The Lady, Surrounded by the Generals and Their Families

By Thuta 23 July 2016

It may seem to be venturing into the personal side of things, to talk about the families of the generals in Burma. But there’s no denying that in our country, the political is also personal. Our political destiny is surely partly about personalities.

Independence hero General Aung San is the personal hero of citizens from all walks of life. He left us a precious gift in the form of his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, who is overwhelmingly loved and trusted by the people.

This year’s Martyrs’ Day events assumed huge significance as the nation watched Daw Suu commemorate the 69th anniversary of the death of her father and eight fellow national heroes. People are hyperaware that this year’s commemoration events on July 19 came as Daw Suu, the State Counselor, tries hard to carry forward the mantle of her father’s unfinished mission around the Panglong Agreement into the 21st century.

National reconciliation is Daw Suu’s key policy priority. For this she has to build pragmatic, reconciliatory relations with former and current generals who once regarded her as their top enemy. There was plenty of symbolism around reconciliation in the air this year as, for the first time in decades, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces attended anniversary events.

At the same time, it felt strange on the day to see military cars and police escort vehicles lining up in front of 54 University Avenue, while an array of green and navy blue uniformed security personnel took up places on the roadside. In former years, youths of the National League for Democracy (NLD) wearing the party’s revolutionary pinny jackets and Kachin-style longyis filled the yard of the Lady’s home. This time, the Martyrs’ Day ceremony at 54 University Avenue had changed in both appearance and essence. Save for the presence of a very few senior leaders of the NLD, it seemed to have taken on the appearance of a special gathering of generals and their families. It may also have been the first time the army chief visited the home of Daw Suu.

In images that emerged from the day’s events, it appeared that former general and Union State Development Party (USDP) leader Shwe Mann had brought along not only his wife Daw Khin Lay Thet, but also more of his family members. In the image shown above, Daw Suu is in a sitting position and turning to talk to Daw Khin Lay Thet. Behind the former general’s wife sit the couple’s two daughters-in-law, Daw Zay Zin Latt, wife of Toe Naing Mann, and Daw Khin Hnin Thandar, wife of Aung Thet Mann.

It is not unusual for people to try to interpret the political climate of a country through images of its key political and military leaders. For certain, this photo will generate very different feelings, meanings and speculations within the camps of the NLD and the USDP.

The transition from the USDP-led government to the NLD-led administration has seemed smooth on the surface. But many people from the democratic forces have had to swallow bitterness connected to some aspects of the current reconciliation environment, which has not, for instance, included the establishment of a Truth Commission as happened in South Africa. People here do not want to retaliate, but many do feel they need for justice in relation to actions taken by generals in the past. It may now be very hard for them to see their beloved leader surrounded and praised by people who represent, for many, old abuses, brutalities and corrupt practices.

Of those from what may be termed the old guard, the one who seemed to first attract the attention of Daw Suu was Shwe Mann, who served as Speaker of the Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House) from February 2011 to January 2016.

The development of the relationship between Daw Suu and Shwe Mann has been carefully watched, and criticized, by both the democratic and military camps, because this relationship has had significant impact on the political climate of the country.

The relationship apparently began four years ago, with the landslide victory of the NLD in the by-election of 2012, and Daw Suu’s first entry into parliamentary politics. After that point, Shwe Mann used his status as parliament speaker to invest time and energy in the relationship with the Lady. He accorded her special treatment among parliamentary committee chairpersons and at public events, actions that helped engender major divisions within the USDP leadership.

On the democratic side, it is understandable that those who have been fighting against military repression hand-in-hand with Daw Suu over almost three decades find it very hard to believe in Shwe Mann or in any general. They have had great concern about the relationship with the man who used his power to build a family business empire and who, like many others, quickly became rich.

There is a widespread assumption that of the two parties in this alliance, it is Shwe Mann who has gained most, in terms of political and economic benefits. During the critical period around his ousting by the USDP, many people expected him to face the kind of misfortune that once fell on the heads of former prime minister Khin Nyunt and others. The business circle around the firms connected to Shwe Mann’s sons was greatly worried about possible fallout.

Luckily for Shwe Mann, there were no charges of corruption or abuse of power related to the family business interests. Some analysts believed that the alliance with Daw Suu not only protected his role in politics but also created a shield for the activities of his sons Aung Thet Mann and Toe Naing Mann, of the agro-business firm Ayar Shwe War and the internet broadband company Redlink, respectively.

On the other hand, the democrats who used to surround Daw Suu have felt abandoned in the name of national reconciliation. Or, at the least, the photos that emerged from 54 University Avenue on Martyrs’ Day this year sent a message that Mother Suu is now busy dealing with the generals and their families. This is just the beginning of the hard truths around national reconciliation.

Thuta is the pen name of an independent Burmese writer and observer of politics in the country.