By Francis Wade
Burma’s former junta strongman has no role in the government, having “totally resigned from politics”, an advisor to President Thein Sein claims amid lingering uncertainty over the status of the hermetic one-time leader.
Ko Ko Hlaing told Thai newspaper The Nation in a lengthy interview this week that Than Shwe “is not like Deng Xiao Ping of China or Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore”, who both continued to pull the strings well after their proclaimed retirement. “He doesn’t want to be involved in this new set-up.”
The 79-year-old last year officially stepped down after nearly two decades in power to make way for the nominally civilian administration of Thein Sein, whose Union Solidarity and Development Party swept the November 2010 elections. Little has been heard from him since, although questions have remained about his influence on government policy.
The issue garnered heightened attention in December last year when it emerged that he had met with former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra during a secretive trip to Burma. That visit was seen as laying the groundwork for a subsequent visit by Thaksin’s sister and current Thai premier, Yingluck Shinawatra.
Speculation centred on whether Thaksin, who had developed strong business-driven relations with the former ruling junta in Burma, had sought Than Shwe’s approval for Yingluck to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. If true, then it would appear to support claims that he still wields clout within the government.
Than Shwe’s iron-fisted rule over Burma had been dominated by efforts to snuff out the political opposition, which culminated in May 2003 when junta-backed thugs made what appeared to have been an assassination attempt on Suu Kyi in the town of Depayin. She survived, but around 70 of her supporters were beaten to death.
According to the Asian Legal Resource Centre, the incident amounted to crimes against humanity – the group claims that government authorities had prior knowledge of the incident, had deliberately lured people to the site of the attack, and that police had quickly rounded up and arrested survivors in the aftermath.
During his 19 years in power Than Shwe rarely left Burma, and when he did it was only to countries with close ties to the junta. Long believed to have been afraid of an indictment for war crimes and crimes against humanity, he remained a reclusive figure throughout his rule, and has now all but disappeared from view.
Ko Ko Hlaing dismissed questions about Than Shwe’s fear of a trial, should Suu Kyi eventually win office: “[Burma] is a Buddhist country. Forgiveness is our principle,” he said, adding that the opposition icon carried the same sentiment.
The majority of western governments who had backed calls for a UN probe into abuses committed by the regime appear to have backtracked since Thein Sein unleashed a slew of ostensibly democratic reforms after coming to power in March last year. Although many see the nascent developments as paving the way for democratic transition, Ko Ko Hlaing conceded that the army will retain formidable influence for the foreseeable future.
“The military tried very hard to keep the country intact at the peak of the Cold War between the Eastern and Western blocs. We also had to protect our territorial integrity. It was a very hard time for the Myanmar [Burma] army,” he told The Nation. “This experience has always haunted the military leaders.
“That’s why the Myanmar military wants to have a role in the political arena, not to dominate the political stage but to take part as an element – as a balancing sector.”