Still in the Shadows

By The Irrawaddy 22 May 2014

If there was ever any doubt that Snr.-Gen. Than Shwe, Myanmar’s ex-dictator, is still a force behind the scenes, they can now be put to rest. As sources close to the former junta leadership have confirmed, the retired strongman is as influential as ever, and is likely to remain so until he dies.

According to these sources, three groups regularly visit the aging military patriarch at his palatial residence in Naypyitaw.

The first is led by U Thaung, the former minister for science and technology, and U Aung Thaung, the former industry minister who now plays a leading role in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. Dr. Kyaw Myint, the former health minister, and Dr. Chan Nyein, the former education minister, also belong to this group.

The second group consists of senior military figures, including the current commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Snr.-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who is due to retire soon. His possible successor, Deputy Snr.-Gen. Soe Win, is also a regular visitor. Two other favorites of the ex-generalissimo who frequently drop by are Gen. Hla Htay Win, the chief of the general staff (army, navy and air force), and Lt.-Gen. Myat Htun Oo; both are also in line for promotion.

The third group includes Union Parliament Speaker U Shwe Mann and Upper House Speaker U Khin Aung Myint. U Shwe Mann, a leading member of the former junta who was pegged to become president in 2011, reportedly had a lengthy conversation with his former boss after President U Thein Sein got the job instead.

In addition to these visitors, there are also others—including the president—who visit during traditional holidays, when it is customary for subordinates to pay their respects to their elders.

To many observers, this steady stream of visitors indicates that the man who once ruled with an iron fist still wields considerable power behind the scenes. His influence is believed to be especially strong with the military, particularly in matters related to promotions and reshuffles.

But there are also those who believe that he is the reason that reforms introduced since 2011 appear to have stalled. He has, they say, decided to slow the pace of change ahead of next year’s election to ensure that the military retains its preeminent position in political affairs.

Of course, there are some who insist that he and his wife Daw Kyaing Kyaing spend their days watching soap operas and leading “a boring lifestyle,” to quote one source, at their massive residence near the Water Fountain Park in Naypyitaw.

Boring? Perhaps. But make no mistake: This is a man who knows that he can’t afford to get too bored with the shifting sands of power in Myanmar politics. He may have stepped out of public view, but his exit strategy is still a work in progress.

This article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy print magazine.