Burma swore in former army general Thein Sein (pictured) as its new president Wednesday, in the final stages of the country’s supposed transition to civilian rule. As a loyal supporter of the regime, Sein is not expected to introduce reforms.
AFP – With a military career spanning almost 50 years and a reputation for absolute loyalty to Myanmar's junta strongman, Thein Sein was seen as an obvious choice to become the nation's new president.
Slender, balding and bespectacled, Thein Sein, who was sworn in Wednesday as part of a purported transition to a civilian rule, cuts a less domineering figure than the military's stouter senior general, Than Shwe.
The former general, who shed his uniform to contest the country's controversial November elections, is however someone strongman Than Shwe "can trust, someone who will listen to him", Myanmar expert Aung Naing Oo said recently.
"It is not an accident that he came to power because he is considered 'Mr Clean'," said the expert, adding the 65-year-old was not linked to business groups or factions forming among lawmakers in Myanmar's new parliament.
Thein Sein was described as working "from the same script" as the junta number one in a 2009 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks recently.
He is also "regarded as a 'mystery man'" who has "risen quietly under the patronage of Than Shwe, to whom he has shown 'total loyalty'," according to Benedict Rogers in his biography of Myanmar's supreme leader.
Myanmar's junta was officially disbanded Wednesday after 50 years of military rule, as it nominally handed over to the civilian government headed by Thein Sein.
The army careerist, who served as prime minister from 2007, was a key architect of the political transition that has seen him take the official helm after widely criticised elections.
But in a country where even the most mundane career detail of prominent figures is swathed in secrecy, very little is known about the president's climb to the top of Myanmar's political and military system.
Born in the southern Irrawaddy region, Thein Sein began his army career at the military academy -- a route taken by the majority of the junta's top generals.
He is then known to have served in Kyaingtaung town in the northeastern region of Myanmar that was part of the so-called "golden triangle" axis with Laos and Thailand, notorious as a drug smuggling hub.
Thein Sein then began to ascend to the junta's highest echelons, becoming a crucial force behind Myanmar's "roadmap" for "disciplined democracy" -- the seven-stage plan to transform the junta into a civilian government.
In 2004 he was appointed head of the National Convention, which was to draft the constitution that came into force with November's election and appeared designed to keep the generals in power.
The charter reserved a quarter of parliamentary seats for the army and contained rules that the opposition said were aimed at excluding democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who was kept locked up until days after the vote.
A referendum on the constitution was widely criticised as it was held just days after cyclone Nargis wrought devastation across the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008. In total more than 138,000 people were killed or disappeared in the disaster.
Thein Sein, who had become prime minister the year before with the death of the previous incumbent Soe Win, became the regime mouthpiece during Nargis and was noted for his callousness towards the region of his birth.
Myanmar's rulers refused foreign assistance for weeks as 2.4 million people desperately struggled for survival in the aftermath of the disaster, displaying a level of paranoia that shocked international observers.
Last year, Thein Sein retired from the military and formed the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which now dominates the country's fledgling parliament.
His name and that of his wife also crop up on a European sanctions list, with other key members of the junta and its cronies.
Details of his career may be thin, but Myanmar expert Maung Zarni, of the London School of Economics, said he believes Thein Sein's success in the junta can be attributed to his attachment to the regime's senior general.
"No one rises in Than Shwe's universe unless they play the role of a lapdog which jumps at the drop of a hat," he said.