From the Archive: Than Shwe-Suu Kyi Meet Intensifies Intrigue During Testing Transition

By Aung Zaw 29 January 2016

Burma’s outgoing Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann told the media on Friday that he arranged the post-election meeting between ex-dictator Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi in December. “Although he is no longer in power, U Than Shwe is still influential to some extent. So I arranged a meeting for them for the good of the country and the people,” Shwe Mann told reporters in Naypyidaw. Here, The Irrawaddy revisits a commentary on the meeting, first published the following morning, Dec. 5.  

RANGOON — Rumors swirled in Burma’s capital late on Friday after reports of a meeting between ex-junta head Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi.

The pair met at the military’s headquarters in Naypyidaw on Friday afternoon, according to a report carried by the BBC’s Burmese service and other sources close to the matter. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has not confirmed or denied the dialogue.

The meeting would seem to indicate that the former strongman still wields some influence as political elites navigate a testing transition period.

Suu Kyi met Than Shwe as early as 1994 when the latter was then chairman of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Subsequent meetings took place on at least two more occasions, in 2000 and 2002, the details of which have remained ambiguous.

Last month, in the wake of the NLD’s emphatic victory at the polls on Nov. 8, Suu Kyi met with Than Shwe’s grandson Nay Shwe Thway Aung in the capital—news that the NLD chairwoman confirmed last week, without elaborating.

This dialogue was interesting for the fact that Than Shwe had apparently sent his beloved grandson as an envoy of sorts, to congratulate Suu Kyi on her party’s success, rather than any figure from the military or ruling party.

The meeting went well and Suu Kyi reportedly conveyed her regards to the ex-dictator, who lives in a lavish residence near Water Fountain Park in Burma’s custom built capital.

Shwe Mann is said to have played a key role in brokering the dialogue. After last month’s election, the Union Parliament Speaker met with Than Shwe, who was rumored to have had some involvement in Shwe Mann’s sudden ouster as ruling party chairman in August.

Aside from the parliamentary speaker, other influential business tycoons who have strong ties with the former regime also played a role behind the scenes.

Than Shwe is mentally fit, informed sources say, and followed the election closely, which saw the military-backed party he helped form suffer a major defeat. After the result, sources said the ex-dictator and architect of Burma’s “roadmap to disciplined democracy,” played a role in directing the incumbent president and army chief to meet with Suu Kyi and ensure an ordered transition.

Some speculated that the NLD chairwoman’s confab with Nay Shwe Thway Aung may have prompted President Thein Sein and Army Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to meet The Lady sooner than expected. The latter pair had been accused in some quarters of unnecessarily stalling.

It is true that Suu Kyi’s twin meetings with the country’s two most influential figures on Wednesday was a hopeful sign in a political transition that has many observers on edge. All parties pledged to collaborate toward ensuring a smooth transfer of power.

Interestingly, the army chief warmly welcomed Suu Kyi at the reception hall to the Armed Forces’ headquarters in Naypyidaw, posing for smiles and handshakes for the cameras before leading the opposition leader inside. This gesture alone was important, many said.

Unsurprisingly, Friday’s dialogue raises more questions than answers.

Than Shwe is known to be constantly worried about his family’s future. He led a ruthless and corrupt regime that garnered worldwide condemnation for its human rights violations, political repression and plundering of the nation’s resources. Many infamous former generals and politicians were voted out in the recent election.

With the NLD claiming a decisive victory at the polls and an unequivocal mandate, Than Shwe may feel it is time to ensure his exit strategy goes according to plan. Some suspect the ex-dictator may have sought assurances from Suu Kyi that the party would uphold its vow not to seek retribution.

Whether he foresaw the extent of the NLD’s election success is unclear.

Than Shwe lost two of his trusted lieutenants in recent times. Former vice president and Than Shwe confidante Tin Aung Myint Oo abruptly stood down in 2012 after reports of personal conflict. Another acolyte, ruling party member Aung Thaung, widely perceived as a political hardliner who was involved in the Depayin massacre in 2003, passed away earlier this year.

Sources close to the high-ranking former generals suggest Shwe Mann has stepped in to ask Than Shwe to lend his influence toward ensuring a smooth handover of power. Interestingly, before meeting Than Shwe, the speaker first met Defense Minister Gen Sein Win who is close to the Than Shwe family. Well-informed sources said that Shwe Mann relayed his respects and offered a reconciliatory message.

The former dictator was ready to play a role, sources said, but some warned that any meeting with Suu Kyi should not be seen as direct intervention in the country’s political affairs.

Friday’s meeting may indicate army top brass are still listening to Than Shwe. Until recently, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing was seen as close to President Thein Sein. But that relationship may be tested now an NLD-led government will take the reins and Thein Sein heads for the exit.

It is too early to definitively predict how the political transition will unfold. One hopes Than Shwe’s meeting with Suu Kyi is a sign the old guard is ready to cooperate.

With alliances likely to shift under a new government next year, more than a few ruling party figures will be pondering their next move.