For U Shwe Mann, Enemies Lurk Everywhere

By Aung Zaw 5 March 2019

In politics, so the saying goes, there are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends—only permanent interests. In Myanmar we have seen an unusual political alliance between State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and retired General U Shwe Mann evolve over the past six years. But that alliance is now showing cracks.

Last week, Myanmar’s Union Parliament voted against extending the term of the Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission, which is headed by U Shwe Mann, who is also a former Lower House speaker. The question is, who gave the order not to extend the commission? Executives of the ruling National League for Democracy, or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself?

Some political observers in Naypyitaw said U Shwe Mann had been assured in advance that his commission’s life would be extended, and was caught off guard when the NLD-dominated Parliament voted against it.

The commission was formed on March 1, 2016 for a term of one year but faced fierce opposition from military representatives in Parliament, who said its work was unconstitutional. But the commission received solid backing from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the NLD-led government.

U Shwe Mann served as the third-highest-ranking official in the former military regime known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). As chief of the general staff (Army, Navy and Air Force), he was regarded as one of the most powerful men in the regime.

But he has seen ups and downs since 2010. U Shwe Mann was reportedly expecting to be either president or commander-in-chief of the armed forces after the regime held a sham election in 2010, but did not attain either of these powerful positions. Senior-General Than Shwe, then chairman of the now defunct SPDC, chose the more humble and less politically ambitious U Thein Sein to be president. What was the reason? Did U Than Shwe fear U Shwe Mann would one day turn against him? Was he worried about the business interests of U Shwe Mann’s family? No one knows except the former strongman himself.

U Shwe Mann (left), then the Speaker of the Union Parliament, shakes hands with National League for Democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi before their meeting at the Lower House of Parliament in Naypyitaw on Nov. 19, 2015. / REUTERS

U Shwe Mann won a Lower House seat in the 2010 general election representing the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and was elected to the position of Lower House Speaker.

Military career and reform agenda 

As a military commander, U Shwe Mann earned the honorific title thura (he is also referred to as Thura Shwe Mann) for his campaign against Karen insurgents in the 1990s, which saw him rise steadily through the ranks.

In 2008, he led a military delegation to visit Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, via Beijing. Gen. Thura Shwe Mann and his North Korean counterpart General Kim Gyok Sik signed a memorandum of understanding, the contents of which have never been confirmed. The visit was ordered by U Than Shwe for the purpose of studying military facilities and North Korea’s nuclear reactor, as the strongman believed that Myanmar, sitting between China and India, was in need of nuclear weapons.

A leaked U.S. cable stated, “Like most Burmese field commanders, Shwe Mann utilized forced civilian porters, including women and children, on a massive scale during operations against Karen insurgents.” But Washington removed him from its sanctions list when the U.S. and Myanmar repaired ties and restored diplomatic relations in 2012 and 2013, as then President U Thein Sein introduced political reforms and opened up the country. U Shwe Mann also received then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she first visited Burma in 2012.

Clinton later recalled, “[Thura Shwe Mann] said to me, ‘Help us learn how to be a democratic congress, a Parliament.’ He went on to tell me that they were trying to teach themselves by watching old segments of ‘The West Wing,’” she said. Clinton apparently responded to the general: “I think we can do better than that, Mr. Speaker.” In reality, however, U Shwe Mann was seen as being close to China.

Then President U Thein Sein (right) and Parliament Speaker U Shwe Mann arrive at the Union Parliament in Naypyitaw on Jan. 28, 2016. / REUTERS

Like U Thein Sein, U Shwe Mann is seen as a reformer. Many former generals have demonstrated to the world that they support the reform agenda and many have been removed from Western sanctions lists.

But we saw a new development in Myanmar politics when U Shwe Mann and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to the surprise of many, forged a political alliance. The two held meetings every week and became the focus of the media and political observers.

In his second interview with The Irrawaddy in October 2013, U Shwe Mann said in his soft, measured voice, “After I met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and many others in the democracy movement, I recalled the past with real empathy.”

He added that when he was still a top-ranking general, he kept his sympathy for the dissidents to himself, but knew in his heart that he didn’t want to see them suffer undeserved punishment.

Regarding Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, he said: “I thought of her not just as a woman who had to endure hardship, but also as the daughter of our independence hero [General Aung San]. I was determined to help her when I had the chance. And not just her—I wanted to see everyone treated fairly.” At that time he was chairman of the then-ruling USDP.

‘I am not a turncoat’

One could view this as an ambitious politician seeing the value in assisting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party in the 2015 election, foreseeing their imminent victory. But his alliance with her cost him heavily. He fell out with then President U Thein Sein and some ruling party leaders, who branded him a traitor.

The battle between these two figures played out in dramatic fashion when security forces surrounded the headquarters of the USDP in the middle of the night in August 2015 in Naypyitaw, three months before the general election that year. U Shwe Mann and some senior USDP party members were purged, but he remained a party member and a lawmaker.

