Shwe Mann—Junta General to Staunch Democrat?

By Charlie Campbell 16 May 2012

Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann visited Norway as part of a European fact-finding tour and emphasized that Burma requires both an economic and political transformation to achieve prosperity.

The 64-year-old told Kristoffer Rønneberg, a journalist for Norway’s largest newspaper Aftenposten, that democratization was not enough without a large-scale economic transformation.

The international community is in the process of re-engaging with military-dominated Burma, officially known as Myanmar, after a series of reforms including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi being elected to Parliament and the release of hundreds of political prisoners.

“We need to reform the political system as well as the economic system,” said Shwe Mann. “We have also learnt that the role of women in Norway has supported your development in many ways.

“We have come to learn that Norway is a developed country today because of its democratic system. We have also come to learn that in order to have development in our country, we also need to have a democratic system.”

The former general met with the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and president of the National Assembly while in Oslo and praised the Norwegian people for taking a keen interest in Burma. Burmese MPs also visited the European Parliament in Luxembourg last week as part of the same trip.

“If you look at the countries of the world that enjoy peace and stability, you see that those are the countries that have a democratic system,” he added.

Shwe Mann said did not think that the Burmese military would act to prevent any alteration to the widely condemned 2008 Constitution which guarantees 25 percent of legislative seats for armed forces personnel.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won 43 out of 45 parliamentary seats during the April 1 by-elections campaigning on a platform of amending undemocratic articles in the document, but hardliners within the government are understood to be vehemently opposed to any such change.

“As you are well aware of, the Constitution came into existence during our previous government,” said Shwe Mann. “That’s why it is not wrong to say that I am actively taking the necessary measures for this system [democracy] to flourish in our country. Here, if you look at the soldiers, they also prefer democracy.”

But the ambitious politician refused to be drawn on speculation that he would soon be replacing Vice-President Tin Aung Myint Oo who as apparently just resigned due to serious health problems.

“I don’t have any intentions with regard to this matter,” he said with a chuckle. “I have no plans. I enjoy my responsibilities at the Parliament. As you know, the Parliament plays an important role in our democratic system. Without Parliament there would be no democracy. Our Parliament welcomes Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as well as the NLD.”

Shwe Mann said that he did not see corruption in Burma as an insurmountable challenge and considers his role as a parliamentary speaker as instrumental in passing legislation that tackles graft effectively. The former junta number three has previously been critical of the slow pace of reform brought about by President Thein Sein’s administration.

“We must take necessary measures in order to eradicate corruption in our country,” he said. “Since we’re from the legislative body our intention is to make sure that legislation for fighting bribery should be enacted soon.”

And the Defense Services Academy Intake 11 graduate thinks that normalizing relations with Western nations is important, while playing down any brewing rift with China over Naypyidaw’s suspension of the controversial Myitsone hydropower dam project in northernmost Kachin State.

“I don’t think the Chinese will see us in a different way because of [international re-engagement],” he said. “We will also try to enhance our bilateral relations as well as trade relations with our neighbors. And now, we need to enhance our relations with Norway.”