Myanmar may have announced a new president last week, but analysts say the country’s ageing junta chief will still pull the strings in the new political system.
Than Shwe, who began his authoritarian rule in 1992, will try to ensure his own safety by maintaining his influence behind the scenes after the rise of his key ally Thein Sein to the position of president, according to experts.
However, if anyone was under the impression that he had quietly faded into the background with the selection of a new political leader, a prominent message on the front of the main state newspaper served to underline his strength.
The squat septuagenarian was pictured on Saturday in full military uniform, chest bristling with medals, but without the customary dark glasses, above the announcement of the country’s new president.
“Maybe whoever is in charge of the newspaper they just wanted to confirm that Than Shwe is still the boss, Thailand-based expert Aung Naing Oo said.
Described by critics as brutal, paranoid and heavily influenced by astrology, Than Shwe swept his enemies from key positions after taking power, including purging then-Myanmar prime minister Khin Nyunt in October 2004.
Avoiding a similar fate and ensuring the security of those close to him will therefore be at the forefront of his plans, analysts said.
Some analysts say Than Shwe will step back from the army, relying on trusted members of the military hierarchy now in positions of power.
Thein Sein, chosen as president on Friday, shed his army uniform to contest last November’s election as head of the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which claimed an overwhelming majority in the poll. Sources say he will remain prime minister.
Other key allies include former junta No. 3 Thura Shwe Mann, who US-based analyst Win Min said is likely to “control the parliament” as lower house speaker.
The new national assembly in Naypyidaw, convened for the first time last week, taking the country towards the final stage of the junta’s so-called “roadmap” to a “disciplined democracy.” However, a quarter of the parliamentary seats were reserved for the military even before the country’s first poll in 20 years, which was marred by the absence of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and claims of cheating and intimidation.
Despite the dominance of retired generals in the new political system, some believe there is a chink of hope. In addition to the national -parliament, there are also 14 regional assemblies run by ministers whose roles could bring them into competition with local army chiefs — and perhaps chip away at military domination.
Trevor Wilson, an academic and former Australian ambassador to Myanmar, said the country had “definitely reached the first stage of a transitional regime. I think he [Than Shew] is preparing for his departure, it’s not going to be sudden, he will be around in the background.”
Than could move from the army to a protected position within the USDP, Aung Naing Oo said, adding that if he does not have a formal role and “does not participate in day-to-day issues there is a possibility there will be more openings.”
Win Min also sees Than taking up a position in the party he created, predicting a retreat to his headquarters in the hills overlooking the capital Naypyidaw.