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As Myanmar Reforms, Observers Wonder: Who's in Charge?

By A WSJ Staff Reporter 

Myanmar's surprise decision to halt a controversial Chinese-backed dam project last Friday has set off yet another round of debate over who truly is in charge of the secretive Southeast Asia nation. 

Since last year's national election, which Western observers said was a fraud designed to cement military rule in Myanmar, analysts have argued over which faction of the government seemed to be running the show. 

Some assumed that former paramount leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe, who ruled with an iron fist for most of the past 20 years before retiring this year, was continuing to call the shots behind the scenes. Others thought that powerful figures, such as Thura Shwe Mann, a former third-ranking member of Myanmar's military junta, who now serves as speaker of the lower house, or other senior military leaders would assert themselves. 

Few expected President Thein Sein, a former military commander and Than Shwe loyalist who represented Myanmar abroad in previous years as prime minister and was widely seen as something of a mystery, would emerge as a forceful figure in the new administration. 

Yet that seems to be what's happening, analysts are increasingly concluding. Dissident media and advocacy groups have reported that Mr. Thein Sein has played an important role in promoting economic reforms in the new government, and has pressed to rein in corruption. 

His decision on the dam, meanwhile, appeared to directly contradict other senior government leaders, who had promised to stick with the $3.6 billion Myitsone project, which was designed to provide power for Myanmar's most important strategic partner, China. Last month, for example, Electric Power Minister Zaw Min vowed the Myitsone project would definitely go ahead despite rising opposition from residents in the area and the country's fledgling environmental lobby. 

Western diplomats say they've been surprised by the number of changes that have occurred under Mr. Thein Sein's watch, though they caution that the changes so far are mostly incremental and could easily be reversed. They include loosened restrictions on the press and Internet and an expanding dialogue between the government and famed dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. 

Meanwhile, even some of the harshest critics within Myanmar's dissident community applauded Mr. Thein Sein's move to suspend the dam, which was deeply unpopular. The move also appears to have upset China. 

"Even for someone as critical as I, I would say this kind of governmental action needs to be encouraged and welcomed publicly," said Maung Zarni, a Myanmar research fellow at the London School of Economics. 

The dam decision "is good news that President Thein Sein shows his respect to the will of the people of Burma," added Aung Din, executive director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a dissident group in Washington that uses Myanmar's former name. The step was only a beginning, though, he said, with other key moves—such as releasing all political prisoners and ceasing military campaigns against ethnic minorities—as yet undone. 

One argument being made by more optimistic dissidents and advocates is that Mr. Thein Sein—who has more experience in dealing with the outside world than other Myanmar leaders—is one of the key driving forces for moderation within Myanmar's new government, and with each passing week is consolidating his power. Others say his standing is less certain, but that he is using the dam issue to curry favor with the public so he can strengthen his position and potentially focus on other reforms. 

Since taking office, "Thein Sein has moved quickly to begin implementing his ambitious reform agenda," researchers at the International Crisis Group wrote in a report released last month. The group said Mr. Thein Sein appeared to have made a breakthrough sometime in July, when the pace of change accelerated, possibly after he asserted his authority over more reactionary factions in the government. It cited interviews with "several well-placed individuals" for those conclusions. 

More skeptical dissidents—of which there are many—quickly dismissed the report, given Myanmar's past history of flirting with reform and then backtracking. 

A government official in a series of recent email exchanges with The Wall Street Journal dismissed any rumors of power struggles or factional splits. 

"Since he took office, the President has always expressed a desire to build a democratic Myanmar," said Ye Htut, director general of the Information and Public Relations Department of the Ministry of Information in Myanmar. As for the dam suspension, Mr. Thein Sein "was elected by the people and therefore has to act according to the desire of the people," he said. 

Of course, there's still the ultimate conspiracy theory to consider: that everything happening now was planned by Mr. Than Shwe all along. That seems far-fetched to many Myanmar observers, but then again, the man formerly known simply as "Number 1" surprised a lot of people in his time. Written off as a lightweight when he assumed power in the early 1990s, he guided Myanmar through a series of his own economic reforms a few years later, clamped down hard on opponents and ruled with only occasional challenges for two decades.

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