The Dicey Democrat

How a pillar of the old regime in Burma is working to prove his democratic credentials.

Photo by Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Burma’s former capital, Rangoon, where he met with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s reformist president, Thein Sein. These two people — the former political prisoner and the former member of the military junta that put her in jail — are now regarded as the twin engines of the liberalization process now under way in the country.

Less well-noticed was Obama’s meeting with another politician: Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of Burma’s parliament. Like President Thein Sein, the speaker is another ex-general, and has spent nearly his entire political career as a member of the same regime that harshly suppressed the pro-democracy movement. (Indeed, his wife and son currently remain on a U.S. sanctions list targeting the regime for its past human rights abuses, a fact that was presumably known to Obama at the time of their meeting.) At the same time, like Aung San Suu Kyi, Shwe Mann now speaks frequently of his enthusiasm for an open society — assuring a visiting Hillary Clinton at one point, for example, that he and his colleagues had been watching old episodes of The West Wing as a crash course in democratic governance.

But it’s probably not Shwe Mann’s knowledge of prime-time TV that motivated Obama to seek out his company. The U.S. president’s trip to Southeast Asia this week is part of the current diplomatic campaign known as the "pivot," the effort to re-weight Washington’s foreign policy toward Asia. The ultimate aim of the new strategy is to balance against the rising influence of China, which has made substantial inroads into Southeast Asia over the past few years — and especially in Burma, a country that lies at a geopolitical crossroads between India and China and also boasts rich natural resources coveted by its neighbors.

For the Americans, that means not only restoring old alliances but also courting new friends — and Shwe Mann is clearly viewed by the White House and the State Department as the sort of figure worthy of long-term investment. As a prominent ally of the reformist camp who nonetheless maintains close ties with leading army officers and business tycoons, the parliamentary leader has already staked a claim to a prominent role; many expect that he is likely to challenge the 67-year-old Thein Sein (who is known to be in poor health) for the top job sooner rather than later. And while Aung San Suu Kyi (also 67) remains the darling of those who wish Burma a bright and democratic future, it is the figures like Shwe Mann — veterans of the old dictatorship who support the transition to democracy thanks to the material and political advantages they hope to gain from it — who are likely to go on playing an outsized part in government regardless of the outcome.

Over the past two years Shwe Mann (65) has shown his mettle as a defender of the president’s reforms. As the man who essentially runs the national parliament in Burma’s remote jungle capital of Naypyidaw, Shwe Mann has pushed through several dramatic legislative reforms and has even been known to criticize Thein Sein for his allegedly "sluggish" approach to liberalization. The speaker has turned parliament into a lively and popular institution, surprising many who were skeptical about its freedom to act. All this — along with his obvious vigor and good health — has convinced many that Shwe Mann is the most likely candidate to succeed the current president in the next general election in 2015. It’s that prospect, says Jim Della-Giacoma, a Southeast Asia analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), that probably persuaded Obama to start building bridges. "Under many different scenarios either based on short, medium, or long-term thinking, Shwe Mann is going to be a key player in Burma," says Della-Giacoma. "He is someone for the U.S. to engage now and cultivate for the future if, in the interests of supporting democracy, the U.S. sees its own common cause in bringing the national parliament to life as a legitimate democratic institution."

Shwe Mann has been praised for reaching out to political activist groups and encouraging reconciliation after years of oppression by the regime of which he was once a part. This past summer, he held a symbolic meeting with leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group, a civic organization representing the students who orchestrated a 1988 uprising that was brutally suppressed by government troops at a cost of 3,000 deaths (almost all them unarmed protestors). Most of the group’s leading figures have spent the last twenty years languishing in prison cells across the country. Following the meeting, Ko Ko Gyi, a leading member of the group and prominent activist, gave the speaker a rave review. "In my opinion, he wishes to have a better country and is able to balance the government with the parliament," Ko Ko Gyi told me. "He has the courage and abilities to solve current difficulties as well as desires to see the emergence of a more democratic country."

