Thalun Zaung Htet: This week, we’ll be discussing whether U Aung Thaung, the late central executive committee member of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), left a good or bad legacy in Burmese politics. Journalist Ko Zaw Thet Htwe and lawyer U Robert San Aung will join me for this discussion. I am The Irrawaddy’s Burmese editor Thalun Zaung Htet.
U Aung Thaung passed away on July 23. His funeral was held at Yayway Cemetery on July 27. Before talking about his legacy, let’s take a look into his life. He was born on December 1, 1940. He graduated in arts from Mandalay University in 1962 and joined Intake 31 of the Defence Services Academy in 1964. He was then appointed as deputy minister for commerce, livestock and fisheries, before serving as industry minister for 14 years from 1997 to 2011.
With regard to his career, it can be said that he was a very successful man, born in a village in Thaung Tha Township and rising through the ranks to become one of the country’s most important people. It is interesting to consider what he has done in his political career. Ko Zaw Thet Htwe, how would you assess his political career while he was in position of power?
Zaw Thet Htwe: He was working as a teacher before joining the armed forces and rose through ranks in the military. He was not a popular military leader. His turning point came and his role grew after the 1988 uprising. His role increased because he had excelled in policymaking. I think that Snr-Gen Than Shwe initially did not consider him important enough to appoint him as the deputy commerce minister, but his role grew gradually after Lt-Gen Tun Kyi and Lt-Gen Kyaw Ba and their associates retired. His role became even bigger when he was assigned to USDP, previously the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), on the strength of his policy record.
I believe he finally became one of the henchmen of Than Shwe, the chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). I have heard that at cabinet meetings, though other generals and ministers all gave full attention to the instructions and orders of Snr-Gen Than Shwe, U Aung Thaung was able to make jokes more than others present. I guess that he had more power, at least more than is typical of a minister in the SPDC. He certainly had influence over ministers who were officially the same rank as him. His influence grew as the USDA became more powerful, and again when he married the daughter of Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye.
TZH: There were violations of human rights during the time U Aung Thaung was in power. He was alleged to be the patron leader of Swan Ar Shin paramilitary group. How serious were the reports of human rights violations in his time?
Robert San Aung: There were mountains of human rights violations in the time of U Aung Thaung. For example, he was under the international spotlight for his involvement in Depayin Massacre. U Aung Thaung was notorious in connection with the crackdown on the 2007 Saffron Revolution and then racial and religious violence in Meiktila, Lashio, Taikkyi and Arakan State. He violated human rights with the Taung Tha Army, the new version of Swan Ar Shin. When it became clear that he ignored the rule of law and used violence to intimidate other political parties, he was finally put on the US Treasury blacklist. This indicates that U Aung Thaung did not respect human rights.
TZH: Another point to consider is the business interests of U Aung Thaung and his sons. There were reports that while U Aung Thaung was Industry Minister for 14 years, he was involved in the largescale misappropriation of industries owned by the ministry. The International Group of Entrepreneurs company, owned by U Aung Thaung and his sons, is engaged in oil and gas exploration, factories and workshops, and timber logging. They own business interests in sectors typical of those dominated by cronies.
He would have amassed a lot of wealth during his tenure. Some say that U Aung Thaung and his family are among the richest people in Myanmar. So it is interesting to consider the origins of his wealth. As we said, he served as the secretary of the USDA and then senior advisor to the USDP. He held some very important positions. So, what will the future of politics look like now that he has passed away?
ZTH: Throughout the time of the military government, U Aung Thaung was viewed by political analysts as a hardliner who was never willing to negotiate with the opposition. He helped form the USDA in line with the policies of the military government.
During his tenure as the Minister for Industry, many of his projects failed. Large numbers of Win Thuzar shops were opened (under the auspices of the ministry), but they failed because people did not like the products sold at those shops. U Aung Thaung could manage industries, factories and lands as he pleased, as well as the castor oil plantation project, which was thought to bring large benefits. I guess that those were largely the ideas of U Aung Thaung.
On the other hand, he had political power. Even after Snr-Gen Than Shwe retired, he continued his role as a navigator of the USDP. The USDP won the 2010 election with ease and I think their internal relations were strained after the introduction of checks and balances between the three branches of government. There were frictions between the government and the Union Parliament. Though the USDP was created by the military, their relations have become icy. There were tensions and arguments between the military and the government and they sent letters (of complaint) to each other.
After the relations between the USDP and the military became strained last year, the USDP began to lack stability. But, it is clear that U Aung Thaung had taken the parliament’s side in the power struggle between the executive and the parliament before he died. U Aung Thaung and his supporters backed Thura U Shwe Mann to become more powerful and influential within the USDP. Perhaps he did this because the parliament had stood by him and strongly opposed the decision by the US to sanction him. At a recent session of parliament before he died, he strongly criticized the government. So, I assume that he would have supported U Shwe Mann and the USDP to contest the election as strongly as they can.
TZH: U Aung Thaung said in an interview with DVB that he was interested in military matters and strategy, which helped him win battles during his military career. In another interview with DVB, when asked how he would like to be recognized by people when he dies, he thought for a while and finally said he would like to be remembered as someone who served the interests of the people. Now he has died. So do you think he will be remembered as someone who served the public interest?
RSA: In my view, he will not be remembered as someone who served as the interests of the state and the people. He and his family confiscated land and transformed them into their own business enterprises without sharing the benefits. So, the peasantry and the associated classes that make up the majority of the country will not accept and recognize him as a person who served the interests of people and the state. Of course, his family would thank him. He used all the fair and unfair means available to him to establish successful businesses for his family. By unfair means, I mean confiscation of lands without giving proper compensation. It is against the law and therefore unfair. I would say those in power who are still alive can take lessons from this.
TZH: So, U Aung Thaung has passed away now, and he can take nothing of the wealth he had amassed throughout his life. And, his dream of being remembered as someone who served the interests of the people and the state will not come to pass. This makes us consider the brevity, fragility and nothingness of life. He could take nothing of what he had amassed and could not leave a good name. So, I would like to say that if those in power learn from the follies of U Aung Thaung and genuinely work for the country, they surely would be able to leave a good name when they die.