Myanmar Junta Chief Met Ex-President and Former Dictator: What Did They Discuss?

By The Irrawaddy 1 September 2022

Junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing met former dictator Senior General Than Shwe more than once before extending military rule on August 1.

Former general and president U Thein Sein was reportedly also present at those meetings. U Thein Sein was handpicked by Than Shwe to serve as Myanmar’s president from 2010-2015, as the country underwent the transition from military rule to democracy under the army-drafted 2008 Constitution. Min Aung Hlaing was handpicked by Than Shwe to succeed him as the commander-in-chief of the military.

Than Shwe oversaw the previous military regime’s policies on how to respond to international pressure and sanctions, how to handle Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and how to legitimize the role of the Myanmar military via its proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to ensure the military’s continued role in politics.

What the junta chief and his mentor discussed at their meetings remains unclear, but it seems certain that Min Aung Hlaing was picking Than Shwe’s brain for advice.

Disdain for the United Nations  

Eager for legitimacy, Min Aung Hlaing has been only too happy to receive international dignitaries, welcoming them at the Presidential Residence in the capital Naypyitaw, which has been used by successive Myanmar presidents to greet international diplomats since 2011. Even ex-diplomat Bill Richardson, who now holds no official position in the United States government, was received there last November.

But things were different when United Nations (UN) Special Envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer visited Naypyitaw in August for the first time since her appointment last year. She received a low-grade reception from Min Aung Hlaing, who apparently took his cue from his predecessor Than Shwe in demonstrating his complete disdain for the UN’s efforts on Myanmar.

At the same time, Min Aung Hlaing’s regime has needled the West by cementing ties with Russia, which holds a veto on the UN Security Council.

After Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov visited Naypyitaw in early August, deputy military chief Vice-Senior General Soe Win and Chief of the General Staff (Army, Navy and Air) General Maung Maung Aye flew to Moscow. Min Aung Hlaing is soon expected to make his third visit to Russia since last year’s coup.

In another slap in the UN’s face, the military regime sentenced ousted civilian leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to six more years in jail in August, despite the UN’s repeated calls to meet with her.

Using Suu Kyi to ease international pressure on the regime

No foreign diplomat has been allowed to meet Suu Kyi since the military takeover. However, junta spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun said in July “that nothing is impossible in politics”, when asked about the possibility of dialogue between the regime and Suu Kyi.

Considering Min Aung Hlaing’s loathing for the ousted State Counselor and his lack of political vision, it is difficult to believe that the junta boss will hold talks with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

But he may well take inspiration from his mentor Than Shwe’s playbook and allow her to meet international envoys in an attempt to ease international pressure on his regime. When Than Shwe led the previous junta, he allowed some international envoys to meet Suu Kyi, but those meetings never resulted in any action or breakthroughs.

Allowing Suu Kyi to meet international envoys in the current circumstances is also highly unlikely to result in any progress, but it will make headlines in the international press and give the impression that the junta is open to negotiations.

A new USDP chief?

U Khin Yi was recently removed as the junta’s Ministry of Immigration and Population, a position crucial for preparing voter lists for the election the regime wants to hold next year and for planning the next national census in 2024.

Former police chief U Khin Yi also headed the immigration ministry under U Thein Sein and oversaw the 2014 census. Many believe his demotion from the position last month is to allow him to focus on his duties as a vice-chair of the USDP.

Min Aung Hlaing is believed to be concerned that factionalism in the USDP may prevent it from performing well in the proposed 2023 election. U Khin Yi is thought to have been tasked with unifying the party ahead of the poll, which will be crucial for the regime’s efforts to maintain its grip on power.

Many observers believe that this idea does not come from the dumb head of Min Aung Hlaing, but from Than Shwe.

One general who served under Than Shwe said that the former dictator still has a strong attachment to the USDP, which he founded. Than Shwe’s followers from the USDP are more frequent visitors to his villa in Naypyitaw than current members of the military.

“U Thein Sein was also invited to the meetings with Min Aung Hlaing, perhaps because [Than Shwe] wants to give him a role in reviving the party,” said the general.

Coup leader following Than Shwe’s playbook

It is fair to say that Than Shwe did his best to make people forget his sins by using the 2008 Constitution and 2010 general election as his exit strategy.

Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing may follow his predecessor’s example and try and use the 2008 constitution and next year’s election to free himself from the ongoing political turmoil. He has been chasing the dream of becoming president, and many believe that he wants to use the 2023 election to achieve his dream. During his meeting in August with UN envoy Noeleen Heyzer, Min Aung Hlaing told her that whoever becomes president after the 2023 poll will rule Myanmar for the next ten years.

However, it will not be as easy for Min Aung Hlaing to evade prosecution as it was for Than Shwe. The junta chief is hated nationwide and also faces the International Court of Justice’s genocide trial for overseeing the military’s clearance operations against the Rohingya in 2017.

Min Aung Hlaing may already be worried about the possible punishment he might have to face once he has to let go his grip on power, said a political observer.

“Although both Than Shwe and Min Aung Hlaing are military dictators, Min Aung Hlaing might not be able to escape with impunity like Than Shwe did,” he added.