Biography of Thein Sein
1945 – Born April 20th, Pathein, Irrawaddy Division.
1968 – Graduated Defence Services Academy
1988 – Major, Light Infantry Division 55, Kalaw, Shan State
1990 – Commander, Infantry Battalion 89, Kale, Sagaing Division
1992 – 1995 – General staff officer, war office, Rangoon, working under Than Shwe
1995 – Military Operations Command 4, Hmawbi Township, Rangoon
1996 – 2001 – Commander, Triangle Regional Command, Shan State
1997 – Member of State Peace and Development Council
1998 – Named by UN for personally ordering human rights abuses
1999 – Named by UN for personally ordering human rights abuses
2001-2003 – Adjutant-General, War Office
2003-2004 – Secretary No2 of State Peace & Development Council
2004-2007 – Secretary No1 of State Peace and Development Council
2004-2007 – Chairman, National Convention drafting new constitution
2004 – Chair of the committee for the prevention of recruitment of underage children in military
2007-2011 – Prime Minister
2008-2011 – Chair of National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee
2010-2011 – Chairman of pro-military Union Solidarity Development Party
2010-2011 – Member of Parliament
2011 – President
2011 – Chair of the all-powerful National Defense and Security Council
Thein Sein – An Introduction
President Thein Sein commanded soldiers who committed war crimes and what would now be classed as crimes against humanity, while regional commander in Eastern Shan State. Crimes committed by his soldiers include widespread and systematic rape, mass forced
relocation, land confiscation and forced labour.
In 1998 Thein Sein was personally named by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma for directly ordering his
soldiers to commit human rights abuses. Thein Sein’s actual record stands in stark contrast to the general impression of him held
by the international community and much of the media.
In 1988, as major of Light Infantry Division 55, he is thought to have played a role in the crushing of the democracy uprising on 8th
August. Thousand of students were massacred. Thein Sein later said that the Burmese Army ‘saved the nation’ by crushing the uprising.
In 1996 Thein Sein became Commander of the Triangle Region Military Command, based in Kentung, eastern Shan State. He held this position until November 2001. During this period horrific human rights abuses were committed by soldiers under his command. These abuses were so serious they could be classed as war crimes, and what the Rome Statute now defines as crimes against humanity. As commander of these soldiers he is directly responsible for the abuses which took place.
As a member of the State Peace and Development Council since 1997, and Prime Minister from 2007-2011, for almost 15 years Thein Sein played a leading role in the dictatorship which ruled Burma. As such, he
has responsibility for human rights abuses which have taken place under his leadership, including breaches of international law. The
United Nations has documented abuses taking place which may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, including enforced
disappearances, forced displacements, forced labour, arbitrary detention, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and torture and other forms of ill-treatment.
In his March 2010 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on Burma stated that the ‘gross and
systematic’ nature of the abuses and the lack of action to stop them indicated; ‘a state policy that involves authorities in the executive, military and judiciary at all levels.’ As a leading member of the executive and the military since 1997, this description of those responsible would include Thein Sein.
The overall violations of human rights abuses in Burma are well known and widely documented. In dealing with President Thein Sein, the
international community should constantly bear in mind his leading role and responsibility for human rights abuses committed by the previous
Thein Sein as President may still be influenced by, and close to, Senior General Than Shwe, but it would be wrong to call him a puppet. He
has a longstanding record as an active and willing co-conspirator with Than Shwe. He was a trusted member of Than Shwe’s government,
was given the leading role in managing relations with the international community, and was handpicked by Than Shwe to take over. His
long career at the top of the military and political command structure of the dictatorship, setting and implementing policy, as well as his time in
Shan State, give question to statements that he is ‘relatively untainted’. Let his record speak for itself.
About Thein Sein
Thein Sein graduated from the elite Defence Services Academy, intake 9, in 1968. He served in bases around the country, including ethnic Chin and Shan areas were human rights abuses were endemic.
In 1992 he was based at the war office, commanding military operations in Rangoon, before becoming commander of the triangle Regional Military Command in Eastern Shan State in 1996. In November 1997 he joined the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the body through which the military ruled Burma.
