For Suu Kyi and Than Shwe, an Inconvenient Truce

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 14 December 2015

It was just 10 days ago that Burma’s ex-dictator sat down for a chat with his former prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi. The two had met twice previously, in 1994 and 2002, but as they convened on Dec. 4 for their latest face-to-face, the political context could hardly have been more different.

Previously, Snr-Gen Than Shwe was head of one of the world’s most repressive military dictatorships and Suu Kyi was leader of a persecuted pro-democracy movement against his reign; this month, Suu Kyi paid a call to his Naypyidaw residence as chairwoman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which triumphed on Nov. 8 in a landmark election, while Than Shwe was likely still coming to terms with the crushing defeat of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a political vehicle of his own making.

Why did he agree to meet her? And what can we expect in the aftermath of this crucial sit-down?

The meeting between Than Shwe and the pro-democracy leader excited many people, raising expectations that it might help see the country through to a smooth transfer of power from the current government to an NLD-led successor next year.

While little is known about the content of their conversation, one thing seems clear: It was the humiliating loss of the USDP, a military-backed party that Than Shwe created just before Burma’s discredited 2010 general election, which forced the retired senior general to the table. In a theoretical post-Nov. 8 world where the USDP had won at the polls, it’s safe to assume no such meeting would have taken place.

But faced with the cold hard reality of a failure by his hand-picked president, Thein Sein, to win voters’ favor, Than Shwe decided it prudent to meet with the woman who has said she will govern Burma for the next five years.

The USDP’s resounding defeat came even with the deck heavily stacked against the NLD, including through a constitutional provision granting 25 percent of seats in Parliament to the military. That allotment meant the USDP only needed to win one-third of elected seats to have the votes needed to ally with the military bloc in electing the next president.

Alternately described as part of his “master plan” and “exit strategy,” the 25 percent guarantee in Parliament was not enough to hold back a tidal wave of popular support for the NLD. The USDP lost the reins of government, and now the question must be asked: What did Than Shwe hope to get out of his latest meeting with Suu Kyi, and more importantly, how does he want the next five years to play out?

Perhaps he genuinely wants to see to it that the transition from Thein Sein’s government to the NLD is a smooth one. If that’s the case, it is an aspiration he shares with Suu Kyi, who has emphasized the importance of an orderly transfer of power.

Their agendas may be aligned on this point, but the underlying motivations surely differ.

While Suu Kyi is mindful of the many ways in which the outgoing government or military establishment could hinder her ability to govern, Than Shwe is likely more concerned about his personal fate, that of his family, and perhaps the fortunes of close associates of the former junta.

There are many entrenched interests that could be threatened by a new administration that is retributive or even just seeks more innocuous changes to the status quo, such as greater transparency and less corruption in government.

Than Shwe pledged to support Suu Kyi “as best he can,” so long as she truly works for the development of the country, according to a Facebook post from his grandson, Nay Shwe Thway Aung, who also met Suu Kyi prior to the Dec. 4 sit-down.

According to Nay Shwe Thway Aung’s post, Than Shwe was quoted as saying: “After winning the election, it’s the reality all have to accept—that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be the country’s future leader.”

Whether he really meant it, and what that means in practical terms, are things only Than Shwe himself can know.

Back to those previous two meetings: Nothing concrete came out of them, no progress toward resolving the political stalemate between the military regime and the NLD, which festered for years after Suu Kyi’s party won a 1990 election that the junta ignored.

There is hope, however, that the latest meeting could serve as a positive catalyst toward a peaceful power transfer.

The meeting this month affirmed what many have thought for years: Than Shwe still wields influence within the USDP and military. Let’s hope his words, as quoted by his grandson, were sincere. If so, he should help Suu Kyi “as best he can” by urging the current military commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to fully collaborate with the new NLD government, particularly as it picks up where Thein Sein left off in attempting to bring an end to decades of conflict between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups.

While the NLD won big last month, the military remains a political force and, more importantly, one of the key actors in the country’s fragile peace process.

For her part, Suu Kyi will need to offer a firm guarantee—if she hasn’t already—that Than Shwe and his acolytes need not fear a vindictive NLD government. She has already said as much publicly, renouncing a mentality of revenge and talking up the need for national reconciliation.

It’s been 10 days since the two met, and myriad questions have been put forward in teashops and on social media in the time since. Among those queries, “Is another meeting on the cards in the near future?”

There’s plenty of reason for both to seek a second sit-down in the changed political arena. For Than Shwe, every meeting is a chance to further humanize himself and cement a non-antagonistic relationship with Burma’s “future leader.” And if Suu Kyi can convince Than Shwe that he will be allowed to fade quietly into the night, he may even give his blessing on the matter of constitutional reform, and in particular a change to Article 59(f) that would allow her to become president.

We don’t know if that prospect was discussed earlier this month, and there’s been little concrete information made available from either party in the days since.

According to Nay Shwe Thway Aung’s Facebook post, Suu Kyi reportedly said that “for the success of establishing [a brighter] future for Burma, I want to talk to Snr-Gen Than Shwe for all-inclusive collaboration, including with the Tatmadaw [Burma Army].”

Win Htein, the NLD’s central committee member, said after the meeting: “Now, the situation is clearer than before. It seems certain that a hopeful and better future is ahead of us.”

That kind of optimism is heartening, and one hopes not ill-founded amid a transition that still seems full of uncertainty. For now, Burmese people and the international community will wait to see whether another round of talks between the former captor and his ex-captive is in the cards, hoping that their delicate dance will help set Burma on the right track.