Burma’s Ex-Dictator and His Invisible Line

Anyone who wants to credit Burma’s President Thein Sein for the country’s political and economic reforms must first thank former dictator Sr-Gen Than Shwe.

US President Barack Obama was the most recent figure to praise Thein Sein, who visited the White House on Monday. “We very much appreciate your efforts in leadership in leading Myanmar in a new direction,” Obama said.

During the past two years, it seems all the credit has gone to Thein Sein. But although the president may have initiated Burma’s political and economic opening after taking office in March 2011, the reigns of reform haven’t always been in his hands.

Without the plans of retired general Than Shwe, Burma’s internationally popular president—a former general himself—would have never even considered straying from the path of military rule. That’s what most government and ex-military officials in Naypyidaw believe.

“You have to thank Sr-Gen Than Shwe,” said Ye Htut, the president’s spokesman and deputy minister of information.

The former supremo Than Shwe, who was dubbed a “dictator,” “psychopath” and “monk killer” for his oppressive 19-year rule from 1992 to 2011, remains a paramount leader today for many high-ranking government officials and ex-military leaders in Parliament.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

“He [Than Shwe] knew when he had to leave power. And he also knew who he had to pick up as his key successors for the government, the parliament and the military,” the president’s spokesman voluntarily told me.

His statement got me thinking. Why did Than Shwe pick Thein Sein to be president? Why did he choose former generals Shwe Mann and Khin Aung Myint as speakers of the lower and upper houses in Parliament? So far, they all seem “softer” than the hardliners who otherwise fill Burma’s nominally civilian government and Parliament, which is still dominated by ex-military officials.

To lead the powerful military, known as the Tatmadaw, Than Shwe also selected Gen Min Aung Hlaing, a commander-in-chief who seems less hawkish than some of his contemporary military officials. And although the former dictator appointed a hardliner to the vice presidency, Tin Aung Myint Oo was later booted from his position after reportedly resisting the reform process.

Analysts believe the Burmese people suffered harsher oppression under Than Shwe than they did with the late dictator Ne Win. “Than Shwe and his regime show no sign of relenting… There is no room for compromise in Than Shwe’s kingdom,” Bertil Lintner, the author of several books on Burma, wrote in his latest book, “Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy” in 2011.

Now, however, Than Shwe’s hand-picked officials seem to be compromising with opposition leaders, especially Suu Kyi, who leads the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy. Since winning a seat in parliamentary by-elections last year, Suu Kyi has established a positive working relationship with the president, the house speakers and even some high-ranking military officials.

In selecting the country’s current leaders, did Than Shwe believe that relatively softer personalities—at least compared to other hardliners—would ensure a successful execution of his political plans? Few can read his real intentions, but Ye Htut and other ex-military officials believe so.

“He [Than Shwe] systematically managed the country and handed it over to those who could carry on and lead it forward,” Htay Oo, deputy chairman of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) once told The Irrawaddy, adding that the ex-junta leader personally planned the roadmap from military rule to a nominally civilian government.

Ye Htut said he believed Than Shwe intentionally designed the political structure to balance power among the government, Parliament and the military. “The president has no veto power, unlike [presidents in] other countries,” the presidential spokesman said.

“Of course, the military is still powerful,” he added. “But it is less powerful than before.”

Thein Sein seems to be doing his best to turn his predecessor’s envisioned political system into a success story. And as long as he continues, the former dictator seems flexible. A ministry director recently told me that Than Shwe did not set any specific guidelines or instructions for Thein Sein’s government, and many ex-military officials deny that he is pulling any strings.

But the ministry director, who asked to remain anonymous, said he believed Than Shwe had established an invisible line that nobody, including Thein Sein, can cross. Few know exactly where that line exists, but leaders of the government, the military and the ruling USDP can sense its presence, and with it, the wishes of their former boss.

Recently, USDP leaders including the powerful house speaker Shwe Mann pledged to collaborate with Suu Kyi to amend the Constitution. Do they risk crossing the invisible line?

No. Despite promised amendments, the military’s dominance in Burmese politics will not be washed away—it is part of the invisible line. Lawmakers will make some changes to the much criticized Constitution, and Thein Sein will continue taking liberties in navigating the reform process, but the important constitutional article that allows the military to appoint 25 percent of lawmakers in Parliament will not be amended. Thein Sein has already made that clear, recently telling the Washington Post that Burma’s military “will always have a special place” in government.

Politically, the line in Burma’s reform process will defend Than Shwe’s legacy. Personally, it will guarantee safety for him and his family. And as long as the president and his reform process don’t cross it, the former supremo can rest assured that everything will be fine.


14 Responses to Burma’s Ex-Dictator and His Invisible Line

  1. If all goes well, this is relatively a small price to pay for the well being of the country and the people.

    • are you serious?.Is this small price to pay for after too many lives were lost or up side down and too many years of oppression?Gees.Iran style democracy is like a house arrest transferring from prison sentence.The truth is that Iranian people are living in the hell without basic right.

