It was a sunny afternoon on Bo Ba Htoo Road, located on the outskirts of Yangon. As soon as I hailed the old Toyota, I noticed the vehicle’s company logo—Parami Taxi, a subsidiary of a major business conglomerate run by the military. Parami taxis are an increasingly rare sighting on the streets of the commercial capital, owing to a proliferation of vehicles that has accompanied the government’s easing of car import restrictions.
The driver, of retirement age, easily accepted my fare proposition, though not without murmuring, “There will be terrible traffic in that area.” Like many other taxi drivers, the short, skinny man started a conversation about the traffic: “There are more and more cars, and all the traffic makes it more difficult to earn money nowadays,” he told me.
Though I’m no longer a regular contributor for any particular news agency, I still follow a rule of thumb: Conversations between taxi driver and patron are not to be considered “on the record.” So I tried just to listen to him and follow what he was saying.
As the cab passed a petrol station, he lamented: “The oil price is getting cheaper all over the world, but not here, because petrol stations here are owned by their relatives and business partners.”
(“Their” is a common pronoun used among Burmese to refer to the military generals who still control large swathes of the country’s economy.)
“They monopolize everything, even small-scale businesses. They also own Parami Taxi,” he continued, awakening in me a suspicion that is latent but nonetheless never far from the surface: Was this man a Military Intelligence officer? I knew that the army-backed firm, Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL), allowed only ex-military personnel to drive its cabs…
I eventually dismissed the notion, however, after he identified himself as a former military man, without my asking. “I got this taxi to drive after I retired,” he told me.
I grew increasingly interested as he recounted his experiences in the armed services. His outspokenness was not something I’d previously encountered from ex-military personnel.
“U Thein Sein is just a chess pawn set by [former junta leader] General Than Shwe because he is a very obedient admin officer from the war office. He is one who will never talk back to U Than Shwe.”
And while my driverwas not the first person to offer this interpretation, things got more interesting when he began comparing two of Myanmar’s most famous former generals, who he claimed to have gotten to know well during his 40 years of military service.
“U Thein Sein is not like U Shwe Mann. He has never been to the frontline. U Shwe Mann was a good soldier. He was conferred Thura [a honorific meaning ‘brave soldier’] after the Methawaw operation against Karen rebels.”
Though I had been trying to be a passive listener, at this point I couldn’t help myself and asked whether he liked Shwe Mann or not.
“Not only me; many soldiers like U Shwe Mann, because he was the one who threw out General Khin Nyunt and his fellow military intelligence officers,” he replied.“I met U Shwe Mann when I was serving in the Army. I do like him.”
I asked if he was aware of Shwe Mann’s recent removal from the leadership of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which he said came as no surprise to him.
“It must have been done by U Than Shwe, not U Thein Sein, because he is the one pulling the strings behind the scenes,” he immediately responded. “He doesn’t want to give up power because he is afraid of what he has done.”
By now the cab was stuck in traffic near Parami Bus Station, where a fleet of military-owned “Parami” buses idled, preparing to embark on routes within the city limits or destinations farther afield.
Their presence served as a reminder, that the transformation of the Burmese military has in fact been underway since the 1990s, when soldiers began trading uniforms for business suits and taking over government ministries and state conglomerates.
Two major firms in particular—the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and UMEHL—are unavoidable in daily life, dominating every sector and providing basic public needs including transport, food and drinking water, and even the ubiquitous Myanmar Beer. Businesses controlled by UMEHL and MEC have interests in everything from shipping and mining to textiles and banking.
My driver continued his musings on the dynamics at play in Myanmar’s halls of power. Shwe Mann’s ouster, surprise as it was to many, was in fact an old-school neutralization of a perceived threat, he posited.
“A good relationship between U Shwe Mann and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi became a threat to his power. It is not what U Than Shwe wanted to see.”
This assertion begged the follow-up: “What did U Than Shwe want to see then?”
“It is very obvious that he wants the military to hold absolute power in this country because that will make him secure.”
He continued that the former ruler had become entangled in the very Constitution that he shepherded into existence. “They can’t just topple U Shwe Mann from being parliament speaker, though they could remove him from being the party’s chairmanship.”
“If they drove U Shwe Mann out of Parliament, it would mean that they were violating their own Constitution.”
My driver was right to point out this irony. In a way, the junta-drafted Constitution has actually served to protect parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann from being made politically irrelevant. Elected in 2010, Shwe Manncould be stripped of his leadership role within the USDP, but his power as speaker remains.
A controversial recall bill, thought to be directly targeting Shwe Mann, was rejected by MPs last month,indicating strong support for the speaker during the last session of Parliament ahead of November’s general election.
It was quite interesting for me to see such backing for Shwe Mann from both a sizeable contingent in Parliament and the former soldier ferrying me across Yangon.
In an interview with The Irrawaddy last month, Stanford University Prof. Larry Diamond portrayed Shwe Mann as a “soft-liner” who was “more willing to negotiate with the democratic opposition.”
“He seemed to have a good relationship with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and they seemed to be able to work together. That was actually a hopeful sign for the future,” Diamond told The Irrawaddy.
Before the cab reached my destiny, I asked my driver about his expectations for Myanmar’s upcoming election.
“I hope to see U Shwe Mann and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi win in the elections, because I believe that they can work together to change the country.”
A veteran’s wisdom? Only time will tell, but as I paid the man and disembarked, I had no doubt that he was sincere at least in describing his dream ticket.
Mon Mon Myat is a freelance journalist based in Rangoon.