Could Military VP Pick Sully New Govt Before It Takes Power?

By The Irrawaddy 9 March 2016

RANGOON — In this confusing time of democratic transition and shifting political alliances, it is perhaps no surprise that a military general with a checkered past has surfaced as leading contender for a vice presidential slot due to be chosen this week.

An unsettling rumor swirling among politicians, top Burma Army sources and businessmen in Rangoon puts Lt-Gen Myint Swe, the current chief minister of Rangoon Division, in pole position for the vice presidential post that military lawmakers are constitutionally empowered to determine on Thursday.

Hardly the cleanest résumé among a slate of retired or serving generals who have been tipped as possible picks, Myint Swe’s baggage includes corruption ties and links to a violent 2007 crackdown in the commercial capital on peaceful protestors led by Buddhist monks.

If true, some political observers predict the pick could lead to cracks and deep resentment within the military establishment itself, a faction of which is earnest in its desire to improve the powerful institution’s image both at home and abroad.

It would also prove a headache for an incoming administration that has made “clean government” a hallmark pledge, including a zero-tolerance approach to graft and nepotism. Myint Swe’s unusual wealth, allegedly corrupt tendencies and affiliation with the 2007 crackdown on street protests in Rangoon would no doubt be difficult for the National League for Democracy (NLD) government to defend. Though the party has no say in the military-selected VP slot, whoever is chosen will be a bona fide member of its cabinet.

His inclusion on the US Treasury Department’s list of “specially designated nationals” means that, at least for now, a prospective Vice President Myint Swe would be barred from travel to the United States, a strong backer of NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi and democratic reforms of recent years.

Myint Swe is known for his nepotistic inclinations when granting business concessions. The best known example is the Rangoon City Expansion project, which came in for scrutiny in 2014 after the US$8 billion tender was granted in secrecy to a company run by two low-profile Chinese businessmen, Xiao Feng and Xiao Sen, who are close to Myint Swe.

After a public outcry, the Rangoon chief minister suspended the project and later reopened a tender that was awarded this year to three local companies. One of them, Yangon South West Development Public Company, is run by the same Chinese businessmen.

The expansion project itself is in part a response to Rangoon’s rapid—and critics argue, unruly—development in recent years. Myint Swe is viewed by some as chiefly responsible for the city’s disorderly transformation.

Every development project in Burma’s biggest city technically requires approval from the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). But as high-rises have proliferated amid an influx of foreign investment, controversy has courted some developments that opponents have decried as ill-planned or otherwise threatening the city’s unique character. In multiple examples of this, permission for proposed towers has been described as “coming from upstairs,” meaning likely from senior government leaders at the divisional or Union level rather than following official channels for approval.

Myint Swe also recently took heat for giving his apparent imprimatur to a US$70 million international hospital project being built on land owned by the Ministry of Health near Rangoon General Hospital. He attended the groundbreaking ceremony in January.

The 65-year-old graduated from the 15th intake of the Defense Services Academy (DSA) in 1971 and rose steadily through the ranks to become the commanding officer of Light Infantry Division No. 11, overseeing security in the former capital. The ethnic Mon was brought to the War Office where he worked directly under Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his deputy Gen. Maung Aye. His relations with the former dictator Than Shwe’s family are said to be close to this day.

Known to be a loyal and hardline soldier, Myint Swe was responsible for the careful execution of two high-profile operations in Burma’s largest city: the arrest of Gen. Ne Win’s family members in 2002 after an alleged coup conspiracy was uncovered, and the arrest of then-intelligence chief and Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in 2004. He then became head of the newly formed Military Affairs Security department after the armed forces hierarchy dismantled the powerful intelligence units.

During the Buddhist monk-led “Saffron Uprising” in 2007, Myint Swe was in charge of security affairs in Rangoon. He is believed to have been responsible for several raids on monasteries during this time, despite—or perhaps because of—his ultimately unsuccessful campaign to pacify the Buddhist clergy with donations of cash, rice, cooking oil and medicine.

In September 2013, he denied responsibility for the violent crackdown and said he was willing to be investigated and would even submit to the death penalty if found guilty of involvement.

“If you think I’m responsible, I am ready [to face justice],” Myint Swe told businesspeople people at a meeting in Rangoon, a local journal reported. “To be frank, I am ready to be hanged [if there is a guilty verdict].”

In 2015, he was one of the key persons involved in state-sponsored vigilantes’ crackdown on supporters of students protesting for education reform. Myint Swe came out in defense of the methods used, saying the demonstrators were handled and detained according to existing laws, rubbing salt in the wound for a public that was outraged by the heavy-handed and thuggish tactics.

A former lieutenant-general who was tipped to be selected vice president in 2012, Myint Swe was passed over to fill that unexpected vacancy, as one of his sons was an Australian national. His son, it would appear, has since been reinstated as a Burmese citizen, removing that obstacle to his father’s nomination.

As militarily appointed lawmakers continue to adjust to their role in Parliament as opposition to the NLD-dominated legislature, it’s the Burma Army’s choice for vice president that could shake up its relations with the now ruling party, and perhaps even within the uniformed ranks.