The State Counselor Keeps Her Former Enemies Close

By Aung Zaw 17 June 2019

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s condolence letter to former dictator Senior General Than Shwe’s family has caused a stir among sections of the public. One could be forgiven for thinking it was U Than Shwe himself who had passed away, but in fact it was his son-in-law, Brigadier General Thein Naing.

In pictures taken at the funeral, which was attended by many top brass clad in civilian clothes, U Than Shwe and his wife Daw Kyaing Kyaing can be seen with various relatives, including the former junta chief’s favorite grandson, Nay Shwe Thway Aung.

The handwritten letter signed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi quickly went viral on social media. One commenter wrote, “Thank you Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for your forgiveness and opened mind, an example for each of us… Forgiveness, kindness and politeness show the strength of our hero.” Unsurprisingly, her supporters have voiced their strong approval of the letter.

Nay Shwe Thway Aung posted a photograph of the letter on his Facebook page with the comment, “Thank You So Much.”

But the letter has been greeted with widespread jeers and mockery from some. Indeed, the letter is a pathetic gesture.

One commenter dismissed the condolence letter as “Only a political hypocritical reaction which shows how tied she is to the army’s human rights abusers. She didn’t [act] so well regarding U Ko Ni’s murder although he had worked for her.” National League for Democracy (NLD) adviser and lawyer U Ko Ni was gunned down outside Yangon International Airport in early 2017.

Indeed, there are many ironies in this episode; the democratic opposition, former political prisoners and the many unknown heroes who have sacrificed so much of their lives for the movement over the past three decades (a large number of whom have passed away unrecognized) feel bitter about the NLD and its leaders’ lack of acknowledgement or appreciation, and what they see as arrogance toward the movement both inside and outside of Myanmar.

The controversy demonstrates just how fragile Myanmar’s political transition remains, and how far apart the two sides are.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s condolence letter to U Than Shwe’s family shows that the personal and political connections between the two remain intact, despite the bitter political confrontations and endless condemnations between the two over the past few decades. But the precise nature of that connection, and the depth of the relationship, remains an open question.

It is not known how many times Daw Aung San Suu Kyi contacted the late dictator General Ne Win when he was alive, but during the 1988 uprising she wrote to him saying she wanted to act as a coordinator between the protesting students and his socialist regime. It was not an isolated case; she has reached out to national leaders on several occasions to defuse tensions during times of political turmoil.

Another irony is that while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s late father General Aung San was the founding father of Myanmar’s armed forces, she hasn’t been able to win much support from the army’s present leadership.

Rare meeting

But she has always been ready to reach out to her former captors and the other generals. After her party won a landslide election in late 2015 there was a rare meeting between U Than Shwe and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

On Dec. 5, 2015, a month after the general election, the duo met at the Naypyitaw residence of the former dictator. The meeting was not publicized in advance.

During the two-hour long meeting, the 84-year-old host called his guest “the future leader of Myanmar” and pledged to “support her”. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said she held no grudge against him. The meeting was apparently attended by former senior leaders of the military regime including Thura U Shwe Mann.

A few weeks later, U Shwe Mann, then the Union Parliament Speaker, told the media that he had arranged the meeting. “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,” U Shwe Mann told reporters in the capital.

Today, U Shwe Mann, a former general who was the third-highest-ranking leader under U Than Shwe, leads his own political party. He was once considered a close ally of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi but this close relationship is now in question.

According to sources close to U Than Shwe’s family, Brig-Gen Thein Naing was a key family insider who had won the trust and confidence of the former dictator, as well has having many friends in the army and beyond.

He also played a key role in organizing the meeting between U Than Shwe and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. So Brig Gen Thein Naing might have been in the residence organizing meetings between U Than Shwe and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on several occasions. This may have been what prompted her to send the condolence letter, some observers speculated.

U Than Shwe (left) and his wife Daw Kyaing Kyaing (right) attend the funeral of their son-in-law in Naypitaw on Saturday.

U Than Shwe and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met several times during the senior general’s tenure as leader, dating back to the 1990s, but never achieved a political breakthrough. At that time the generals were waging a war against her and her supporters.

U Than Shwe and his hardliners were even accused of engineering the Depayin massacre in May 2003, when a mob of hired thugs stopped the NLD leader’s convoy during a trip to Sagaing Region and killed a number of her supporters. But she has repeatedly said that she has forgiven her attackers. This is no doubt remarkable. In 2015 Daw Aung San Suu Kyi even attended the funeral of U Aung Thaung, who was accused of being an orchestrator of the Depayin attack. On the other hand, she chose not to attend U Ko Ni’s funeral, a decision that was slammed by her critics. Hardcore activists and veteran supporters of the State Counselor were dismayed to see the stark difference between her stances toward U Aung Thaung and U Ko Ni, and they are now definitely feeling disillusioned.

It is well known that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the government have shaky relations with the current military leaders including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Whatever the case, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi feels she is part of the establishment and that she is entitled to govern the country, as she is the daughter of Gen. Aung San.

After the Dec. 5, 2015 meeting, U Than Shwe and the State Counselor reportedly met a few more times but the contents of those discussions have not been revealed, and no one really knows how strong their relationship actually is.

In the past, U Than Shwe would normally send his subordinates to hold dialogues with her. Brigadier General Kyaw Win, the soft-spoken spook who previously served as No. 2 in the once-powerful Military Intelligence service, told me that before sending him and other officers to see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at her residence, where she was confined under house arrest for most of the 1990s and 2000s, then-strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe instructed them to start a dialogue with her, then lure her into a conversation in a “good cop, bad cop” routine, with one officer assigned to try to provoke her and the other being more sympathetic toward her.

As a former psychological warfare officer, U Than Shwe always foresaw the outcome of the meetings and when they reported back to him he usually chuckled, seemingly always having the upper hand.

No wonder many in military circles still conclude discussions of U Than Shwe and his political strategies with words of praise to the effect that, “We are still in his orbit.”

When U Than Shwe left power in 2011 he chose one of his junior officers, then-General Min Aung Hlaing (an officer more than 20 years his junior) to be head of the armed forces, and he probably sees the younger officer as a safe pair of hands. Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has served as commander-in-chief of the armed forces for the past eight years (considered a long tenure) and has made the decisions regarding all major reshuffles within the military. At year’s end, several top-ranking generals will retire or step away from their military roles to join the Union Solidarity and Development Party. This will leave just Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and a few other high-ranking generals as the remaining U Than Shwe loyalists at the top of the armed forces.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself may feel part of this dwindling band of top leaders who are still in the former dictator’s “orbit”.

But she must realize that no relationship is permanent; one must know which ties to nurture and how to conduct relationships so as to make them last. She knows who holds the power in Myanmar.

It seems she sees her job as conducting the once rocky relations with her former captors in such a way as to keep them happy and secure as the party announces its plans to contest the 2020 election and launches its bid to amend the Constitution, which was drafted and approved under U Than Shwe’s reign.

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