Changing of the guard: Portrait of Shwe Mann

From military heavyweight to champion for change, Shwe Mann is tipped to take Myanmar’s top political spot

Sacha Passi
June 6, 2012
Changing of the guard: Portrait of Shwe Mann
The 65-year-old graduated in 1969 from the Defence Services Academy and was promoted to general in 2003. As a Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) candidate, Shwe Mann won the parliamentary seat in the Zeyar Thiri Township constituency. He is also the USDP’s current chairman. Image: Victor Blanco for SEA Globe

The eyes of the world have tentatively looked on as Myanmar pushes forward with reforms at a pace many sceptics thought unlikely 16 months ago.

While President Thein Sein has been the public face of the country’s reformist movement, Shwe Mann, the third highest-ranking member of the old military rule, has been a key – yet less visible – architect of Myanmar’s evolving political landscape.

When Shwe Mann stepped into the public arena to openly criticise the slow pace of change under Thein Sein’s leadership at a press conference in February, he spurred reports of an increasing power struggle between the two strongmen.

“There is rivalry between the executive and the legislature personified in the apparent friction between President Thein Sein and speaker [of the lower house] Shwe Mann.” Jim Della-Giacoma from International Crisis Group said. “However, both are reformists and disagreements have been about the pace or details of reform and not about its direction.”

While on tour in Europe last month, Shwe Mann, a former general, further asserted his power as head of the legislative body when he told Norway’s largest newspaper Aftenposten: “the parliament plays an important role in our democratic system. Without parliament there would be no democracy.”

Earlier this year, the 65-year-old appealed to lawmakers to pass policies and laws that would enable far-reaching reforms to progress; but despite Shwe Mann’s concerted efforts to maintain momentum, Della-Giacoma says the pace he is pushing for cannot be maintained.

“There is limited institutional and technical capacity to carry out detailed policy formulations and to implement some of the reform measures being adopted,” he said. “This is acting as a brake on the process and means that citizens are slow to see the full impact of some of the changes, with the pressures on the system likely to increase in the next two years as Myanmar hosts the Southeast Asian Games [in 2013] and takes over chairmanship of Asean in 2014.”

While the coming years will test Myanmar’s dedication to liberalism and ability to sustain the reformist drive, reports that Thein Sein will not seek a second term have left many speculating about who will lead the country after the 2015 elections.

A truly reformed system would amend the constitution to allow female opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to run for the presidency. Yet despite monumental moves to include the democratic leader into parliament, experts say she will never lead the country.

“I cannot foresee the possibility of Suu Kyi becoming the next president. She might still be popular, but allowing her to reach the top position would jeopardise the interests of the old elite,” said Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Centre for Southeast Asia Studies at Kyoto University.

Rather Shwe Mann, the self-professed ‘democrat’, has been named as the most likely successor to take Myanmar’s top job. “I’m sure he will gain support from the army which still controls a quarter of parliamentary seats,” Chachavalpongpun said.

“If he knows how to play the current political game, not only will he be able to assume presidency, but also to consolidate his power and that of the old elite in the face of the challenges from the opposition.”

As the military readjusts to a new ruling environment, Shwe Mann remains one of the government’s most valuable assets. His ability to implement change and harness the support of military members could be the government’s answer to walking the line between promoting the civilianisation of the regime, and avoiding the alienation of the armed forces if progress is to prevail.

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