
He has also reached across the aisle. In order to mitigate his political risks, he managed to leverage opposition leader Suu Kyi to lead the parliamentary commission charged with investigating a brutal police crackdown on peaceful protestors near the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division. Thein Sein has also taken calculated risks of his own, most notably in deciding to suspend the Myitsone dam, a multi-billion-dollar energy project deal inked by the powerful generals from the former regime and a Chinese state-owned company.
Throughout the changes of the last three years, Thein Sein has shown himself to be a communicator to a much greater extent than any of the country’s previous leaders, and he is the most media-friendly president in Burma’s history. The president holds a monthly public radio address, and invites local journalists to his office for interviews and press conferences. Following an interview with the BBC’s HARDtalk in New York in October 2012, he reportedly told his ministers not to be afraid of the press.
The achievements of Thein Sein’s government have been matched by shortcomings. His administration has not done a good job of managing the budget, acknowledging the dire condition of Burma’s health and education sectors but failing to allocate the necessary additional funds to markedly improve the situation.
Progress in health and education will be essential to sustain the reforms that he has initiated. With high growth rates projected for the coming years, and international aid flooding in after decades as an international pariah, there will be money for these tasks, but it is not clear that the government will demonstrate the fiscal acumen to manage it well.
The goals and objectives he has set are largely short-term, “quick-win” reforms. While short-terms goals are necessary, introducing medium- and long-term projects will sustain the transition.
Burma’s undemocratic Constitution has proven stubbornly resistant to easy fixes, and is an issue that will weigh heavily on Thein Sein’s presidency.
His initial courting of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which brought the party into the reform process and added legitimacy to his governance, can be considered a “quick win” that has since brought long-term implications. If his government fails to accommodate Suu Kyi’s calls for constitutional amendments, he faces political gridlock and likely public backlash on an issue that is considered critical for a successful transition to genuine democracy.
Thein Sein’s ongoing push for a “protection of race and religion” law is short-sighted too. While this effort may help him in the upcoming 2015 elections, the enactment of the controversial legislation could nurture already growing racism and Buddhist fundamentalism, to the detriment of Burma’s national reconciliation process.
In the end, the fate of the transition depends primarily on how Naypyidaw governs, introduces changes, implements those reforms and manages its government agencies and resources. To succeed, Thein Sein needs to take the lead on constitutional reform, improve his administration’s handling of the budget and ensure an inclusive peace process. In short, he must wholeheartedly pursue genuine, fundamental changes, as any Level 5 leader in his shoes would do.
Zawtuseng Nanggaw is a Burma observer currently enrolled in the Executive M.P.A. program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). He can be contacted at email@example.com.