The Long Goodbye
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Monday, October 25, 2021


The Long Goodbye

By AUNG ZAW OCTOBER, 2010 - VOL.18 NO.10


Open questions hang over Than Shwe’s post-election intentions

The delegation that accompanied Burmese junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe to China in September included, apart from members of his family and trusted aides, several representatives of a new generation of military officers—prompting suggestions that he introduced Burma’s future government leaders to Beijing.

He left some questions hanging, however. Who, for instance, is likely to be Burma’s next commander-in-chief and president? More importantly, what lies ahead for Than Shwe himself?

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Despite the silence in the state-run media on the reported reshuffle of top military officials, it is believed that almost all the important positions in the army, including Than Shwe’s own, were filled by a new generation of career officers.

But for the time being, at least until the Nov. 7 election, Than Shwe and his deputy, Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, along with several other generals, remain in the ruling State Peace and Development Council.

According to a military memo obtained by The Irrawaddy, Lt-Gen Myint Aung, the army’s adjutant general, will take over as the commander in chief, while Lt-Gen Ko Ko, head of Bureau of Special Operations 3, will become the deputy commander in chief.

Lt-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, former chief of the Bureau of Special Operations 2, may become joint chief of staff of the armed forces, a position previously held by Gen Shwe Mann.

Shwe Mann and Tin Aung Myint Oo, the SPDC secretary 1, have given up their army posts, and during the China visit they were addressed as “U,” a civilian term of respect, equivalent to “Mr.”

The changes yield no hint about Than Shwe’s future role. If he intends to cling to power, how will he accomplish this? If he gives up power, how will he pull the strings from behind the scenes?

Many observers believe that Than Shwe has eyes on the position of president. In this case, Shwe Mann is tipped for the role of vice-president.

It can be assumed that Than Shwe has prepared a safe exit for himself and his family and that he wants to see a stable new regime take power after the election.

He wants to secure the support of neighboring countries, particularly India and China, and win some legitimacy for an election that is widely regarded as a sham.

Realizing that the hostile relationship with the armed ethnic groups will stay unchanged, Than Shwe is likely to continue to exercise considerable influence after the election. Analysts note that the new generation of commanders he promoted recently are no friends of the ethnic armed groups.

The regime leader, who is now 77, will leave his younger, trusted generals  to lead the armed forces, while his subordinates, including Shwe Mann,  will contest the election.

Speaking at this year’s Armed Forces Day observances, Than Shwe clearly stated that army officers must play a dual role. The army has a duty to assist the “gentle transition,” using its military, organizational and administrative capabilities, he said.

Since becoming chairman of the ruling council then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council in 1992, the reclusive leader has quietly consolidated power and prepared a succession process, despite  early rumors that he was ill and planned to step down.

Over the years, he has convened the National Convention, formed the Union Solidarity Development Association, drafted a new constitution and, in a strategic move to consolidate power, relocated the capital to central Burma.

Than Shwe ruthlessly crushed internal rivals and opposition groups and activists and slowly built up the armed forces. Recently, it was reported that he planned to develop a nuclear capability.

Than Shwe doesn’t appear to be a healthy man, and aides helped him walk during his visit to India and China. If ill health struck him down tomorrow, there is no clear succession.

His predecessor Ne Win left politics in the 1988 turmoil but continued to pull strings from behind the scenes until he ended up, ironically, as the prisoner of one of his subordinates. Some observers say Ne Win’s fate has made Than Shwe determined to avoid spending his final days as a prisoner of a new regime.

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