RANGOON — It’s rare in Burma for a political leader to leave office of their own accord, rarer still for an ousted leader to return to political life.
The country’s first Prime Minister, U Nu, was deposed in a military coup, and his attempts to return to the spotlight during the heady days of 1988 were rebuffed by a new generation of democrats. Former spy chief Khin Nyunt has kept a low profile since his release from house arrest in 2012—particularly after a quiet visit from Special Branch officers when he publicly denied responsibility for orchestrating the Depayin Massacre. His ex-dictator boss, Ne Win, finished his life under house arrest with his family despite his official departure from politics after the 1988 uprising.
Now, if recent comments from senior levels of the National League for Democracy (NLD) are to be believed, Shwe Mann is set to break the mold.
The influential former Brigadier-General, who was given the honorific title Thura after leading a brutal offensive against Karen insurgents in the 1980s, was number three in the military junta before Burma’s transition to a quasi-civilian government in 2010. Tipped by some analysts to be elected the country’s first president, Shwe Mann was eventually passed over in favor of Thein Sein.
The relationship between the two men began to deteriorate in 2013, owing to Shwe Mann’s perceived closeness to NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. That year, he called for the amendment of Article 59(f), the section of Burma’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution which effectively bars Suu Kyi from the presidency, should be amended. He has supported the democracy icon’s calls for political dialogue with senior leaders, and allowed the Union Parliament to call an ultimately unsuccessful vote on constitutional reforms promoted by the NLD and democracy activists.
Eventually, his decision as chair of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to block the candidacies of scores of government ministers and serving military personnel led to his downfall.
At least two prior attempts to vote him out of the chairmanship in 2015; in August, despite Shwe Mann retaining the support of a majority of party officials, the USDP’s executive committee were called to to the party’s Naypyidaw offices and ordered to vote the chair and his allies out of office. The Global New Light of Myanmar, publishing a belated explanatory memorandum four days later under the innocuous title “Clarification of Recent Events”, characterized the incident as “part of a normal course of business for a registered political party”.
With the party purge, observers thought the former chairman’s time in the spotlight was at a definitive end. Among the more cynical, rumors swirled that he would be arrested on trumped up charges when his parliamentary immunity lapsed at the end of January. A long-delayed impeachment bill—defeated resoundingly after USDP lawmakers failed to offer their support—was seen as a transparent means of hastening his departure from public life. Finally, a defeat in his hometown constituency of Phyu in Pegu Division during the November election hardened perceptions of a man at the end of his career.
In the weeks after NLD’s landslide victory in the Nov. 8 election, however, Shwe Mann is resurgent. He was the first rival political leader to sit down with Suu Kyi after the poll result, and the pair have met regularly in the time since. It was revealed after the fact that Shwe Mann was responsible for brokering her surprise meeting with Snr-Gen Than Shwe earlier in December, where the former dictator referred to her as the “future leader” of Burma and promised his assistance during the political transition.
Last week, NLD spokesman and central executive committee member Win Htein told the Voice Weekly journal that it was likely that Shwe Mann would play a role in the next government, to be formed by the victorious party at the end of March.
“He is smart and brave. Everybody knows he accepted his defeat,” he said. “When you consider the need for inclusiveness from the USDP and ethnic people for establishing a democratic country, Thura Shwe Mann may be included. He is likely to be in.”
The question of Shwe Mann’s character has been hotly debated. His role as a senior member of the military regime, a combat commander and a member of the current parliament has raised questions about his goals and his motivations, a debate that resurfaced with his fall from grace in August.
A 2007 US State Department cable profiling the speaker, published by Wikileaks in 2010, reported that some sources alleged Shwe Mann helped to plan the assault on Suu Kyi’s convoy through Depayin in 2003, during which more than 70 people were killed by regime thugs. (Khin Nyunt’s memoir, released earlier this year, laid responsibility solely at the feet of now-deceased Gen. Soe Win.)
The cable relayed sources claiming Shwe Mann’s involvement in a number of going business concerns, his relations with business tycoons close to the former military junta, and suggestions that his sons had used their father’s connections to further their own business empires.
One of one of his close allies in the USDP, former party secretary-general Maung Maung Thein, was recently named by Global Witness as one of the primary beneficiaries of Kachin State’s lucrative and controversial jade trade. The sons of Aung Thaung, another party ally of Shwe Mann’s who died in July, are in charge of the International Group of Entrepreneurs, a firm with sprawling interests in construction, resources and banking which is currently subject to US sanctions.
At the same time, the 2007 cable acknowledged that many considered Shwe Mann a potential reformer seeking to reengage with the international community—an impression supported by numerous reports of his meetings with civil society groups during the course of his parliamentary business. His courtship of Suu Kyi, together with his attempts to strengthen the Union Parliament into more than the rubber-stamp legislature predicted by international observers, has put him in good standing with the new order.
Mya Aye, a senior member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, said that over the course of his parliamentary career, Shwe Mann had cultivated a mutually beneficial relationship with the NLD, and both had reasons for continuing along their current path of collaboration.
“It’s true that the NLD’s electoral success has resurrected him,” he said, adding that the party’s priority on national reconciliation and collaborating with the military would have a bearing on the decisions of its leadership. “I have no reason to object to what the NLD is doing now.”
Khin Zaw Win, the director of Tampadipa Institute think-tank, said that Shwe Mann’s appeal as a potential minister in the next government was strengthened by his conduct in the last five years. He cited the examples of the speaker initiating impeachment proceedings against members of the Constitutional Tribunal who failed to demonstrate legal knowledge, as well as Shwe Mann’s support for constitutional reform.
“As a Speaker, U Shwe Mann has a good name among lawmakers. Plus, apart from his five-year experience in the parliament, he knows the military well, as he used to be a general. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi needs that kind of person beside her as an ally,” he said. “So, they will likely to offer him a position. He would be an asset for her.”
Burma expert Bertil Lintner is not so sure that Shwe Mann can serve as the NLD’s go-between with the military. He told The Irrawaddy that the military high command was more likely to see a possible ministerial appointment as an antagonistic gesture because of his fraught relationship with Thein Sein and his decision to align himself with the rival party.
“To them, Shwe Mann is a ‘traitor’ who’s been fraternizing with Aung San Suu Kyi and even began to promote constitutional changes,” he said.
Nonetheless, Lintner concedes Shwe Mann’s political abilities, particularly the adept manner in which he positioned himself as a kingmaker, which forced an end to delays around high level political discussions between Suu Kyi, Thein Sein and Burma Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.
“I believe it was a brilliant move,” he said. “Before the meeting with Than Shwe’s grandson, Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing had said that they were not going to talk to Suu Kyi before all complaints had been considered. And she did meet Than Shwe after those meetings—but the point was that Than Shwe, by sending his grandson to see her, gave an endorsement that Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing could not ignore.”
Should Shwe Mann keep his political instincts in fighting form, it appears unlikely that the end of his parliamentary term in January will be the end of his time in high office.