Burma's new president?


Burmese Gen. Thein Sein



Burma's new parliament convenes for the first time this week to begin shifting power from a military junta to an elected government. That's how it's playing out on paper at least.

Burma's November elections, the first in two decades, were blatantly rigged by the ruling junta to install generals and junta allies in positions of power. Observers have largely regarded the transition as a cosmetic change designed to improve Burma's image abroad and boost international trade.

But according to theThe Irrawaddy, a newsmagazine run by Burmese exiles, parliament's first major decision is unlikely to convince anyone that the military's has really given up control. Citing sources inside the Burmese capital, the magazine reports that the first Burmese president will be Thein Sein, a recently retired general and confidante of junta leader Gen. Than Shwe.

Thein Sein has spent most of his career heading various military commands in Burma, where troops have suppressed the country's patchwork ethnic minorities with extreme violence. Torching villages, forced labor, gang rape as an intimidation tactic -- if you can come up with a war crime, Burma's military has probably committed it. Every major ethnic group has its own militia (and sometimes postal service!) formed to defend its own declared sovereign state.

But in recent years, Thein Sein has been tapped for more political roles. Though the country is run by a junta committee, the retired general was named prime minister in 2007 and dispatched to regional meetings to hammer out trade deals with China, India and various Southeast Asian nations.

Though considered the "quietest" regional head of state, according to the Irrawaddy, he is "renowned for being confident and persuasive in international dealings."

But if Burma's powerful figures care at all about scrubbing clean their reputation as an oppressive backwater -- and, often, it appears that they don't -- this junta insider is hardly the best choice.