Burma’s Ex-Dictator and His Invisible Line

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 22 May 2013

Anyone who wants to credit Burma’s President Thein Sein for the country’s political and economic reforms must first thank former dictator Sr-Gen Than Shwe.

US President Barack Obama was the most recent figure to praise Thein Sein, who visited the White House on Monday. “We very much appreciate your efforts in leadership in leading Myanmar in a new direction,” Obama said.

During the past two years, it seems all the credit has gone to Thein Sein. But although the president may have initiated Burma’s political and economic opening after taking office in March 2011, the reigns of reform haven’t always been in his hands.

Without the plans of retired general Than Shwe, Burma’s internationally popular president—a former general himself—would have never even considered straying from the path of military rule. That’s what most government and ex-military officials in Naypyidaw believe.

“You have to thank Sr-Gen Than Shwe,” said Ye Htut, the president’s spokesman and deputy minister of information.

The former supremo Than Shwe, who was dubbed a “dictator,” “psychopath” and “monk killer” for his oppressive 19-year rule from 1992 to 2011, remains a paramount leader today for many high-ranking government officials and ex-military leaders in Parliament.

“He [Than Shwe] knew when he had to leave power. And he also knew who he had to pick up as his key successors for the government, the parliament and the military,” the president’s spokesman voluntarily told me.

His statement got me thinking. Why did Than Shwe pick Thein Sein to be president? Why did he choose former generals Shwe Mann and Khin Aung Myint as speakers of the lower and upper houses in Parliament? So far, they all seem “softer” than the hardliners who otherwise fill Burma’s nominally civilian government and Parliament, which is still dominated by ex-military officials.

To lead the powerful military, known as the Tatmadaw, Than Shwe also selected Gen Min Aung Hlaing, a commander-in-chief who seems less hawkish than some of his contemporary military officials. And although the former dictator appointed a hardliner to the vice presidency, Tin Aung Myint Oo was later booted from his position after reportedly resisting the reform process.

Analysts believe the Burmese people suffered harsher oppression under Than Shwe than they did with the late dictator Ne Win. “Than Shwe and his regime show no sign of relenting… There is no room for compromise in Than Shwe’s kingdom,” Bertil Lintner, the author of several books on Burma, wrote in his latest book, “Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy” in 2011.

Now, however, Than Shwe’s hand-picked officials seem to be compromising with opposition leaders, especially Suu Kyi, who leads the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy. Since winning a seat in parliamentary by-elections last year, Suu Kyi has established a positive working relationship with the president, the house speakers and even some high-ranking military officials.

In selecting the country’s current leaders, did Than Shwe believe that relatively softer personalities—at least compared to other hardliners—would ensure a successful execution of his political plans? Few can read his real intentions, but Ye Htut and other ex-military officials believe so.

“He [Than Shwe] systematically managed the country and handed it over to those who could carry on and lead it forward,” Htay Oo, deputy chairman of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) once told The Irrawaddy, adding that the ex-junta leader personally planned the roadmap from military rule to a nominally civilian government.

Ye Htut said he believed Than Shwe intentionally designed the political structure to balance power among the government, Parliament and the military. “The president has no veto power, unlike [presidents in] other countries,” the presidential spokesman said.

“Of course, the military is still powerful,” he added. “But it is less powerful than before.”

Thein Sein seems to be doing his best to turn his predecessor’s envisioned political system into a success story. And as long as he continues, the former dictator seems flexible. A ministry director recently told me that Than Shwe did not set any specific guidelines or instructions for Thein Sein’s government, and many ex-military officials deny that he is pulling any strings.

But the ministry director, who asked to remain anonymous, said he believed Than Shwe had established an invisible line that nobody, including Thein Sein, can cross. Few know exactly where that line exists, but leaders of the government, the military and the ruling USDP can sense its presence, and with it, the wishes of their former boss.

Recently, USDP leaders including the powerful house speaker Shwe Mann pledged to collaborate with Suu Kyi to amend the Constitution. Do they risk crossing the invisible line?

No. Despite promised amendments, the military’s dominance in Burmese politics will not be washed away—it is part of the invisible line. Lawmakers will make some changes to the much criticized Constitution, and Thein Sein will continue taking liberties in navigating the reform process, but the important constitutional article that allows the military to appoint 25 percent of lawmakers in Parliament will not be amended. Thein Sein has already made that clear, recently telling the Washington Post that Burma’s military “will always have a special place” in government.

Politically, the line in Burma’s reform process will defend Than Shwe’s legacy. Personally, it will guarantee safety for him and his family. And as long as the president and his reform process don’t cross it, the former supremo can rest assured that everything will be fine.