Government office building No. 37 is located on a quiet corner of Yaza Thingaha Road near the Ministry of Livestock & Fisheries in Burma’s capital.
Though the compound appeared empty when The Irrawaddy recently visited, a few well-equipped police officers manned the main gate, eager to prevent attempts to photograph.
This is the office that a recent article in the local “Tomorrow News Journal” suggested was planned to be the headquarters of a proposed “Supreme Council,” to be headed by former dictator Gen Than Shwe and his deputy Maung Aye.
The plan, however, was reportedly aborted after Maung Aye refused to join.
On Google Maps, the location of the office appears to fall under the Ministry of Industry (1). When calling the office telephone number however, the receiver offered only vague responses.
A military source affirmed the theory that Office No. 37 was intended to house a council to be chaired by Than Shwe. The compound, which hosts a meeting room and a large car park, is now empty, the source said. Future plans for the building remain unknown.
When I mentioned the office to several current senior government ministers, they seemed to register the name. Yes, one minister said, there was a plan to form a supreme council, but it didn’t eventuate.
Perhaps in its place, since 2011, Burma’s top body has been the National Defense and Security Council—an 11-member council comprised of the president; the commander-in-chief and his deputy; the two parliamentary speakers and vice-presidents; and four ministers that has a lead role in a State of Emergency.
Adding to the intrigue, not far from Office 37 stands Than Shwe’s lavish residence, near Water Fountain Park. Sources said the office was supposed to be the administrative locale from which the ex-dictator would oversee the country’s political transition.
A former military officer serving in the bureaucracy told me recently there was nothing wrong with the idea of a patron guiding a country through a period of political change.
“Like in China or North Korea or Singapore, the country [Burma] needs guidance,” he told me through a sea of cigarette smoke.
His reference to North Korea was curious.
The Korean Workers’ Party maintains a secretive complex called Office 39 in Pyongyang that the US Treasury Department has described as “a secretive branch of the government of North Korea… engaging in illicit economic activities and managing slush funds and generating revenues for the leadership.”
Did Burma’s military leadership take inspiration from the North Korean regime, with whom it strengthened ties during the 1990s when both countries were internationally ostracized?
Senior government and military figures insist ex-junta leader Than Shwe no longer exercises influence. However, many leading officials still meet with him to pay their respects on various anniversaries or special occasions.
Regular visitors to Than Shwe’s residence include heavy-hitters President Thein Sein; army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing; parliamentary speakers Khin Aung Myint and Shwe Mann; and Htay Oo who is currently joint chairman of the ruling party after the ouster of Shwe Mann.
The late Aung Thaung, widely known as a political hardliner who was believed to be among the wealthiest men in the country before he died in July, was also a Than Shwe acolyte. Why? Aside from access to power, Than Shwe provided the political and financial stability that patrons such as Aung Thaung could count on.
Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing spoke of his respect for the former junta supremo during a recent interview with Radio Free Asia, emphasizing that he did not continue to wield any influence over the current government.
“He’s living peacefully by himself in retirement. I sometimes go to see him to pay my respects on religious occasions, but I do this because he’s the father of the Tatmadaw,” Min Aung Hlaing said.
“He gives advice on the betterment of the Tatmadaw, but he won’t say, ‘Do this’ or ‘do that.’ He often stresses the need for us to maintain unity and to work for the country. We don’t discuss the current political process.”
Debate over Than Shwe’s lingering influence resurfaced when Union Parliament speaker Shwe Mann was removed as head of the Union Solidarity and Development Party in a dramatic late night purge in August.
Other dictators such as Gen Ne Win continued to exercise influence following their ostensible departures from the political stage. Four years after Ne Win stood down amid the political turmoil of 1988, he still reportedly played a role in the dismissal of regime leader Gen. Saw Maung.
But Than Shwe wasn’t forced to step down. He carefully planned his retreat, even earning discreet praise from some Rangoon-based diplomats as a skilled political “chess player.”
