Asia - Issue 61 - Magazine | Monocle

thumbnail text

Style leader No.42

New look, new direction?

Thein Sein — BURMA

The most important thing about Thein Sein is not what he does wear but what he doesn’t. As Burma’s president, he wears the traditional longyi sarong and tunic of the political elite. But for 42 years, until he retired with the rank of general in 2010, he wore the uniform of the Tatmadaw, the country’s notorious armed forces. How genuine is his conversion from khakis to civvies? This goes to the heart of the man and the remarkable changes he is overseeing.

Nothing in Thein Sein’s military career suggested that he would be a reformer. Yet since becoming president in 2011 he has released hundreds of political prisoners, eased media censorship and agreed ceasefires with several of the country’s rebel ethnic militia.

While the nature and speed of these changes has been remarkable, violence has continued to befall the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority and the people of Kachin State, where the army is fighting a long-running war against an ethnic independence army.

The arrival of foreign investors is bringing much-needed capital but many worry that the country’s resources are being sold to the highest bidder, enriching a handful of former military men and their civilian cronies. It will be a while before the excitement about Thein Sein is fully justified.

Simple but effective

Not noted for his flamboyance, the bespectacled Thein Sein has a bookish pallor. He is bare-headed here but for ceremonial occasions he cuts a dash in a gaung baung, the traditional Burmese turban.

Having ditched the military garb, Thein Sein now favours Burmese business attire: a longyi sarong (see below), taik-pon jacket and white collarless shirt. Far more elegant and practical than the western suits that are favoured by many regional counterparts.

The longyi – a piece of cloth two metres long and nearly a metre wide, often sewn into a cylindrical shape – is a versatile garment, worn by everyone from farmers to politicians. Plain, striped and checked cottons do for daily wear, silks for formal events.

The son of landless farmers, softly spoken Thein Sein has described the changes in his country as “irreversible”. His transformation from junta general to radical reformer is completed with open-toed sandals. Visiting dignitaries in their heavy leather shoes must look on in envy.

Election watch


Type: Parliamentary

Date: TBC

Candidates: The rightish Barisan Nasional coalition, currently led by Najib Razak, has governed Malaysia in some shape or form since independence and will be expecting to keep its job. The opposition Pakatan Rakyat, led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, ran them closer than expected in 2008, however.

Issues: Accusations of corruption are likely to be a dominant refrain due to the house cleaning undertaken by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

Monocle comment: A change of government is unlikely but would help. Corruption is an inevitable byproduct of one-party states – even democratic ones.

Hidden dragon


Taiwan’s birth rate is one of the lowest in the world, and it faces the prospect of a reduced baby count hurting growth. But aggressive steps appear to be paying off: last year its birth rate edged up to 1.265, its highest in a decade. Officials cited government cash payments for births, subsidies for pre-school education and affordable day-care facilities. But they aren’t celebrating yet: last year’s figures had a boost due to many Taiwanese rushing to have a child during the lunar year of the dragon because of the luck it’s thought to bring.

Techies unite


India hopes Germany’s scientific expertise will help develop its technology industry. The Indo-German Science and Technology Centre is bringing scientists from both countries together at its HQ in Delhi.

Share on:

X (formerly Twitter)




Go back: Contents



sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • Monocle Weekends