Swift rise to high post - from Otago freezing works to Myanmar's second vice-president

By Vaughan Elder

Myanmar's new Foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi chats with Vice president Henry Van Thio as they attend the ceremony to handover the country's presidency. Photo / Getty Images
Myanmar's new Foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi chats with Vice president Henry Van Thio as they attend the ceremony to handover the country's presidency. Photo / Getty Images

Dunedin's small Myanmar community is buzzing after one of their own went from working at an Otago freezing works to being sworn in as second vice-president of the Southeast Asian country.

Henry Van Thio was this week sworn in as second vice-president in a historic moment for Myanmar - formerly known as Burma - in which the first president with no military ties in more than half a century officially took power.

Mr Van Thio, who lived in Dunedin from 2011 until last year, is part of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which recently won landmark elections in the country.

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.

Dr Htin Lin Aung, an Otago University postdoctoral fellow from Myanmar, said his appointment was a big shock for Dunedin's 20 to 25-strong Myanmar community and of "massive significance'' for Myanmar.

"We are very proud of his achievements and we know that he is the right person for the job.

"He's a very honest man and really hard working,'' Mr Lin Aung said.

Before coming to New Zealand and then later joining the National League for Democracy party, Mr Van Thio used to work as a civil servant in Myanmar.

While in Dunedin, two of his three children went to Logan Park High School, and the youngest went to George St Normal School.

Mihi Stevens, who gave Mr Van Thio a job at Finegand, thought it was an "April Fools' joke'' when she was told about his appointment yesterday.

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

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

He said Mr 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.

However, it was "very clear'' why he had been chosen, as he was both wise and a hard worker.

The fact he was part of the Chin minority group was significant and showed the Government was taking its aim of national reconciliation seriously.

"He represents a bridge between the present Government and a whole group of tribes people who have been at odds with the Government for some years.''

He was known among the congregation as one of "nature's gentlemen'' and always impressed people with his hard work while helping out around the church.

Apart from working for Finegand and a stint at Talley's in Nelson, Mr Van Thio also did jobs for the church.

"Only the day before he left, he was undercoating this church.''

- Otago Daily Times

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