Intrigue and an iPad

By Aung Zaw 9 May 2015

Is ex-senior general Than Shwe, the country’s widely feared and reviled former head of state, still pulling the strings?

As with most questions over the secretive former junta leader, the answer remains unclear.

While some skeptics and dissidents believe he is still influential, others counter that he is no longer involved in politics. What is true is that the former State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) chairman has not made a formal public appearance since late 2011.

In January 2013, Union Solidarity and Development Party vice-chairman U Htay Oo said the former senior general was in fine health and happily retired, although he continued to follow politics in the country.

“Of course, he is interested in politics as he was the leader of a country. It is certain that he wants the [political] system that he established to be successful,” U Htay Oo said at the time.

Some observers have pointed out that local journals now dare to publish articles on Snr.-Gen. Than Shwe’s past crimes, misdeeds and corruption and on his family since the political opening in Myanmar. If he was still powerful, they argue, he would have moved to stop them.

Ministers who know and respect him have previously told me that whenever there are festive ceremonies in Myanmar, many in the government, military officials and cronies still go to pay their respects to him and his family—now living in a lavish compound in Naypyitaw built from gas money reaped during his time as head of state.

One can still see armed officers and soldiers standing guard outside his house near Water Fountain Park.

In March, just ahead of Armed Forces Day, the ex-general made a surprise appearance on social media. His grandson Ko Nay Shwe Thway Aung (also known as Pho La Pyae) shared a photo on his Facebook account of the former military strongman receiving instructions on how to use an iPad from his granddaughter in a well-furnished living room.

It’s difficult to confirm how recently the undated photo was taken. Many close to army sources suggest the photo was two or three years old. But aside from its date of origin, what was the motive behind its posting? Was it just to demonstrate the old man is still going strong? Or was there a deeper message?

The Old Guard’s Influence

Snr.-Gen. Than Shwe ruled the country with an iron fist before convening sham elections in 2010. He handed over power to his people—men in uniform—and handpicked former general U Thein Sein, who served as SPDC prime minister and was a general staff officer in the country’s war office in the early 1990s, as his successor.

In a clever strategic move, the former army supremo appeared to have appointed U Thein Sein as someone who wouldn’t rock the boat. He was not a fire-breathing dragon, was loyal to Snr.-Gen. Than Shwe and supported the 2008 Constitution (he was chairman of the National Convention Convening Commission) that guarantees the military’s role in national politics.

Former junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe. (Photo: Reuters)
Former junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe. (Photo: Reuters)

However, whether the ex-dictator himself is still influential in politics continues to be hotly debated by Myanmar political observers.

Last year, Snr.-Gen. Than Shwe, now 82, reportedly attended a funeral for the wife of ex-general U Tin Aye, the chairman of the Union Election Commission. According to some insiders, he was healthy and—just as U Htay Oo remarked two years ago—keeping abreast with politics and current affairs.

Vice-Snr.-Gen. U Maung Aye who served as the second most powerful general in the previous regime was also there. The battle-hardened general who once served in Shan State suffered a stroke a few years ago. U Thein Sein and U Shwe Mann were also in attendance.

It was a chance for the old junta members to reconnect, although the latter two, as well as U Tin Aye, are still active in politics. Reportedly, they discussed the national election slated for later this year and Snr.-Gen. Than Shwe asked: what if the lady and her party win a majority? What will happen to us?

Dictators’ Destiny

Ahead of the elections, the fear factor will play on the minds of those junta leaders still alive today who are edgy about possible new political realities on the horizon.

When Myanmar’s strongman Gen. Ne Win resigned from the government and party he founded amid political turmoil in 1988, many believed he was still influential in steering the regime leaders to stage a coup and crush the historic democracy uprising.

After ostensibly exiting the political stage, Gen. Ne Win regularly met his former subordinates and colleagues at home to discuss Buddhism, meditation and politics. He didn’t entirely leave politics behind.

In 1992, the former dictator asked that the chairman of the State Law and Order Restoration Council Snr.-Gen. Saw Maung, who suffered a nervous breakdown, be replaced. As a result, Snr.-Gen. Than Shwe became leader of the ruling junta.

Two years after Gen. Ne Win’s resignation, Myanmar held its first free and fair national elections in 28 years, which the National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide.

But the outcome of the 1990 elections was never honored; if power was handed to the NLD, what would happen to old socialist regime leaders, including Gen. Ne Win?

Ironically, it was Snr.-Gen. Than Shwe in 2002 that ultimately sought to neutralize the influence of the former dictator, placing him under house arrest and jailing three of his grandsons for an alleged plot to overthrow the ruling regime.

Gen. Ne Win died in December the same year and his grandsons served long prison sentences. They were released in a general amnesty in 2013.

“The Royal Family” members now freely roam the town, dabble on social media and generally retain a public profile. No doubt today there is no love lost between the Ne Win and Than Shwe clans.

It may be members of the latter family that have more cause for anxiety over the future, as age creeps up on the former regime leader and the uncertain twists and turns of power and political rivalry take shape in an election year.

Whatever the real reason that Ko Nay Shwe Thway Aung posted his grandfather’s photograph, at least one implication seems clear. As long as the now reclusive ex-dictator is alive, the intrigue over his influence will continue.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy. This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.