    • Untold thousands of deaths, prolonged arbitrary arrest, unfair trials, pervasive torture, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. The price paid by many seem extraordinary high to me!

    • Why don’t you and your family members move and adopt Iranian citizenship?

  2. Supremo or Ayatollah, as long as the country is moving forward, it’s a good sign. Iran, 23 years after the revolution, becomes a respected country. ( Even Israel has to think twice before any actions.) Today, its political system works all because of one final voice. Perhaps, that invisible line exists to maintain law and order which is vital for the development of the country.

    • Joe Sein,
      How much do you know about Iran? Is Iran respected as you said? Maybe, you are one of a few people who respect Iran. People of Iran suffer too much. Needless poverty is hitting hard even tough Iran has bountiful natural resources. Before Ayatollahs’ revolution, people of Iran enjoy their daily life. Now, only a few elite families enjoy life. I hope you better migrate to Iran and suffer what religious dictatorship is all about.

  3. A devout Buddhist has a natural belief that a Buddhist perception of events could enlighten us on the issue of “Why It So Happens”, based on the theory of “Cause and Effect”. Hence:

    We could draw three instances to reflect this “Universal Truth”, namely:

    1. Dawsa (Dawtha) & Moha: (Anger & Stupidity)

    Al Qaeda to commit 9/11, in which over three thousand innocent people were killed in New York City.

    2. Lawba & Moha: (Greed & Stupidity)

    Gen Ne Win to committed 1974 election to cement his power base and as a consequence, fourteen years later, over three thousand civilians were killed in a national uprising in 1988.

    3. Lawba & Moha: (Greed & Stupidity)

    Now, Gen Than Shwe is committing 2010 election, as part of Seven Point Road Map to cement his power base. So, we can only hope to God it might not turn the country into a ‘Killing Field’ similar to Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Furthermore, he will use force (the Army) to achieve his goals.

    So, only time will tell, whatever Gen Than Shwe had done etc. We are only two years into this.

  4. “Of course, the military is still powerful,” he added. “But it is less powerful than before.“Of course, the military is still powerful,” he added. “But it is less powerful than before.”

    Thein Sein seems to be doing his best to turn his predecessor’s envisioned political system into a success story. And as long as he continues, the former dictator seems flexible. A ministry director recently told me that Than Shwe did not set any specific guidelines or instructions for Thein Sein’s government, and many ex-military officials deny that he is pulling any strings.”

    Both Htay Oo and Ye Htut praise fox than shwe. In fact , than shwe has a gun for killing anybody who does not listen to his order ( any ex- or military person). Than shwe has a killing right to anybody, anytime , anywhere and any reason according to 2008 Nargic constitution. Than shwe’s gun is only for killing his men because he is sitting at the back of thein sein and his all associates including cronies. Fox than shwe does not need to go battle fields anymore. Ming aung laing is knee down in front of than shwe day and night with mobile ph for executing all orders of than shwe if needed.
    Everything is that much simple if one has full military power. Some monks are busy with Muslim issue and some naive Burmese are also busy with mining, hydropower issues for next target to China. Thein sein is showing his hide and seeking game with US and China for good show to some naive Burmese. Therefore , fox than shwe has a good tempo for survival The most than shwe’s fear is all ethnics’ military power development, who might be supported by China in future. Let see who will win the hide and seek game after China changes its tone ( now , China is giving a soft tone (chance ) to than shwe to regain their winning lottery ticket in Burma ). Than shwe orders thein sein to hide in Obama white house for having more courage to face China. Chairman Moa said “Any kind of power is from gun”. How simple it is. We, all fed up to listen how fox is cleaver or smart to design so and so forth-all are rubbish because Bama child soldier can be capable to rule Burma with gun.

  5. Ananta Narayan Chaudhuri

    Very interesting Ex-Dictator and his Invisible is still pulling the string behind the scene.
    By the way, what happened to Late Dictator Gen Ne Win’s son in law and grand son are
    they still in jail or released with other political prisoners recently ??
    Would like to know.
    Ananta Narayan Chaudhuri
    Friday, May 24, 2013

    • Ananta,
      Why are you asking about the children of Ne Win? They will not be released as long as Than Shwe is holding power. Than Shwe is still afraid of Ne Win’s children and son in law. I mean Than Shwe is still in control.

  6. That is what the problem is. 25% of Hlutdaw is undemocratic. It means Burma is not democratic. Hlutdaw members must be elected, not appointed. This sytem is black spot in Burmese on white linen.

  7. Without me, as the country was a unchanged dictatorship during Than Shwe.
    So it was me who should have peace prize and not President Thein Sein.

  8. As a car drives over a cliff, everything looks normal for a brief period.

  9. It is the insightful of how Burma politics works. Unfortunately, the western world has higher priority trying to contain China’s influence in the region and reality fact of Burma’s politics has ignored when dealing with Thein Sein’s government.

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