Confessions of Two Military Men Illustrate the Myth of ‘One Voice’

By Mon Mon Myat 27 January 2020

Under military rule, we often heard the Tatmadaw’s slogan: “We won’t be divided by anyone and will always be united.” During the long struggle for democracy, many came to realize that democratic change in Myanmar would not be possible unless the Tatmadaw was, in fact, divided.

It should come as no surprise that when the tyrant has absolute power, tyranny’s version of unity is: “One race, one voice, one command”. But when the tyrant is transformed or pretends to be a civilian ruler, he immediately encounters the reality of civilian rule: different races, different voices and competing demands.

Looking at two recent books written by two former military men, Thura U Shwe Mann and U Ye Htut, two distinct voices and opinions can be discerned. Their recent writings reveal that they are able to go beyond the Tatmadaw’s strict rule: “One race, one voice, one command.” Which is indeed fascinating.

Seemingly, the main point of difference between the former military men is their view of power politics, something U Shwe Mann, former military general and former Speaker of the Lower House, calls “Greed, Anger, Delusion and Vanity” in his book The Lady, I and Affairs of State released in 2018.

Former information minister U Ye Htut, however, discusses power politics through the prism of “the rivalry between former President Thein Sein and Thura Shwe Mann” in his book Myanmar’s Political Transition and Lost Opportunities (2010-2016).

U Ye Htut’s main claim in the book is that Myanmar was able to undergo “bloodless reform” in 2010 as a result of the political mechanism established by junta leader Senior General Than Shwe and the reform process launched by General Thein Sein.

U Ye Htut claims that the SLORC (the State Law and Order Restoration Council, as the military government was known) ignored the 1990 election result (in which the NLD won in a landslide) because Sen-Gen Than Shwe sought “to establish a political structure that could create a civilian government in line with the Tatmadaw’s idea of nation building, and consequently decided the SLORC must lead the constitution-drafting process and manage the political transition.” Two of the main obstacles to democracy enshrined in the 2008 Constitution—the Tatmadaw’s control of three key ministries (Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs) and the difficulty of amending the charter—are the brainchildren of Sen-Gen Than Shwe, as U Ye Htut observes.

Both U Shwe Mann and U Ye Htut highlight the vital role of the Tatmadaw and the personal involvement of its senior figures in the political transition, but both books are short on facts and figures about military crackdowns on mass rallies, the casualties caused by these crackdowns, and the number of political prisoners arrested and tortured by Military Intelligence. In fact, their books create the impression of self-promotion, or promotion of the Tatmadaw’s role in nation building—but such promotion is hard to accept unless it is accompanied by admissions of the military’s acts of tyranny.

U Shwe Mann writes of his conviction that “as the people are the rightful owner of sovereign power of the State, regardless of whoever might have taken it under any circumstance, it should be returned to the people.”

Nevertheless, both books contain important testimony regarding the military’s past actions.

U Shwe Mann (front) and U Ye Htut (back) arrive at the Presidential Residence in Naypyitaw for a conference of 48 leaders

The military and the Constitution

Although U Ye Htut’s book focuses on the period between 2010 and 2016, it could not leave out the background of how the military ended up leading the constitution-drafting process.

Before the 1990 elections, then SLORC chairman Senior General Saw Maung and secretary 1 Major General Khin Nyunt publicly promised to transfer power to the elected government.

U Ye Htut quotes Sen-Gen Saw Maung’s promise: “The Tatmadaw will not draw up a new constitution. The SLORC will not do it either. The representatives elected are to draw it.” In reality, the SLORC wanted to keep power until the elected parliament adopted a new constitution.

The SLORC broke its promises after the NLD won 87 percent of the seats. The NLD sent a letter to the SLORC seeking to discuss future political arrangements, but the SLORC did not respond. The situation grew even worse after Sen-Gen Than Shwe succeeded Saw Maung. Sen-Gen Than Shwe entirely ignored the election result and steered Myanmar’s political process as he saw fit.

U Ye Htut depicts the acts of the tyrant in detail in his book: the SLORC demanded the expulsion of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the NLD, warning that if the party failed to do so, it would be dissolved. Meanwhile, party chairman U Tin Oo, acting chairman U Kyi Maung and general secretary Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were detained. In order to maintain the party’s existence, the remaining members of the NLD’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) expelled Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the party and agreed to attend the SLORC-prepared National Convention.

One of the main reasons for the SLORC’s involvement in the drafting of the new constitution, according to U Ye Htut, was to ensure the “participation of the Tatmadaw in a leading role in national politics.”

The military and the USDP

After the national convention, the SLORC’s first move was to weaken the strongest opposition party, the NLD. Sen-Gen Than Shwe founded the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) in 1993 as “a national front that would join hands with the Tatmadaw” as U Ye Htut observes. He writes that the USDA was run like a military organization with a top-down command and control system. “Many members joined to gain opportunities or out of fear.”

U Ye Htut cites an anonymous source as saying: “The USDA was in fact taking measures to turn itself into an effective political party for the future. Than Shwe always used ‘The Party’ when he talked about the USDA with his CEC members of the USDA.”

