Myanmar’s political transition took another step forward last week when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy Party swept last month’s elections, met with former dictator General Than Shwe.
Details of the secretive meeting of last Friday between former dictator Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi — Myanmar’s prospective national leader — came through the general's grandson, Nay Shwe Thway Aung, by way of his Facebook social media page.
Thway Aung quoted Than Shwe as saying the truth was that Aung San Suu Kyi would become Myanmar’s future leader and he supported her “with all his efforts.”
Political sea change
Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy newspaper, said the meeting highlighted the electoral success of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and the political sea change now underway in Myanmar.
“The former regime and government leaders they realize that the paradigm is changing. The huge shift in the political landscape is going to take place next year with the NLD coming to power. So I think they want to seek assurances as well as some kind of reconciliatory assurances," Aung Zaw said.
The meeting was the fourth between Myanmar’s two most powerful figures of recent decades, since the politically turbulent 1990s when Aung San Suu Kyi, often under house arrest under the orders of Than Shwe, led pro-democracy protests against the military junta.
Analysts said Myanmar’s parliamentary speaker, Shwe Mann, along with several influential business tycoons closely aligned to the former junta, played key roles in brokering the talks.
But analysts said Than Shwe’s support for Aung San Suu Kyi left unanswered whether the former dictator would back constitutional reforms allowing her to be president.
Under the 2008 military backed constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from the post due to her sons’ foreign citizenship.
Transition watched closely
Khin Ohmar, a coordinator with the rights group, Burma Partnership, said the constitutional reforms remain at the heart of the NLD’s political platforms. She said people are watching closely as the power shifts during the political transition.
“Now people are still very careful. All of us want Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to be able to make the best of her negotiation skills in this time. But it’s very scary at the same time," Khin Ohmar said.
"What if the military — this former dictator — has already set his own terms of compromise to what is the maximum that he will negotiate? So if the negotiation ends to the point that there is no constitution amendment for example, that is going to be major trouble for the NLD," she added.
Khin Ohmar said Than Shwe was a “very good strategist” with the meeting because it also conveyed the key message that he remains a highly influential figure over Myanmar’s political direction.
Despite the elections, Myanmar’s military remains powerful. The army is constitutionally guaranteed 25 percent of the parliamentary seats, and controls three powerful ministries; the home ministry which oversees police, along with the defense and border affairs ministries.
Groundswell of trust
But Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and activist, said there is also a strong groundswell of trust in Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts to move Myanmar – also known as Burma – despite the military’s ongoing influence.
“We hope for the best because it’s like this — if the army leaders really listen to the people’s choices, the people’s desires, they need to negotiate with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to become the president of Burma but also work with the new government and implement rule of law in the country — it needs to help Daw Aung San Suu Kyi," Bo Kyi said.
In the days after she met with Than Shwe, Aung San Suu Kyi called on NLD members to work with the military and former regime members, saying forgiveness is necessary in the steps towards national reconciliation.
Analysts said a smooth transition and reconciliation between the NLD and military would further boost Myanmar's economic prospects, ensuring those businesses aligned with the former regime will also profit.
The NLD is set to take up the reigns of power when a new legislature meets in late January.