Commentary

U Than Shwe Shows His Hand 

By Aung Zaw 3 December 2018

Dictators never really retire.

Former strongman Senior General Than Shwe is officially retired, but he still exerts an influence. He reads, follows daily news and holds gatherings with his staff, military leaders and top government officials including State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

He also receives local and international businessmen including Chinese and Thais, who regularly pay their respects to him at his residence in Naypyitaw.

News of the former military strongman’s recent meeting with ethnic Pa-O leaders at his home shouldn’t come as a surprise; he recently expressed concern over the outbreak of clashes in Shan State, where renewed fighting between insurgent factions continues to escalate. (When in power, he also expressed concern to visiting diplomats about the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, where he was greatly concerned about migration and refugee problems.)

Two ethnic Shan insurgent groups—the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS)—are currently fighting each other in northern Shan State.

A few days ago, the former commander-in-chief urged Pa-O leaders to devote themselves to building roads and educating their children. U Than Shwe’s wife Daw Kyaing Kyaing is an ethnic Pa-O from southern Myanmar.

Under the current government, the peace process is falling apart. When he headed the previous regime, U Than Shwe ordered ethnic armed organizations to transform into a Border Guard Force. But in 2011, the government led by President U Thein Sein shelved the plan and instead held talks with the groups.

It is not known whether U Than Shwe still has any direct control over the armed forces, but he appears to continue to exert an influence over several different factions.

In late 2016, he met with ethnic Karen leader General Saw Mutu Say Poe, a leader of the Karen National Union, a powerful ethnic insurgent group in the southeast.

U Than Shwe has also received officials from an important foreign ally: China. He held a surprise meeting with Song Tao, then head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China, on his second official trip to Myanmar in August 2017. The meeting was held at U Than Shwe’s residence, a testimony to China’s reach and influence in the country.

U Than Shwe is reviled internationally, but is highly regarded among his subordinates and some observers. His “grand strategy” still receives praise among top generals and those close to him.

He held an election in 2010 under the 2008 Constitution and left the throne to his trusted lieutenants, including General Thein Sein, who subsequently became president and handed over the position of commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who is 20 years his junior.

Moreover, U Than Shwe’s decision to maintain friendships with China and India were lauded, as Myanmar and its population suffered under the weight of Western sanctions in previous decades. In 2010, U Than Shwe made his last high-profile visits to these countries before handing over power to the “civilian government.” He pulled off a peaceful exit strategy that impressed many of his followers and some observers.

UN and Asean diplomats who have met him describe him as intelligent and well informed about regional events; one diplomat who spoke to him without an interpreter said of the former junta chief: “Never underestimate him.”

His decision to relocate the capital to central Myanmar was controversial but seemed to be motivated by strategic reasoning. For better or worse, Naypyitaw has become a gathering place for visiting foreign officials—including U.S. President Barack Obama in 2014—and a venue for national and international conferences. State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recently bought more than 90 acres of land there for the charitable organization she founded in honor of her late mother, the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation. It will open a vocational training school and establish a forest on the land.

She has confided to close aides that she plans to retire in Naypyitaw, rather than in Yangon. Several politicians including former President U Htin Kyaw and his wife have also built homes in the city.

Meetings with Suu Kyi

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met U Than Shwe when he was serving as supreme leader of the ruling junta in an unsuccessful effort to negotiate a political settlement. But very few details have emerged regarding the nature of the deal they were attempting to reach, or precisely why it failed.

Since his retirement they have held several unpublicized meetings. The first is believed to have taken place in the first week of December 2015 shortly after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the general election in a landslide. U Than Shwe said he would support her “as best he can” if she genuinely worked for the development of the country, according to news reports. The reported meeting led to speculation that constitutional amendments were imminent, but that did not eventuate.

Written by the country’s former military rulers, the Constitution prevents Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, because her children hold foreign citizenship. To get around this, the NLD invented a new role, state counselor (equivalent to the post of prime minister) as the de facto top leader’s position. It is rumored in Naypyitaw that U Than Shwe tacitly approved of the creation of the position.

The two are also believed to have held several meetings at U Than Shwe’s residence shortly before U Htin Kyaw resigned as president in March 2018. As on earlier occasions, these meetings were unofficial, but it is believed the Constitution was discussed, along with the impending change in the head of state.

Shortly thereafter, U Win Myint assumed the presidency, while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi remained state counselor.

Song Tao (left), a senior Communist Party of China official, shakes hands with former dictator U Than Shwe in Naypyitaw on Aug. 11, 2016. / Chinese state media

As a former psychological warfare officer and instructor at the Central Political College in Yangon—and a keen chess player—U Than Shwe is known as a calm, cool-minded general, in sharp contrast to the short-tempered General Ne Win. One of his subordinates, a former regional commander, recalled being summoned from a frontier zone to U Than Shwe’s residence. The strongman didn’t show up at the appointed time and kept the officer waiting for hours. During his nerve-wracking wait, the regional commander wondered whether he was facing a demotion or a promotion. When U Than Shwe finally emerged, he said little and told him to go back to the frontier. Relieved, the officer returned to his command without ever knowing why he was asked to come in the first place.

It is still too early to say whether U Than Shwe’s recent meetings with stakeholders and ethnic leaders are related to the approaching 2020 general election. He is known to have distanced himself from the Union Solidarity Development Party he helped to create, along with its top leaders.

The senior general never announced a plan for his retirement, but The Irrawaddy has learned that he still seeks to play a role in politics.

In August, a number of former generals submitted applications to form a political party, the National Political Party. To this end, ex-ministers U Soe Maung and U Lun Maung have applied to the Union Election Commission. Interestingly, U Soe Maung is known to be close to both U Than Shwe and Thura Shwe Mann, a former Lower House speaker. Thura Shwe Mann was the No. 3 general under the previous regime, but is also a close ally of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

It is not known whether U Than Shwe is happy with the performance of the USDP—probably not. In August 2015, factional disputes erupted within the party, and Thura Shwe Mann and several other senior leaders were removed as tensions mounted ahead of the elections that November.

Security forces surrounded the headquarters of the USDP compound and U Shwe Mann was placed under semi house arrest for weeks. The “grand strategist” U Than Shwe didn’t foresee this development and is known to have been upset by the infighting.

And while it is still too early to say whether U Soe Maung received U Than Shwe’s blessing to form the new political party, it is certainly possible.

Still relatively healthy in his 80s (he mostly eats rice soup for dinner and avoids heavy meals), U Than Shwe continues to shape events behind the scenes. As the country’s problems mount, it is no surprise that military generals continue to look to him for direction, even if he doesn’t talk much. But his belief that the military still has a role to play in national politics continues to echo among his subordinates.

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