News / Asia

Burmese Press Mention 'Retired' Former Leader Than Shwe

Gen. Than Shwe (file photo)
Gen. Than Shwe (file photo)
William Ide

As Burma moves to polish an image long-stained by repressive military rule, the man who led that government, former military General Than Shwe, has slipped into the shadows. At least until Thursday, when Burmese state media mentioned his name for the first time since the new government stepped into power in March.

Before Burma's new leaders rose to power, Than Shwe regularly made headlines in state media publications, highlighting his dominance in the political system. His name has slipped out of print until this week, when both the Myanma Alin and The Mirror newspapers carried stories about him.

The news, buried far from the front page, referred to him as retired.

Former military intelligence officer Aung Lin Htut, who used to work closely with Burma’s now-President Thein Sein, says this could be a signal to the United States. He says calling Than Shwe “retired” before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Burma next month could be an effort to convince Washington that the long-time ruler is out of power.

But what does retirement mean for a man who was almost single-handedly in charge of Burma for nearly two decades? Benedict Rogers, the author of the biography “Than Shwe - Unmasking a Tyrant,” says he’s probably not just golfing.

“One spokesman from the regime was recently quoted as saying he’s spending lots of time reading.  He’s also known to be a keen golf player. Is he really doing that or is he still involved in some way? He probably is not involved in day to day decisions, but I think he does continue to wield some influence particularly in the military,” Rogers said.

Aung Din, a former political prisoner who now heads the U.S. Campaign for Burma, says Than Shwe may still be influential but that is not what is most important.  

"He might be pulling the strings from behind the scenes, but we just need to monitor the current players, what they are doing and how they are making progress or whether they are going to turn back to their past," Aung Din said.

In March, Thein Sein, a former general and prime minister, became president following Burma’s first national elections in 20 years. Until then, analysts say executive decisions were based largely on Than Shwe’s personal preferences with little consultation.

David Steinberg, a Burma analyst at Georgetown University, says the dynamic seems to have shifted.

"People have told me that nobody could bring things up to him [Than Shwe] unless he brought them up first. Now that’s changed. Part of that results from a change in personality. Part of that may also be that we’re not sure where power is. Power is shared now," Steinberg said.

With this new dynamic, Burma has seen a flurry of reforms. This week, the parliament passed a bill allowing citizens to hold peaceful protests - with some conditions. Authorities also have freed several hundred political prisoners, passed legislation legalizing labor unions and canceled the construction of an unpopular Chinese dam.

The bill allowing peaceful protests still needs presidential approval. It requires protestors to apply for a permit five days prior to rallies and says demonstrations must avoid government buildings, banks, schools, hospitals and embassies.  

Aung Din says that while this is good progress, there is still much to be done. "Even though there is a law allowing people to protest, but at the same time people are looking at the political prisoners, arrested and in prison for their peaceful protest. This is a kind of irony," Aung Din said.

Human rights groups estimate that more than 1,000 political prisoners remain behind bars.

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