Naypyidaw’s key peace negotiator Aung Min rounded off his whirlwind trip to the Thai-Burmese border by offering a donation of 150,000 baht (US $5,000) to Dr. Cynthia Maung’s Mae Tao Clinic on Wednesday.
It was a casual act of generosity which may be seen as a public relations ploy by a man who seems to glide effortlessly between the negotiating tables of rebel armies and exiled Burmese groups.
Aung Min and his entourage—which includes a number of representatives from Dawei Princess, Ital-Thai’s Burmese partner on the Dawei deep-sea port project—visited Mae Tao Clinic before returning to Bangkok to meet yet more exile groups.
A day earlier, the delegation had met with Cynthia Maung for talks following meetings with the Karen National Union, represented by General-Secretary Zipporah Sein, the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, and the Forum for Democracy in Burma.
Although Aung Min’s official position is Minister of Railways, he is clearly President Thein Sein’s most trusted negotiator. Jovial, friendly, outgoing and affable, Aung Min appears at ease pressing the flesh at every step on his mission to the Thai-Burmese border.
He has also been the key government negotiator in talks with ethnic rebel groups, including an ongoing round of talks with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
Aung Min is accompanied on his Thai tour by Minister of Immigration Khin Yi, as well as Ko Ko Maung, the managing director of Dawei Princess, alongside two other company directors, Ngwe Soe and one other unnamed colleague. Two representatives from Myanmar Egress, Tin Maung Than and Hla Maung Shwe, make up the team, which reportedly scheduled no less than 14 meetings with exile groups while in Thailand.
Addressing reporters on Wednesday, Aung Min said, “I came here according to the president’s instructions—to bring the exiles back home.
His words echoed comments he made the day before: “Now times are changing in Burma, and the system is changing too. Why are they [exiled Burmese] suffering in exile? That’s why I came here—to bring them back home,” he said.
Aung Min, who heads the Burmese government’s so-called Union Peace-Making Working Committee, is widely credited with successfully confirming peace agreements with several major ethnic groups, including the Karen National Union (KNU), the Shan State Army-South and the Karenni National Progressive Party.
“I came with U Aung Min to assist him in his meetings with the KNU,” said Dawei Princess Director Ko Ko Maung. “Since our company has been doing business in KNU territory, we are quite familiar with the KNU leadership.”
Following his perceived successes at the negotiating table, speculation is rife that Aung Min will be promoted in the next Cabinet reshuffle.
An officer in Burma’s Military Intelligence in the 1980s under former spy chief late Brig-Gen Tin Oo, Aung Min rose through the ranks alongside Tin Naing Thein, the current Minister of National Planning and Economic Development, as well as of Livestock and Fisheries, and Thein Swe, the former Minister of Transportation.
All three junior officers survived the purge when their boss, Tin Oo, was ousted by late dictator Ne Win in 1983. They then transferred to the infantry.
Aung Min was general staff officer grade-1 at the Light Infantry Division 44 in Thaton in 1992-3, and became the commander of the Light Infantry Division 66 in Prome in 2001. A year later, he was promoted to commander of Southern Regional Military Command in Taungoo. In 2003, he took up his post as Railways Minister.
Representing the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), he won the parliamentary seat for Taungoo in the 2010 elections.
His wife, Wai Wai Tha, is a doctor and the sister of former Minister of National Planning and Economic Development Soe Tha. She too contested a seat for the USDP in Taungoo, for the April 1 by-election, but the opposition National League for Democracy won.
Describing himself as “reformer,” Aung Min constantly irks hardliners within the government, most notably Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo who has reportedly resigned.
Despite the goodwill and praise heaped on him as a negotiator, though, some ethnic officials who met him in recent months said they are skeptical. One described him as “over confident” and “given to making promises easily.”
Commenting on his seven-month involvement in the negotiation process, Aung Min told The Irrawaddy that he thinks all talks so far have been productive.
“The peace process cannot move forward without both sides’ support,” he said. “I work on behalf of the president, while on the other side are the ethnic leaders. Without their cooperation, the process could not be successful. Now even the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization] are cooperating with us.”
Within the next two months, Aung Min and his negotiation team will meet again with the government’s two greatest adversaries, the KNU and the KIO. Many members of the 14 groups he met in Thailand will be watching closely to see if he delivers on his promises to reposition government troops in eastern Burma.