Myanmar Ex-General's Presidential Dreams

By Htet Naing Zaw 12 August 2019

NAYPYITAW—In Myanmar’s modern political history, only one ex-general has made public his ambition to become the country’s president.

He is U Shwe Mann, also known as Thura U Shwe Mann—the ‘Thura’ title earned for his military service.

He says the sole reason behind his dream of becoming president is to serve the interests of the country and the people.

Given his wealth and status, he could lead a life of luxury and comfort, but the 72-year-old is obsessed with his presidential dream.

“I once asked if there is any position that can serve the interests of the country and citizens better than the presidency. If there is such a position, I want to get that position,” he told members of media at his posh residence in Naypyitaw on Aug. 4 while explaining the objectives of his Union Betterment Party (UBP).

With widespread speculation since the 2015 general elections that U Shwe Mann would establish his own political party, no one was surprised when he registered the UBP with the Union Election Commission (UEC) this past February.

The commission granted its approval in April and—in four months—he has established branches in around 200 townships.

Though this usually requires large sums of money, U Shwe Mann’s close aides said the branch offices were opened on the property of party members, thereby limiting costs.

The ex-general has a strong pool of talent and experience at his disposal, with legal experts, ex-government officials, ex-military officers and businessmen working for him.

U Shwe Mann’s deputy is U Phone Swe, who served as the deputy home affairs minister and as central executive committee member of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

According to a U Shwe Mann aide, the former police captain U Moe Yan Naing has become a supporter of U Shwe Mann’s party since his release from prison.

U Moe Yan Naing was dismissed from the police force and sentenced to one year in prison in 2018 after he testified in court that two Reuters reporters, Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, were framed by police in a high-profile case that attracted international attention.

U Moe Yan Naing had reportedly paid a call to U Shwe Mann seeking legal advice in the case.

He has since gone back to his native Khin-U Township, in Sagaing Region, to mobilize support for the UBP.

Though U Shwe Mann’s supporters describe him as a hard-working reformist who believes in democracy and has close ties with popular leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, his opponents label him a turncoat and criticize his lucrative family business.

As a military officer, U Shwe Mann had over 40,000 acres of farmland reclaimed from virgin land in Irrawaddy Region. Local farmers were at first happy to be granted permission to work on those farms but later found themselves having to buy fertilizer produced and distributed by Ayer Shwe Wah Co—owned by U Shwe Mann’s son.

Because the government provides agricultural loans to farmers, U Shwe Mann—as commander of the military regime’s Southwest Command at the time, in Irrawaddy Region—had the price of fertilizer deducted from local farmers’ agricultural loans.

Today, his sons are wealthier than the families of his military contemporaries, according to inside sources. His family is one of the richest in Myanmar, engaging in sectors as varied as agriculture, telecommunications and construction.

The ex-general said he does not believe a single party will win a landslide in the 2020 general elections.

“It is quite unlikely that a single party will win the 2020 election and form the government. Similarly, ethnic parties will not be able to form the government themselves,” he said.

Political analysts have suggested that U Shwe Mann’s party may win with those frustrated with the current National League for Democracy (NLD) government and those who loathe the USDP. If his party focuses on Bamar-majority areas under such circumstances and receives a certain amount votes, he may be able to retake the parliamentary speaker position against the backdrop of a coalition government, they say.

“So far, the only strength I’ve seen in his party is its financial power. I haven’t seen his power to mobilize public support. He has only relied on his past influence and those who are attached to him,” said Yangon-based journalist U Thiha Thway. “To me, it seems like he will share the political support the USDP has gained. His party will only split the vote for USDP, and will not take NLD votes.”

His chance of becoming parliamentary speaker again depends on how deep an alliance he can forge with the NLD, U Thiha Thway said.

According to sources, some ex-generals in the USDP believe their party will fail in 2020 due to the widespread perception that the party is a military proxy and that most of its members are corrupt.

People will wait and see if U Shwe Mann can convince those ex-generals to join his party. U Shwe Mann said that, according to his party’s policy, he would not invite them to join his party but will accept if they join of their own volition.

The Haven of Generals 

U Shwe Mann lives in an affluent neighborhood of Naypyitaw’s Pobbathiri Township dubbed the “row of six,” where six ex-generals live.

