Why you should care
Hopes are high for Myanmar’s transition to democracy, but the re-emergence of Shwe Mann suggests it’s anything but certain.
If ever there were a glaring example of the United States’ delicate balancing act in Myanmar, it’s with Shwe Mann.
Haven’t heard of the guy? The former general leads Myanmar’s house of representatives, but he doesn’t command the worldwide celebrity of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. He also lacks the prestige of President Thein Sein, another former general, who has steered Myanmar’s still-shaky course away from military rule. But Shwe Mann could be Myanmar’s next president, and therein lies the rub: He was a top leader in the military junta that ruled and repressed for almost 50 years.
As speaker of the Pyithu Hluttaw, based in the oddly grandiose capital city of Naypyitaw, Shwe Mann has surprised some by building the weak, underfunded parliament into a functioning check on the executive branch — and, most agree, a vehicle for his own presidential ambitions. Shwe Mann, a youthful looking 67-year-old, has emerged as a key rival to Thein Sein within the secretive Union Solidarity and Development Party, which took over from the military in 2011. The first post-junta national elections are scheduled for next fall.
In a country where cronies still profit from connections to the former junta, it doesn’t escape notice that his two sons are wealthy.
Washington is watchful. In many ways, Shwe Mann embodies the difficulties that President Obama faces while in Myanmar today for the East Asia Summit. The U.S. is trying to push the country on a more democratic path even as serious human rights abuses persist, and even as junta leaders like Shwe Mann accede to civilian posts. Of growing concern is the central government’s failure to stem persecution of the minority Muslim Rohingya in western Rakhine state, which human rights advocates say could be a genocide in the making.
The balancing act has meant a sometimes-awkward effort to build ties with former generals like Shwe Mann, a career military man who made his name fighting ethnic Karen rebels in eastern Myanmar. He is referred to with the honorific “Thura,” which means brave. But in a country where government cronies continue to profit from land-grabbing deals and their connections to the former junta, it doesn’t escape notice that his two sons are wealthy businessmen. One of them, Aung Thet Mann, is blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department, meaning that U.S. companies cannot do business with him.
To be sure, there are few clean hands among the powerful in a nation emerging from dictatorship. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the hugely popular Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been criticized for not speaking out against the persecution of the Rohingya. As in the United States, people in Myanmar are conflicted about a prospective Shwe Mann presidency. “We all know he is a former general. … Some people think he is a performer,” says Myat Nyana Soe, a member of parliament from the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s opposition party, which long resisted military rule. “But from my point of view, he wants to make change — he wants there to be a democratization process in Burma,” he said.
“But on the other hand, … his two sons have so many businesses.”
Another wrinkle: the surprising partnership that’s developed between Shwe Mann and Suu Kyi, who was released from years of house arrest in 2010. Their relationship — it’s said to be warm — has led to talk of a potential ruling coalition after next year’s elections, in which the NLD might support Shwe Mann for president. It would be at least partly a marriage of convenience. Even if her party won a majority, “The Lady,” as Suu Kyi is known, would be constitutionally barred from assuming the presidency, because her late husband and her two sons are British citizens.
… a “dictator-in-waiting,” albeit a potential reformer.
The idea of Suu Kyi throwing her support to Shwe Mann for president is, of course, anathema to hard-core opposition members, who trust neither the new government nor former generals like Shwe Mann, who are associated with the worst abuses of the military years. Indeed, in the waning years of Myanmar’s military regime, U.S. diplomats viewed Shwe Mann as the most likely successor to former strongman Than Shwe. He was called a “dictator-in-waiting,” albeit a potential reformer.
In the end, the junta gave way to a nominally civilian government, though the military retains 25 percent of parliamentary seats. And Shwe Mann has emerged in a new, democratic incarnation: Since assuming the speakership, Shwe Mann’s parliament has pushed back on a variety of presidential initiatives, like new foreign telecom investment, and weighed in on a presidential-led effort to strike a nationwide ceasefire accord with ethnic armed groups. The pushback has won him some praise from Western analysts, one of whom says that without Shwe Mann’s leadership, the Hluttaw could have turned into a “rubber-stamping institution, on the model of China.”
Still, after years of estrangement, it’s not easy to understand the divides in the ruling party, which is “pretty opaque,” one U.S. official noted in advance of Obama’s visit. Some even question whether Shwe Mann and the president are really at odds. And then there’s the question of whether elections will even take place. The ruling party is now pushing a proportional representation proposal that could mean continued control by the government. Shwe Mann backs that proposal — perhaps because under one of the envisioned scenarios, Thein Sein would retire and Shwe Mann would become president.