In parliament Shwe Mann has built close relationships with several opposition MPs who until recently were being persecuted for their democratic inclinations. "There is an element of sincerity in these political relationships," says Rangoon political analyst and opposition sympathizer Khin Zaw Win. "As a result many opposition MPs regard Shwe Mann very highly." Those who have met him describe a quiet, collected, and relaxed man with an easy smile and good listening skills. (Shwe Mann declined FP‘s requests for an interview.) "He promotes debate and has tried to make the parliament accountable to the people and sticks to the constitution," one MP told me under condition of anonymity, citing his wariness of the still-dominant military. "Thein Sein is a consensus-builder who does not want to offend anyone, while Shwe Mann is more ambitious and perhaps more willing to take calculated risks for the good of the country."

And yet, at the same time, there are still worries that Shwe Mann is not quite as clean as he might want Obama to believe. A former member of Burmese military intelligence said that he and his colleagues consider Shwe Mann to be "more dangerous" than anyone in power. "He is very cunning and ambitious," said another former intelligence officer. "We have yet to see the real side of Shwe Mann. He has the ability to divide and rule and destroy the whole reform process." One U.S. State Department cable published by WikiLeaks in March 2007 bore the title, "Shwe Mann, Burma’s Dictator-in-Waiting."

Such concerns are fueled by Shwe Mann’s past career. He rose to the top of the Burmese military establishment by seeking a close relationship with former junta leader and dictator Than Shwe, who has a long-standing reputation for brutality. One senior military defector described Shwe Mann to me as a "Than Shwe rat" whose priorities are protecting his former patron from the International Criminal Court and securing his financial interests: "It was Than Shwe who got him to where he is today, so he is indebted to him."

Like Than Shwe, Shwe Mann attended the prestigious military academy that was responsible for grooming many of the regime’s top brass. Soon after that he came perilously close to being discharged from the army for medical reasons, but was spared that shame by a highly-placed former academy classmate who got him a job as the director of a military school. Than Shwe, who became commander-in-chief of the Burmese military in 1992, saw a promising apprentice in Shwe Mann and made him one of his deputies. Like many other generals at the time, Shwe Mann also used family ties to expedite his ascent. His wife went to work as a teacher and nanny for Than Shwe’s favorite grandson in an attempt to get on the good side of Burma’s most powerful man.

It worked. According to another 2007 U.S. State Department cable, "when Than Shwe wants something done, … Shwe Mann usually conveys his orders to the army and enforces his will." In 1997, Than Shwe shocked the county by firing all of his closest cabinet ministers. Shwe Mann benefited from the shakeup. He leapfrogged from a relatively junior rank to chief of staff, the third most powerful position in the army, and remained there until 2010, when Than Shwe officially retired.

Many inside Burma remain skeptical about Shwe Mann due to his role in the former regime. "I will never trust him," one young activist from Rangoon told me, who asked that his name be withheld to protect him from government retaliation. "He has been responsible for the killing and oppressing of our people for decades." Shwe Mann comes from a generation of battle-hardened generals who were sent to wage war against the various ethnic armies. He received a special commendation for his efforts fighting against the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), one of the many rebel groups campaigning for greater autonomy within the country.

Commenting on his military experience against the Karen, one of the U.S. diplomatic cables accused him of human rights abuses: "Like most Burmese field commanders, Shwe Mann utilized forced civilian porters, including women and children, on a massive scale during operations against Karen insurgents." One of the 2007 U.S. diplomatic cables suggests that although Shwe Mann "is thought to be more open-minded, by all accounts he willingly participated in the brutal repression of September’s pro-democracy protests" — a reference to the Buddhist-monk-led demonstrations of that year that came to be known as the Saffron Revolution.

Another red flag for the international community is Shwe Mann’s alleged involvement with the North Korean military. According to a leaked U.N. report seen by Reuters, Shwe Mann traveled to North Korea in November 2008 and signed a military agreement with Pyongyang. According to the U.N. report, which has yet to be made public, the agreement between the two countries potentially violates U.N. sanctions. The report also cites sources who claim that Shwe Mann visited a North Korean factory where ballistic missiles are manufactured. (An official itinerary of the visit obtained by the Democratic Voice of Burma, an exile news organization, also includes a reference to a missile factory visit.)