In November 2001 he was promoted to Adjutant General of the War Office, and given responsibility for managing military business interests, where corruption is endemic. He swiftly rose through the ranks. He became Secretary No2 of the SPDC in 2003, and Secretary No1 in 2004. As Secretary No1, he was technically the third most powerful member of the SPDC, with only Maung Aye and Than Shwe more senior. He became
acting Prime Minister in May 2007, and Prime Minister in October 2007, following the death of the previous Prime Minister, Soe Win, from
Thein Sein chaired the National Convention, which was re-formed in 2004, and drafted the principles of Burma’s 2008 Constitution. The
Constitution is undemocratic, fails to guarantee human rights, gives the military ultimate power, and grants immunity to regime officials for past
In April 2010, as part of the dictatorship’s plan to present a civilian face to the world, he resigned his military rank of General, and became leader of the new political party created by the dictatorship, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). He was elected as an MP for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in the rigged election of November 2010. In February 2011 Parliament, which is dominated by the pro-military USDP and has 25 percent of seats reserved for the military, nominated him as President.
Close to Than Shwe
‘Loyal follower of the Senior General’ US Embassy, Rangoon 20th October 2004 There has been endless speculation about if and how Than Shwe is playing a key role in Burmese politics. Thein Sein has been called everything from a puppet of Than Shwe to a radical reformer breaking away from Than Shwe. The truth is, Thein Sein was one of
Than Shwe’s most trusted colleagues. He consistently promoted Thein Sein, gave him key posts and responsibilities, and personally chose
him as successor. Than Shwe did not promote soldiers to such key positions who do not agree with his policies and actions. To become a trusted member of Than Shwe’s inner circle requires a like-mind,
ambition and ruthlessness.
Thein Sein received little international attention. He is a quiet man who did not seek attention and who got on with the job. But he was also a
key player in making and implementing policy for the dictatorship. Than Shwe trusted him and promoted him because they were of like mind.
As a US diplomatic cable dated 18th August 2009 and released by Wikileaks stated when reporting back on a visit to Burma by Senator
Webb, “Than Shwe and Prime Minister Thein Sein worked from the same script.” The current political system in Burma, including Parliament and other reforms, was created in a process managed by Thein Sein on behalf of Than Shwe. Than Shwe appointed Thein Sein to oversee the National Convention drafting the principles of the constitution, and then chose Thein Sein to take over running the country based on the new constitution.
Neither Than Shwe nor Thein Sein ever showed any inclination to transform Burma into a genuine democracy. He was described by
the US Embassy as a ‘tougher’ general when promoted to be Secretary No 1 of the SPDC.
Despite Thein Sein playing a growing role in interacting with the international community from 2004 onwards, he was not one of the
generals considered to be a potential reformer.
On 14th July 2008 US diplomatic cable, entitled ‘Continuing the pursuit of democracy in Burma’, and later released by Wikileaks, did not identify
Thein Sein as a potential moderate who could bring change, instead it named Shwe Mann, stating that sources close to him described
him as “smart, sophisticated and well-aware of Burma’s problems,” and that he reportedly solicited policy papers from dissidents and
Thein Sein’s trusted relationship with former President Than Shwe, and their role working hand in hand to design and implement the current political structure and reforms taking place in Burma, give ample cause to doubt the true objectives of the reforms in Burma.
Thein Sein and the 88 Uprising
A US embassy diplomatic cable dated 20th October 2004 said Thein Sein ’distinguished’ himself cracking down against the 1988 uprising.
It stated: ‘Major Thein Sein served as commander of Light Infantry Division (LID)- 55, one of the elite organizations loyal to the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP). In that capacity, he distinguished himself, as did Soe Win, in the crackdown against the 1988 uprising in support of democracy.’
More than 20 years later, on 30th March 2011, in his first speech to Parliament after becoming President, Thein Sein defended the actions
of the military, stating: “Also in 1988, the Tatmadaw government saved the country from deteriorating conditions in various sectors and
reconstructed the country.”
Human rights abuses while a commander in Shan State In 1999 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, addressing how the Burmese Army was deliberately targeting
civilians in ethnic states, stated: “Violence against civilians would appear to have been a fundamental component of the overall military
strategy of the Myanmar army.” Thein Sein was a military commander in Shan State at this time, and a member of the SPDC, which was in charge of strategy. As a local commander of soldiers committing abuses,
and at a national level as a member of the government which set policy, Thein Sein bore responsibility for human rights abuses taking
place and described by the Special Rapporteur.
In 2002 the Shan Women’s Action Network and Shan Human Rights Foundation published the ground-breaking report, ‘License to
Rape’, which brought the world’s attention to the dictatorship’s policy of using rape as a weapon of war against ethnic women. The use of rape as a weapon of war by the Burmese Army has now been widely documented by the United Nations, international human rights organisations, governments, and local community organisations.