‘Supreme’ Exit Strategy
So what happened to the idea of a “Supreme Council?”
After a 2010 election widely viewed as rigged, in March 2011, Than Shwe officially handed power to the new quasi-civilian regime, dissolving the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
Executive power was transferred to the loyal general Thein Sein who first served under Than Shwe as General Staff Officer in the War Office in the mid-1990s. Today, almost all of the country’s key political players are former military men.
According to his grand strategy, Than Shwe wanted to leave politics “alive”—avoiding a scenario that befell several former regime figures, from Gen Ne Win to former intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, who spent time in jail or under house arrest.
A senior member of the previous regime recalled that during a meeting Than Shwe once remarked that he worried for his children’s future after his tenure. He did not elaborate and those present were left to silently decode the comment.
But the dictator’s wish to create a council through which power could be exercised behind the scenes was reportedly met with firm resistance.
According to the “Tomorrow News Journal,” five senior members of the SPDC, including Than Shwe and Maung Aye, were to be on the council which was ultimately shot down by the latter regime second-in-command.
Maung Aye’s Low-Key Withdrawal
Interestingly, the article effectively portrays Maung Aye as a hero and a professional soldier. After the military reigns were officially handed to Min Aung Hlaing and deputy Soe Win, Maung Aye diligently packed his bags, the journal wrote.
A graduate from the first intake of the Defense Services Academy in 1959, the battle hardened general was known for his heavy drinking and, of course, a penchant for golf. But he was not seen as politically savvy, despite heading Burma’s Trade Policy Council, and was more attuned to matters of defense and security.
When a nationwide pro-democracy uprising was brutally crushed in 1988, Maung Aye was serving as Eastern Region regional commander, based in Shan State. In 1992, he was summoned to Rangoon to become army chief and the junta’s number two.
This was interpreted as a shrewd move to calm rising tension among field commanders at the prospect of ambitious intelligence chief Gen Khin Nyunt rising to the top post. It is safe to say Maung Aye’s appointment ushered in a temporary truce between competing top leaders.
Maung Aye saw himself as a soldier, not a politician. He was, thus, an unthreatening choice as Than Shwe’s deputy.
According to the journal, at his farewell gathering in Naypyidaw, Maung Aye told senior staff that he “wouldn’t make the same mistake” as others by clinging to power. This was interpreted as a parting shot at the proposed supreme council.
“We should all leave politics once and for all,” he was reported to have said to his staff officers.
The journal states that upon learning of Maung Aye’s opposition, Than Shwe aborted plans for the council as he didn’t want to be seen as a typically “power hungry general.”
After leaving the capital, Maung Aye traveled to his native Kantbalu in Sagaing Division, where he ordained as a monk.
He spent several weeks in the monkhood before holidaying in some of his favorite places such as Putao in Kachin State and Pyin Oo Lwin in Mandalay Division.
Maung Aye didn’t return to Naypyidaw where a plush residence was built for his family next to Than Shwe’s own compound. In July 2012, he suffered a serious stoke and flew to Singapore for medical treatment. He has been in a wheelchair since.
A ‘Pleasant’ Retirement
In contrast to Maung Aye, Than Shwe seems to enjoy the leafy surrounds of his residence in Naypyidaw.
The ex-general and his family reportedly often visit Mt. Pleasant Hotel on the outskirts of Naypyidaw where he can take in the hilltop view of the capital he ordered built from scratch over a decade ago.
Several armed guards are known to accompany him and his family on this regular sojourn and when the ex-general is in the hotel’s observation tower, no one is allowed to enter the building.
From this vantage point, which has also been visited by foreign dignitaries and ministers in the past, Than Shwe likes to take his lunch. Hotel staff and several officers said he can often be seen using a pair of heavy duty binoculars to look out over the country’s administrative center.
With possible plans for a more hands-on role as political overseer behind him, the former regime leader is perhaps reconciled to a retirement spent simply watching on.