In December 2011, shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first visit to Burma, a Burmese newspaper published an interview with Shwe Mann in which he acknowledged his trip to North Korea, saying that the two countries had signed a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation: "We studied their air defense system, weapons factories, aircrafts and ships. Their armed forces are quite strong so we just agreed to cooperate with them if necessary." While Shwe Mann has vehemently denied any nuclear cooperation with North Korea, the U.N. report states that in May 2011 a North Korean ship suspected of attempting to transport missiles or other weapons to Burma was forced to turn around by U.S. naval forces before it reached its destination. The report also states that another North Korean ship on a similar mission in June 2009 turned around after becoming aware it was being traced.

Although Shwe Mann might not have a squeaky clean past, the United States will no doubt be quick to forget his shortcomings. While Aung San Suu Kyi might be Obama’s preferred choice as a partner, there’s no guarantee that she will be able to gain real political power any time soon. The present constitution actually bars Suu Kyi from taking part in the next election, and the rest of her party, the National League for Democracy, is likely to face greater competition if Shwe Mann follows through on his plans to transform the USDP into a full-fledged political party committed to reform. For the moment, the United States still has to rely on the former generals-cum-reformists like Shwe Mann — people who wield real power under the current Burmese political system — to steer the country in the direction Washington would like to see.

Despite the dark tones in his background, diplomats and some political observers in Rangoon insist that Shwe Mann has long shown moderate tendencies. "He really wanted to reform the country but we feel he was often held back by Than Shwe," one experienced European diplomat told me. Now that Than Shwe, his former patron, appears to have withdrawn from the political arena, Shwe Mann may have finally gained the space to emancipate his inner liberal. "He is using his old power to transform parliament and right the wrongs of the past," one opposition MP told me (again insisting on anonymity for fear of retribution). On several occasions the speaker has even chosen to directly challenge the president. The first public incident involved a disagreement over the introduction of a minimum wage for government workers. Thein Sein opposed the idea, citing inflation and a high government deficit. Shwe Mann moved ahead on the legislation nonetheless, building overwhelming support from legislators. A version of the bill passed in the end, though notably watered down.

Aung San Suu Kyi also appears to credit Shwe Mann’s will to reform. Those around the opposition leader say that she and Shwe Mann, who both sit on a parliamentary committed devoted to promoting the rule of law, agree on a number of issues and have formulated a strategy to push forward with liberalization. "Democracy will live sustainably with peace and stability only when there is rule of law," Shwe Mann told fellow parliamentarians in a speech last month. "The three rely on each other. Therefore, everyone has to obey the country’s existing laws and regulations to develop rule of law."

But this high-minded talk meets with a decidedly cynical reception from informed observers, who say that the parliamentary leader doesn’t necessarily practice what he preaches. "We all know how corrupt he and his sons have been," one ethnic opposition politician told me. In this context, he says, Shwe Mann’s frequent public sallies against sleaze come off as "obnoxious."

The U.S. Treasury Department appears to have shared those suspicions. In 2008, the Treasury’s U.S. Office of Assets Control announced that it was imposing financial sanctions on Shwe Mann’s wife, Khin Lay Thet, and one of his sons, Aung Thet Mann, the director of a company also targeted by the same measure. The Treasury action singled out Aung Thet Man’s close links to Zay Ta, one of Burma’s biggest oligarchs. "Tay Za has used his business relationship with Aung Thet Mann to win favorable business contracts from the Burmese junta," the Treasury statement noted.

Shwe Mann’s other son is married to the daughter of yet another leading business tycoon named Khin Shwe, who was placed on the sanctions list in 2007. "He also considered very corrupt due to the activities of his sons and resented by some generals senior to him in the army," alleged another WikiLeaks cable. (As a senior member of the regime, Shwe Mann was himself targeted by U.S. financial sanctions until September 20, when he and Thein Sein were both taken off the list.)

Of course, it’s not out of the question for a high-ranking member of a dictatorial regime to change his ways. Many of those who served as senior figures in Burma’s military dictatorship have now swung their support (at least in public) to President Thein Sein’s course — presumably under the assumption that they will be able to keep the wealth and connections they accumulated under the old regime while benefiting from the lifting of their country’s pariah status. It’s certainly true that the old rulers’ move towards openness has not always been dictated by noble, altruistic motives. Last December, shortly before his meeting with Clinton, Shwe Mann admitted his anxiety to Burmese generals: "We do not want to end up like the Arab dictators. One day they were very powerful. The next day they died ignoble deaths."

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