Between 1996 and 1998 there were mass forced relocations in central Shan State, forcing more than 300,000 villagers from their homes.
At this time the use of rape by the Burmese Army was most prevalent in these areas. However, it was widespread across all areas of Shan State, including in the areas under the command of Thein Sein. Documented in the report ‘License to Rape’ are 45 cases of rape by Burmese Army soldiers based in or operating in Eastern Shan State in the area under the command of Thein Sein, most of which took place during his time in
command. Given the stigma of reporting rape, and the difficulties in documenting cases, and the fact that some of those who have gone public and complained have been fined, detained, tortured and even killed by the military, the true number is likely to be much higher.
On a map in the report which shows where the rapes took place, Thein Sein’s headquarters at Kengtung is circled by incidents of rape and
sexual violence by his soldiers.
Land confiscation and mass forced relocations
Land confiscation is becoming a major issue in Burma, with the central government authorising the seizure of huge areas of land across the
country. Thein Sein is no stranger to such actions. In 1998 and 1999 he was twice named by the United Nations for directly ordering human rights abuses, including confiscating land.
In September 1998 Thein Sein was personally named by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma for directly ordering the forced relocation of civilians. The Special Rapporteur’s report to the United Nations General Assembly, published
10th September 1998 reported:
‘Hundreds of thousands of persons have been forcibly relocated, without any compensation or assistance, to new towns, villages or
relocation camps in which they are essentially detained. Forced relocations are currently being implemented on a wide scale in eastern
Myanmar, in Shan State, Karenni and Karen areas. One report indicates that on 4 June 1998, Golden Triangle Military Commander Major General Thein Sein (Chairman of the Eastern Shan State Peace and Development
Council) ordered Major Hla Htwe to confiscate 13 plots of land and rice fields owned by villagers of King-Ka in zone 2 of Kaeng-Tung, for the purpose of expanding the SPDC military base there. The military would provide each household with a plot of land at a different place
big enough to build a small house. But the villagers would have to buy them at the price of K 10,000 each plus an extra K 1,000 for a land
survey fee. Furthermore, the same villagers were forced to grow crops for the military on the land that had been forcibly taken from them.’
There was a mass programme of forced relocation in Shan State from 1996-1998. While this was central government policy in which Thein Sein played a role making as a member of the SPDC, the main area of Shan State where forced relocation took place was next to the area under the direct control of Thein Sein. However, mass forced relocations did take
place in the area under his control, as well as frequent land confiscations.
The License to Rape report by the Shan Human Rights Foundation and Shan Women’s Action Network documented that in Murng Paeng
Township 24 villages, a total of 285 households, were forcibly relocated between 1997 and 1998. This area was under the command of Thein
Sein. According to the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, in his report of 22nd January 1999: ‘Since June 1998, the authorities
are reported to have issued orders for the confiscation from the people in Tachilek of 1,000 acres of land stretching along the Tachilek-
Kengtung main road. The confiscated land has been bulldozed, divided into small patches and sold to those who can afford it. People from
nine villages have been affected.’
It was not only the Burmese Army involved in mass forced relocations. A policy of mass forced relocation was also applied by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), and took place through areas under the control of Thein Sein.
The UWSA had decided to develop the town of Mong Yawn close to the border of Thailand in southern Shan State as a key base for
supplying drugs into Thailand.
Between 1999 and 2001 they forcibly relocated almost 100,000 Wa from the north of Shan State to the south. Hundreds died from abuses
and disease. Local people were forced from their land to make way for Wa forced to move there.
Forced labour Incidents of soldiers under the command of Thein Sein using forced labour have been documented by the United Nations. In his report of 22nd January 1999 the United Nations Special Rapporteur of human rights in Burma stated:
“The Special Rapporteur received reports that villagers throughout Shan State are being forced by the SPDC to work without payment.”“The Special Rapporteur has received reportsthat villagers are being forced to grow food forthe army. In June 1998, villagers in Kengtungare reported to have been forced by the SPDC to grow chili peppers, beans and garlic on land that was confiscated from them. And on 11 July, SPDC base LIB 102 apparently ordered the civilian population to provide labourers for
weeding soya bean and corn farms owned by the military in Murng Pan. Ten persons from each village, from some 15 villages each day,
had to bring their own food and tools.”
