Shwe Mann was once one of Burma’s most powerful generals, ranking third in the hierarchy of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military regime that ruled until 2011; today, he is the speaker of the Union Parliament, and a key player in the country’s ongoing political transition.
Until Thein Sein was named president, Shwe Mann was widely expected to fill that role in the new quasi-civilian government formed after the elections of November 2010. After all, he was the only one of the former top three generals (the other two being Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye) who wasn’t planning to retire after the dissolution of the SPDC. When Thein Sein—the former junta prime minister, and only the sixth most powerful general in the regime—was appointed head of state, it came a serious blow to Shwe Mann.
Today, however, he betrays little of the disappointment that he felt at the time (he was reportedly in tears when he’d heard about Than Shwe’s choice of the more malleable, soft-spoken Thein Sein for the top job, and immediately called two of his sons to explain the decision made by the former dictator). When I met him last month in Bangkok, he sounded much more like the politician he has become than the feared general he once was.
Unruffled and self-composed, he spoke of his relations with Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and his feelings about the treatment of dissidents during Burma’s decades-long period of military rule. He also discussed the ongoing peace process—hinting that the self-interest of some of the parties involved, rather than fundamental ideological differences, were to blame for the slow pace of progress.
Although he was denied the opportunity to lead the executive branch of government (a position he still openly aspires to occupy after elections in 2015), he has succeeded in using his legislative powers to maximum effect. Some ethnic MPs describe him as a rational, independent person who knows how to get things done—precisely the kind of image that a would-be president needs to project.
When speaking about Suu Kyi and other dissidents persecuted under the former regime, however, he tried to show another side of his personality. “After I met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and many others in the democracy movement, I recalled the past with real empathy,” he said in a soft, measured voice.
He added that when he was still a top-ranking general, he kept his sympathy for the dissidents to himself, but knew in his own mind that he didn’t want to see them suffer undeserved punishment.
Regarding Suu Kyi, he said: “I thought of her not just as a woman who had to endure hardship, but also as the daughter of our independence hero [Gen Aung San]. I was determined to help her when I had the chance. And not just her—I wanted to see everyone treated fairly.”
These days, of course, he has no reason to hide his sense of justice—and good reason to find common cause with the woman once regarded as the nemesis of Burma’s generals. He expressed optimism that the country’s controversial 2008 Constitution could be amended, but agreed with Suu Kyi (with whom he is, by all accounts, on good personal terms) that it is one of the world’s most difficult national charters to change.
On the subject of other reforms, he scoffed—politely—at the idea of calling anyone a “reformist.”
“What is a reformist? If someone just says the word, can you have democracy? We have to reform all the time,” he said, adding that what the country really needs is a leader of vision.
But if there was any implicit criticism of Thein Sein in his words, he was quick to dispel rumors of a power struggle. “I have always called him Ko Thein Sein, and he always addressed me as Ko Shwe Mann, or Bogyoke Gyi,” he said, dismissing talk of a rivalry between them as just a story used to sell newspapers. He added that Thein Sein had given his word that he wouldn’t run for president in 2015.
Despite his insistence that he and Thein Sein are not vying for power, Shwe Mann has been openly critical of the president’s performance on a number of occasions. Last year he faulted the government for not moving forward with reforms quickly enough, and more recently, he warned that the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), a semi-official body close to President’s Office Minister Aung Min (the government’s chief peace negotiator with Burma’s ethnic armed groups, and a key ally of Thein Sein) was overstepping its bounds.
“The MPC is not a decision-maker and cannot make political decisions,” said Shwe Mann, expressing his displeasure with the government’s handling of the peace process.
Interestingly, some MPs told me that Shwe Mann and Suu Kyi appear to be on the same page on this issue—both are wary of the President’s Office and the MPC, which they see as trying to forge a hasty peace agreement without due consultation with the country’s lawmakers.
Asked what he thought about the president’s prediction (made during a visit to Europe in July) that a nationwide ceasefire could soon be reached, Shwe Mann said that if it was so easy to achieve peace, it would have been done by now.
“We have to be sincere if we want to achieve peace, but if you are just talking about peace and working for your own self-interest and organization, it won’t be so easy,” he said. He also insisted that the armed forces wants peace, but added that he wasn’t so sure about some of the ethnic armed groups, whose leaders might also be putting their own interests ahead of those of their people.
I asked him how he would lead if he held power, and he said, “I will do what I should do, and I will execute it firmly—for the country and for the benefit of the people.”
At the same time, however, he said one of the problems with the current administration was the tendency of “some people” (he didn’t say who) to think that they could do everything on their own. As for himself, he didn’t rule out the possibility of sharing power with Burma’s most famous political figure, but added that a future government would have to “coordinate and work with everyone, not just Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.”
In response to a question about how the business fortunes of his two sons, Tone Naing Mann and Aung Thet Mann, might affect his future political prospects, Shwe Mann was adamant that his family did not benefit from his former position in the SPDC.
“I can guarantee that they did not enjoy any privileges because of my position,” he said, rejecting the widely held view that his sons—who are US-sanctioned businessmen involved in everything from palm oil production and the import and export of chemical fertilizers to construction and the telecoms industry—had unfair advantages.
Before we ended our one-hour conversation, he explained what motivated him as a politician—and why he felt the country needed a different kind of leadership.
“Whenever I go abroad, I always feel sad because our country has lagged so far behind. It is because of our failure to achieve ethnic unity and national reconciliation. Besides, there are many people who think they are the only ones who love the country and who can carry out tasks alone,” he said.
This article will appear in the November 2013 issue of The Irrawaddy’s print edition.