He acquired such facilities because he was a member of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and his neighbors are comprised of the ex-SPDC ruling elite—SPDC Chairman Senior General Than Shwe, Vice Senior General Maung Aye, former President General Thein Sein, Lieutenant-General Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo and Lt-Gen Tin Aye, who served as the Union Election Commission chairman in the 2015 general elections.

U Shwe Mann has made his mansion, on plot A.3, the party’s headquarters. Of the “row of six” mansions, military dictator U Than Shwe’s is on plot A.1—the most spacious, covering 16 acres. The home of his deputy, U Maung Aye, is on plot A.2, which covers 15 acres. U Shwe Mann’s plot covers 13 acres, and U Thein Sein’s plot covers 11 acres. U Tin Aye’s plot covers around 10 acres.

The neighborhood was created by former Colonel Thein Nyunt, then chairman of the Naypyitaw Council, who also arranged 200-square-foot plots for ministers and 150-square-foot plots for deputy ministers of the regime, selling them for as low as a few million kyats. He also arranged 100-square-foot plots for directors-general and managing-directors.

While the regime arranged land plots, private companies had to construct residences for them, and six of the biggest cronies of the time were asked to construct the “row of six.”

The regime issued 20 car import permits worth 200 million kyats to each crony, according to sources.

After power was transferred to U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government following the 2010 general elections, the SPDC ruling elite, who previously lived in the staff quarters of the Defence Ministry, moved to their mansions, in March 2011.

The quasi-civilian government then ordered the provision of security and other amenities for them, in addition to the millions of kyats worth of political “gratitude” paid to them. They still enjoy pensions today, and security is still provided for them.

Lessons of the Past 

U Shwe Mann’s political career has been full of twists and turns. At one time considered the third most powerful man in the military regime, people thought he would become President after Senior General Than Shwe and Vice Senior General Maung Aye retired from politics, but U Thein Sein was handpicked by U Than Shwe to take the country’s top job.

He ran in the 2010 elections as a USDP member and was elected Lower House speaker but was purged from the USDP’s top position in August 2015, in a power struggle with former president U Thein Sein. He contested the 2015 general election as a USDP member but lost to an NLD candidate.

When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party won the 2012 by-election and entered Parliament, he offered assistance to the party, arranging capacity building training for NLD lawmakers.

His move to ally with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi earned him the title of a turncoat among USDP supporters. In 2016 Daw Aung San Suu Kyi appointed him head of Parliament’s Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission, so his status as Union-level official remained unchanged.

In state-run newspaper reports about government-organized events he attended, U Shwe Mann took precedence over Union ministers in protocol, and his commission was on a par with the Union Attorney-General’s Office in terms of providing legal reasoning.

Sources say U Shwe Mann has close ties to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and that the two met two or three times a week between 2016 and early 2019. They are viewed as strong political allies.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has also appointed U Shwe Mann’s aides to her cabinet, including Union Religious Affairs and Culture Minister Thura U Aung Ko, Lower House Speaker U T Khun Myat, deputy minister of the State Counselor’s Office U Khin Maung Tin and author-turned-UEC member Maung Sarga.

U Shwe Mann was caught off-guard at his commission’s office when an NLD-dominated vote rejected a proposal to extend the term of his commission for another year this February, after he had registered his party with the UEC.

Brigadier-General Maung Maung, who leads the military lawmakers that have annually raised objection to the extension of U Shwe Mann’s commission since 2017, said the NLD had done so because it no longer needed U Shwe Mann.

On the day his commission was abolished, he told the media that he still has a lot to do for the interests of the country and the people, reaffirming that he would not leave politics.

He said he was satisfied with what he had done as the commission chairman and that people tend to make two errors in life—doing things that they should not do, and not doing things that they should do.

It is unclear what he meant by that.

U Shwe Mann graduated from the Defense Services Academy in 1965 then rose through the ranks to become a general in 2010, which affirmed his position as the third-highest-ranking top brass in the military.

When the Parliament celebrated International Day of Democracy for the first time on September 15, 2011, U Shwe Mann began using the “I’m pro-democracy” rhetoric.

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