The ilo has also documented forced labour in areas under the command of Thein Sein. In ‘Observation (CEACR) – adopted 2001, published 90th ILC session (2002)’ the ILO stated: “…and the ordering, on 18 September 2001, of villagers by the (named) new commander of LIB No. 65, to supply 4,000 sheets of thatching material for a new amphetamine factory under construction 14 miles from Mong Ton on the Mong Ton Mong Hsat road (Shan State).”
Friends with drug lords
As commander of the triangle regional command area in Shan State, known as the Golden Triangle, Thein Sein was responsible for
an area notorious for the production of drugs. It has been reported that drug production fell during his time in Shan State, but this is not
completely accurate. The production of opium and heroin did decline, but the production of methamphetamines dramatically increased.
Opium production did fall but not due to genuine eradication efforts. Production fell partly because of increased production in Afghanistan, which produced cheaper opium, but also a key reason for the decline in opium is because of organisations such as the United Wa State Army moving into the production of methamphetamines.
The massive explosion in the production of methamphetamines happened on Thein Sein’s watch. Through either action or inaction at
various times, Thein Sein actively co-operated with the production of drugs in areas he was responsible for.
Speaking on 9th May 2001 about two drugs lords indicted by a US court for their involvement in the golden triangle drug trade, Thein Sein stated: “I was in Mong Ton and Mong Hsat for two weeks. U Wei Xuegang and U Bao Youri from the Wa groups are real friends.” (Merchants of Madness, Bertil Lintner and Michael Black, 2009)
Thein Sein has not publicly explained the extent of his role in the mass forced migration by the Wa described earlier in the briefing. A migration
which appears to be aimed at facilitating the production of methamphetamine. In June 2000 a Thai military intelligence officer told the BBC the total increase in methamphetamine production as a result of the forced relocation could have been as high as 5 million tablets per
day, with 50 new factories producing the drugs.
In ‘Hand in Glove’, a report by the Shan Herald Agency for News (S.H.A.N), Thein Sein’s more direct involvement of drugs is also documented:
“In the northern part of Tachilek, opposite Thailand’s Maesai, is a chicken farm owned by a Wa officer named Sai Mya. The farm, about 10 acres in size, is surrounded by a 12-foot high concrete wall. Until September 2005, it was an open secret in the neighborhood that the farm was a front for the production of yaba (methamphetamine), the drug consumed by millions of Thai addicts across the border.
The location of the factory, wedged between the command posts of SPDC Light Infantry Battalions 331 and 359, explained why the Wa officer had no reason to fear. The land, or rather the right to use it, was sold to Sai Mya by none other than Maj-Gen Thein Sein, then Commander of the Triangle Region Command, based in Kengtung, 160km away in the north. “He had confiscated the land, formerly paddy fields, from local farmers. “When it was taken from us, the regional commander told us he
would build a tax-free market for the local people,” said a resident of the neighborhood.
“The market was never built.” In return for the land, Thein Sein received 45 assorted motor vehicles, both for himself and for use as gifts to
his superiors in Rangoon.”
The 2001 ILO report cited earlier also documents how soldiers in the areas Thein Sein was responsible for had been ordered to:
‘supply 4,000 sheets of thatching material for a new amphetamine factory under construction 14 miles from Mong Ton on the Mong Ton Mong Hsat road.’
According to a 10th November 1999 report by the Shan Herald Agency for News, at a meeting on Mongton (Thein Sein’s area of command) on
4-6th November 1999, Army veterans with little or no income were officially given permission to sell 500 methamphetamine tablets to earn an income.
According to a 2nd December 1999 report by the Shan Herald Agency for News, on 22nd November 1999 `farmers in Mongton township
were given permission to grow opium as long as they paid tax on it to the military, and only sold it to traders approved by the local battalion.
Farmers were even offered loans to grow opium.’
The Shan Herald Agency for News report ‘Show Business – Rangoon ‘War on Drugs’ in Shan State, published April 2005, documents other
examples of Thein Sein’s soldiers involvement in the drug trade, including escorting drugs to the Thai border, providing security for drugs
shipments, forcing civilian trucks to transport drugs.
Blocking aid after Cyclone Nargis
“We should make clear to the generals that if they continue to frustrate the delivery of aid to their dying people, they could end up answering
for their actions before the International Criminal Court.”
David Cameron, Independent, 1st June 2008 Thein Sein was the third most senior general in government, was the Prime Minister, and
was also in charge of the response to Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma in May 2008.
The response of the Burmese government was widely condemned, with inadequate warnings and advice given before the cyclone struck, and then the blocking of international and even domestic aid, the release of false information, and prioritisation given to holding a rigged referendum on a new undemocratic constitution (which Thein Sein had been in charge of drafting).
