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Yangon – It was one of those pinch-yourself moments that a journalist enjoys every now and then. It was June 7, 2013, and Aung San Suu Kyi had just taken part in a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. The former dissident had spent the earlier part of the afternoon having lunch with Shwe Mann, the speaker of Myanmar’s parliament, before the pair, once enemies, strolled from dining hall to meeting hall, where Shwe Mann watched as Suu Kyi took center stage.
When the discussion ended, the audience and media trampled over each other to get a piece of Suu Kyi. Meanwhile, in the front row, Shwe Mann remained seated, before, almost reluctantly it seemed, he stood up, a half-smile appearing as he looked on, as if trying to absorb some lesson from the frenzy taking place around the famed Nobel laureate onstage.
The day before, Suu Kyi had repeated her desire to become president of Myanmar, a job that Shwe Mann, who once ranked number three under Myanmar’s military regime, had been passed over for during the 2011 transition from army to civilian rule.
“After Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement yesterday about the presidency, Mr. Speaker, I am wondering about your own future. There are rumours that you too would like to be president of Myanmar. Would you like to lead your country?” I asked.
“Yes, I would like to,” he replied, soft-spoken but firm, before adding, “that depends first on our party and our people.”
The truth was out, so if Shwe Mann makes it to Myanmar’s highest office, it will not be a surprise.
In 2007, the U.S Embassy in Yangon cabled Washington that “most observers believe that Than Shwe wants Shwe Mann to succeed him as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Senior General,” according to documents released by Wikileaks. Most observers were proven wrong, however, and word is that Shwe Mann, the former Joint Chiefs of Staff who was decorated in the 1980s for his role in the army’s operations in rebel territory in Kayin State in eastern Myanmar, was in tears when he learned that Thein Sein, ranked sixth in the military junta at the time, was nominated by retiring dictator Than Shwe to be the new president.
The rivalry between Thein Sein and Shwe Mann has grown in recent months, with Shwe Mann critical of the peace process that the government is engaged in with the country’s ethnic militias. His criticisms stem not from his past reputation as a warmonger and human rights abuser in the ethnic minority regions, but because he feels that the ceasefire agreements reached with various armed militias are being concluded in too-hasty a manner and without enough consultation with the country’s parliament.
Shwe Mann has directed his ire at the Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC), a government-linked think tank that facilitates the peace talks, but is seen as too close to the presidency and is maybe even undertaking a bit of empire building of its own.
“The MPC is not a decision-maker and cannot make political decisions,” Shwe Mann said in an October interview with The Irrawaddy – remarks that came after he pushed for greater involvement by parliament in the various ceasefire deals that are being forged ahead of the nationwide ceasefire agreement the government hopes to sign before the year’s end.
Such an agreement would buttress Thein Sein’s peacemaker legacy, something that is particularly important in a country where the army has been at war with various ethnic militias almost since the end of World War II. It would also bolster Thein Sein’s position after the 2015 parliamentary elections, should he chose to put himself forward as a presidential candidate from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), of which Shwe Mann is chairman.
Given that the president is elected by MPs following the national election, it means the president is likely to come from the winning party, which as it stands now is likely to be Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
But the USDP will point to incumbency and a growing, albeit still backward, economy – factors that could help Shwe Mann achieve his presidential ambitions – ambitions that are more likely to be realised if Thein Sein is not a contender.
“President U Thein Sein has told me he will not run for the president,” Shwe Mann told the media in October. “I think he meant what he said. He is not running in the election.”
If Thein Sein meant what Shwe Mann said, it seems to have been for Shwe Mann alone, going by the scathing reaction of Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut.
“When there is a matter that the public should be informed about, the president will directly address the public himself. There is no need for a second person to do that,” Ye Htut said.
But with Myanmar set to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014, and the likes of U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping all scheduled to visit, expect Shwe Mann to jostle for the limelight along with Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, with an eye to the national election in 2015.Show