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Q+A: Will Myanmar's strongman fade from political scene?

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Prime Minister Thein Sein was chosen on Friday to become president in Myanmar’s new civilian-led political set-up, nominally at least becoming head of state as the country’s junta steps down.

The big question is: what will junta supremo Than Shwe do now?


Unlikely. The presidency is probably something the military strongman never really wanted. The rise of one of his most trusted associates in a choreographed parliamentary vote suggests Than Shwe will remain in charge, but behind the scenes.

The reclusive junta boss is not suited to the public role required of a president. He rarely attends public events or gives speeches and has not spoken to the media in years. His state visits have been restricted to neighboring India and China.


To a certain extent, yes. Many experts say the 78-year-old Than Shwe is seriously worried about what might happen to him and his family, and they assumed he was reluctant to put power into the hands of someone else, even a loyalist.

Than Shwe has made many enemies and he knows it. He’s not too bothered about Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi or the public. His real fear is probably people in the military he has crossed swords with, demoting them or forcing them into retirement.

Insiders say he is concerned he might one day be purged or even assassinated and needed to ensure the new political system was controlled by loyal servants.

Than Shwe knows all about purges. He engineered the downfall of two power-holders in the past, former junta boss the late Ne Win and ex-premier Khin Nyunt. He placed both under house arrest.


One thing seems sure to analysts: he will continue to pull the strings behind the military, legislature and executive.

He could remain head of the military by taking the job of commander-in-chief of Defence Services, which is also a powerful, hands-on political role offering a seat on the National Defense and Security Council, a new entity analysts say could turn out to be similar to the politburo of China.

In a crisis, the commander-in-chief, with the president’s approval, can call a state of emergency and assume sovereign power over the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

However, there are rumors he may have already appointed a successor. On Thursday state media reported that “the commander-in-chief” attended a meeting of parliament but didn’t mention Than Shwe by name, which is unusual.


It’s an option. He’s 78 years old and his health is deteriorating. He has a palace-like mansion in the new capital, Naypyitaw.

But some suggest he could become a patron of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the junta’s political proxy that controls 76 percent of the legislature.

Concerned the party could develop an agenda of its own and challenge the military status quo, he could take unofficial control and keep its members in check.


Thein Sein is the regime’s fourth-in-command and seen as a neutral figure in Myanmar’s military, having not been a member of any faction. The 65-year-old is seen as a “yes man” with no political agenda and no ambitions for real power, making him the perfect front man for Than Shwe.

Unlike his associates in the old regime, who have become considerably rich, he has no known business interests and has a clean image. He is a shy and retiring figure and military insiders say there’s little reason to dislike him.

Thein Sein was a career soldier who became part of the junta in 1997 when it was reorganized. He replaced General Soe Win as prime minister after his death in October 2007.

He resigned from the army in early 2010 so he could take part in the November election as a civilian.

He was the international face of the old regime and is known to other leaders, having attended summits. His ascendance to the presidency represents a continuation of the status quo.


It seems so. If Than Shwe and his deputy, Maung Aye, seen to be stepping aside, it may make the elections and parliament look more like a political transformation to an international audience after five decades of iron-fisted military rule.

In reality, the regime has not ceded power at all.

The changes are largely cosmetic, simply retiring junta heavyweights and shifting them into other political positions. Most lawmakers are soldiers or retired soldiers. Military people fill many other top positions. (Editing by Alan Raybould and Jonathan Thatcher)