The government of Burma at first appeared to play down the scale of the disaster which had struck the country. It first claimed just
351 people lost their lives. The true figure was closer to 140,000 people killed, a million homeless, and another million affected. The international community offered and dispatched aid, but most offers were refused or
ignored. Some countries were allowed to deliver aid, but only for distribution by the government.
Visas were refused for aid and emergency workers, and international outrage grew. The government arrested and fined local people who tried to deliver aid. On May 10th, just days after Cyclone Nargis struck, with hundreds of thousands of people still having received no aid, and to widespread international condemnation, the referendum on the undemocratic constitution went ahead. It was two weeks after Cyclone Nargis when the National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee, chaired by Thein Sein, issued its first statement. The statement did not provide information on the disaster, or appeal for assistance. It didn’t refer to anyone being killed, or how many people needed help. Instead it
stated: ‘some foreign news agencies broadcast false information and thus some international and regional organisations are assuming the
government has been rejecting and preventing aids for storm victims. Those who have been to Myanmar understand the actual fact.’
The government was also refusing to allow journalists to enter Burma, and deporting journalists who did manage to enter the country.
The first response to growing international pressure, rather than allowing in aid workers, was to allow in foreign dignitaries to try to
demonstrate that everything was being handled well. Huge resources were given to these tightly controlled PR trips, where visitors, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, were taken to fake camps for the displaced set up just for international visits. Once international visitors
left, displaced people were taken back to the squalid shelters where they had been staying.
As the person taking the lead on both Cyclone Nargis and dealings with the international community in his capacity as Prime Minister,
Thein Sein would have been responsible for these fake camps.
Eventually a combination of international pressure and the presence of US, British and French navy ships off the coast, persuaded the
dictatorship to agree to allow in international aid. However, a month after Cyclone Nargis struck, access was still extremely limited. Visas
were granted to some agencies, in particular UN agencies, but many visas were restricted, with many international aid workers not allowed
to leave Rangoon and go to the delta where most of the affected people were. The dictatorship consistently refused to act in a sufficient way to ensure aid reached those who needed it. Even as the British government
estimated that only about 25 percent of victims had received the aid they desperately needed, and Save The Children was warning that
30,000 children were at risk of starvation, Thein Sein stated: “We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going onto the second phase, the rebuilding stage.
Today the UN continues to document the restriction of aid to the displaced people in Kachin state, which it says violates international
Adept at fooling the international community Thein Sein’s skill in dealing with the international community is thought to be one reason for his promotion first to the position of Prime Minister, and then as President. He has been described as a quiet and effective communicator. Even Burmese democracy movement activists who continue to strongly
oppose him have described him as a persuasive smooth talker.
Thein Sein’s first role with the international community did not go so well. As regional commander in Shan State he dealt with Thai government officials, including military, police and local authorities. A particular concern of the Thai authorities was the large amount of drugs
being smuggled into Thailand from areas Thein Sein was responsible for. Thein Sein earned a reputation then for not co-operating and even
being considered anti-Thai.
Chairing the Committee for the prevention of underage children in the military appears to be where he first honed effective skills in dealing
with the international community.
From 2004 onwards he carefully balanced fine words and promises of action with little actual action. He was adept at making last-minute concessions just when international patience was running out. Almost ten years after first promising the international community that child soldiers would not be recruited into the Burmese army, the problem remains. A new agreement with the UN to end the use of child soldiers by the Burmese Army, signed after Thein Sein became President, is also not being complied with.
As Prime Minister he was also seen as an effective player. At the ASEAN summit in Singapore in November 2007, shortly after the crushing of the uprising in 2007, Thein Sein successfully prevented the UN’s Burma Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, from speaking at the meeting, despite his efforts to do so. Reports stated that he had threatened to walk out of the meeting and even quit ASEAN if they went ahead with the briefing.
There has been surprisingly little scrutiny of Thein Sein’s past. This briefing paper provides information on his direct role in human
rights abuses at a local and a national level.
Descriptions of him as ‘Mr Clean’ are clearly not accurate. However, a great many questions remain to be answered, including his relationships and cooperation with drug lords in Shan State while regional commander there, his exact role during the uprising of 1988, and his involvement, if any, in the widespread human rights abuses going on in areas he was stationed at in Kalaw, Shan State from 1998-1990, and Kale, Sagaing Division in 1990-1992. Those placing their faith in Thein Sein as a genuine reformer would do well to pay more attention to his past.