U Ye Htut, then the information minister, said that U Shwe Mann had been sacked as ruling party chairman because he supported controversial bills in Parliament and had ties to rival party leaders.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi described U Shwe Mann’s purge as leader of the USDP as undemocratic. “As for the happenings in the middle of the night, this is not what you expect from a working democracy,” she said.

Under the USDP banner, U Shwe Mann contested the general election in 2015 but lost his seat to an NLD candidate. But he remained a close ally of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and they have reportedly continued their weekly meetings in the intervening years.

In 2016, he was appointed to head the Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission of Myanmar’s Parliament—a powerful position, given the panel’s role as a legal review committee. The decisions to form the commission and appoint U Shwe Mann to lead it were made by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and not by her party executives. Soon after the NLD’s landslide victory, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi went to meet former dictator U Than Shwe at his residence and U Shwe Mann accompanied her. This demonstrates that U Than Shwe continues to meet U Shwe Mann despite having officially retired in 2011.

Not surprisingly, however, his appointment as head of the commission again saw U Shwe Mann branded a traitor.

“They were traitors, becoming turncoats although they were saying that cooperation was necessary for the sake of the country and [their] countrymen,” writes U Soe Thane, who served as a minister under U Thein Sein, in his book “Myanmar’s Transition & U Thein Sein: An Insider’s Account”.

To which U Shwe Mann replied, “I am not a turncoat.”

U Shwe Mann is not without enemies—in fact he seems to have many. The Myanmar military’s current commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and U Shwe Mann have strained relations. Army representatives have repeatedly opposed the extension of the Legal Affairs Commission’s term.

Former Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) chief U Shwe Mann campaigns in a village near his hometown of Kanyuntkwin, Pegu Region, on Nov. 4, 2015. / REUTERS

Some top NLD members, too, have been uneasy with the U Shwe Mann-Daw Aung San Suu Kyi political alliance. They simply don’t trust him. Going further, some say the close association with U Shwe Mann has prevented the NLD-led government from forging better relations with the Army. President U Win Myint’s relations with U Shwe Mann are not warm; when he was in Parliament, U Win Myint, a former house speaker, showed his dislike for U Shwe Mann. So what was Daw Aung San Suu Kyi thinking all along?

Party members were also reportedly uncomfortable with the fact that two of U Shwe Mann’s sons run several major businesses in Myanmar. Since U Shwe Mann served in the Army as a top-ranking general, U Aung Thet Mann and U Toe Naing Mann have been involved in the telecommunications, agriculture, natural gas, restaurant, property and other businesses and are considered to be among the country’s wealthiest people. This is not unusual in Myanmar, as many close relatives of top generals, aided by favorable treatment from government ministries, run businesses. The two sons have also developed close connections with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but it is not known whether she was aware of the extent of their business empire (and even if she is not, she should be). But critics have been complaining to her about the Legal Affairs Commission’s performance in Parliament, and some lawmakers might have felt that the commission had breached its mandate.

New political party 

In February, U Shwe Mann applied to register a new political party, the Union Betterment Party, with the Union Election Commission.

He said the party would work towards building a democratic federal union and promote economic development as a basic necessity for the development of the country along with systematic implementation of education, healthcare and culture; and the establishment of rule of law, stability, equality and peace. He added that the new party would seek a new constitution that is suitable for the country. Since then, speculation has been rife over how senior NLD leaders would react, and whether he would continue to head the commission.

But he continued to hope that his commission’s term would be renewed. In February, he said that the future of the commission would depend on negotiations between himself and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as it was formed based upon their bilateral agreement.

Last week’s events are particularly interesting as U Shwe Mann had apparently been told that his commission would be preserved. Inside reports suggest he was planning to hand the leadership of the commission over to U Win Htein. Once considered to be among the closest confidantes of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the former Army officer and politician has lost influence in the party and the support of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi due to internal power struggles. It seems U Shwe Mann and U Win Htein had a gentleman’s agreement regarding the leadership of the commission. But according to one theory, as word spread that the commission’s future had been entrusted to U Win Htein, party executives became alarmed and decided to pull the plug on the commission. Perhaps U Win Htein had made too many enemies inside and outside of the party. His opponents in the party seemed determined to prevent him from taking control, and showed him the door.

So U Shwe Mann was surprised to learn that the vote on extending the commission was not in his favor, with only 20 lawmakers voting in favor of extending the commission, while 555 voted against with 10 abstentions. Does this mean the alliance between U Shwe Mann and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is over? Who made the final decision to vote against the commission? There has been much confusion, but the decision must have come from the top. Some party members who worked with U Shwe Mann grumbled, “This is ugly… there are better ways to end this commission.”

It is rumored that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Shwe Mann have continued to meet since the decision to abolish the commission. But it is certain that U Shwe Mann’s enemies, whether from the NLD or from other quarters, including Sen-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, opened champagne bottles after the parliamentary vote.