Van Thio – from Otago freezing worker to vice president of Myanmar

Henry Van Thio, who lived in Dunedin from 2011 until last year, has been sworn in as second vice-president in a historic moment for Myanmar – formerly known as Burma.

Only two years before his swearing in, he was working at Silver Fern Farms’ Finegand freezing works, while his wife Anna Sui studied towards a PhD at the University of Otago.

Van Thio, a Christian, is part of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which recently won landmark elections in the country.

He is the first non-Buddhist to hold the office of the Vice President of Myanmar.

His faith has been the subject of controversy as after his appointment nationalist monks protested saying that only Buddhists should hold political positions.

The choice of having a minority ethnic as a vice president is a symbolic gesture by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party to assist national reconciliation efforts, say observers.

Combined, Myanmar’s minority ethnic groups make up a third of the country’s 53 million people.

As part of that, Christians heavily populate Myanmar’s ethnic-based states of Chin, Kachin, Karen and Kayah in an otherwise predominately Buddhist country.

Shay Ray Shu Maung, a Catholic and upper house Member of Parliament from the National League for Democracy in Kayah state, said it was unexpected and surprising that an ethnic Chin lawmaker was nominated as a vice presidential candidate.

Leith Valley Presbyterian Church lead pastor the Rev Richard Dawson said Van Thio’s rapid rise was a big surprise to his congregation, which  Van Thio and his wife were part of from 2011 until they returned home last year.

He said Van Thio was probably as surprised at his appointment as they were, as he settled on a decision to enter politics only as recently as last year.

Mihi Stevens, who gave Van Thio a job at Finegand, thought it was an “April Fools’ joke” when she was told about his appointment on 1 April.

She could not remember much about him, but his supervisors told her he was a good worker and “very knowledgeable”.


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