U Ye Htut observes that Sen-Gen Than Shwe appointed his most trusted ministers and deputy ministers, who were also military commanders, as USDA CEC members. “Their responsibilities involved the USDA regional development projects, supervision of organizational activities, the monitoring and countering of local opposition groups—especially the NLD’s activities—the lobbying of religious and social bodies, including members of the Sangha [Buddhist monkhood], and the launching of campaigns in support of government policies.”

Just five months before the 2010 election, the USDA applied to register as a political party.

Past assumptions confirmed

When the nation was under military rule, we could only try to gauge the political climate by watching the news on the state media, as well as the occasional press conferences and speeches made by high-ranking military officials like Maj-Gen Khin Nyunt, and listening out for the top secrets of the generals leaked by insiders (who were not always reliable). However, reading these books by U Thura Shwe Mann and U Ye Htut allows us to verify that some of the assumptions we made in the past were correct.

For instance, many people assumed that the meetings between the generals and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the past were just political theater arranged by Sen-Gen Than Shwe for the international community.

U Ye Htut confirms that, after the Saffron Revolution in 2007, Sen-Gen Than Shwe assigned U Aung Kyi, minister for labor and social welfare, to serve as a minister in charge of relations with then opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He met her nine times between 2007 and 2011. (U Aung Kyi now serves as the chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission under the NLD government.)

U Ye Htut writes that, “Aung Kyi clearly understood that the main purpose for his meeting was to buy time to reduce international pressure in the wake of the so-called Saffron Revolution of September and the subsequent military crackdown.”

Sen-Gen Than Shwe sent U Aung Kyi to visit Daw Aung San Suu Kyi a week before UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari visited Myanmar in 2007. U Ye Htut writes, “Than Shwe strictly instructed Aung Kyi that he did not need to reach an agreement with Aung San Suu Kyi and the meeting was just for the sake of a meeting.”

U Ye Htut provides a clear depiction of the game that Sen-Gen Than Shwe and the other leaders of the military junta, by then known as the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) played with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when it came to her relentless demands for political dialogue.

“There was no timetable for the meetings because Than Shwe and the SPDC leaders used these meetings as a game to reduce international pressure. Whenever they were asked about progress, they replied that Aung Kyi and Suu Kyi are working to find common ground.”

The game continued under U Thein Sein’s government, when U Shwe Mann and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi built a strong friendship in Parliament, with the former serving as Speaker and the latter as a lawmaker. U Shwe Mann writes, “The Lady also seemed to have high regards for me. There were friendly and open discussions and debate as well as differences of opinion. What she was striving for was to organize a dialogue process to achieve rapprochement or national reconciliation.”

U Shwe Mann and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi tried to organize meetings and discussions with President U Thein Sein as well as with military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing before the 2015 elections, but their attempts to organize bilateral, trilateral and quadrilateral dialogues failed.

Lost opportunity for whom?

U Ye Htut portrays the political struggle between U Thein Sein and U Shwe Mann over who would assume the presidency in minute detail. He writes that the selection of U Thein Sein for the presidency was made by Sen-Gen Than Shwe. U Shwe Mann was initially slated to retire along with Sen-Gen Than Shwe and Vice Senior General Maung Aye in 2010, but later this decision was reversed and U Shwe Mann was placed in the Speaker’s post.

An “us versus them” mentality split the USDP between supporters of U Thein Sein and U Shwe Mann. “With his political ambitions, wealth and manipulation of MPs and the media, Shwe Mann became a thorn in President Thein Sein’s side after 2012,” U Ye Htut writes.

Here, U Ye Htut describes Sen-Gen Than Shwe’s attitude: “Than Shwe never tried to stop the power struggle between Thein Sein and Shwe Mann. He may have wanted to ensure neither of his successors could become a supreme leader as he had been.”

Being very friendly with “the Lady”, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is known, U Shwe Mann made enemies with U Thein Sein as well as with the USDP party leaders, who were mostly former military generals. As a result, party leader U Shwe Mann was the victim of a “midnight coup d’état” by his party in August 2015, just three months before the election. The next morning U Shwe Mann received a letter notifying him that he had been removed as party chairman.

U Shwe Mann says he regrets this episode as a lost opportunity for political dialogue. He writes that if the dialogues he and the Lady proposed had been accepted, and had led to understanding and agreements, “the national reconciliation process might have been at a more advanced stage and peace-building efforts would have been more successful.”

Ever the apologist for U Thein Sein, U Ye Htut says the USDP became a victim of power politics by U Shwe Mann.  He denounces U Shwe Mann as solely responsibility for weakening the USDP, for the USDP’s failure in the 2015 election and for the failure of U Thein Sein’s reform agenda.

It is unfair to place all the blame at the feet of U Shwe Mann, however. U Ye Htut should be aware that the failure of the USDP was mainly the result of the “people’s ill feeling towards the USDP” that he describes earlier in the book.

The historian and author U Thant Myint-U, however, recommends U Shwe Mann’s book for “anyone wanting to better understand transitions from military dictatorship.” In fact, such a transition from military dictatorship is gradually happening in Myanmar today. If we were still under dictatorial rule, it would not be possible to read such books written by military men.

These confessions of two military men serve as a reminder that we must never return to the “One race, one voice, one command” system in Myanmar. Let their voices be heard for the well-being of future generations.

Mon Mon Myat is a freelance journalist and a graduate student in the PhD program in Peacebuilding at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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