Shwe Mann speaks to media outside the first session of the new parliament in 2016. Photo: Xinhua
Cyril Pereira
Cyril Pereira

The inside story of Myanmar’s troubled transition to democracy

  • Lieutenant Colonel Ye Htut charts the end of military rule in Myanmar, as well as the internal power struggles that undermined it
  • When General Than Shwe retired in 2011, he named Thein Sein as his successor, placing him on a collision course with Shwe Mann
In 2005, Lieutenant Colonel Ye Htut was assigned to Myanmar’s Ministry of Information, where he later played an active role in General Thein Sein’s 2011-16 regime. He became deputy information minister in 2012, spokesman for the president in 2013 and the minister of information from 2014-16. Hence, he was both an actor and a witness to the country’s political transition to democracy.

Ye Htut provides rich detail on the interplay between the president’s office, the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the civilian National League for Democracy (NLD). His book profiles the main actors, their motivations and the frictions between the legislature and the president during the troubled passage to civilian power-sharing. 

The book does not dwell on the painful mass uprisings of 1988, or why the junta allowed the transition in the first place. Nevertheless, writing a tell-all book is a brave errand when many powerful players remain alive and involved in politics.

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi at the International Court of Justice in 2019. Photo: AFP


Since the beginning of military rule in 1962, successive juntas cited the socialist programme of independence general Aung San – the father of Aung San Suu Kyi who was assassinated in 1947 – but citizens survived at subsistence level, subject to harsh and often-arbitrary abuse. This resentment erupted into demonstrations on August 8, 1988, beginning with university students in Yangon before spreading nationwide.

The uprising propelled Suu Kyi’s status as a national democracy icon. The people rallied around her for deliverance from the military.

After the 1988 coup by Senior General Saw Maung, an election was called in 1990 for a constitution-drafting committee. The NLD won 392 of the 447 seats, unnerving the junta. Pre-election pledges for the victorious party to draw up a new constitution were ignored.

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In 1992, military chief Than Shwe took over the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) – the official name of the country’s military government – after Saw Maung suffered a “nervous breakdown”.

Saw Maung upset hardliners with his plan to hand off to the popularly elected NLD and send the military back to barracks. He did not appreciate that other generals, Than Shwe among them, were unwilling to relinquish power and the opportunities for personal enrichment.

In 1997, the SLORC was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and Than Shwe continued military rule. He was no fan of democracy but the transition to civilian power-sharing was formalised by the country’s military, known as the Tatmadaw. In 2003, he established a “seven-step road map” for the orderly transfer of power, with the military as the ringmaster corralling a wild tiger into its constitutional cage.

Senior General Than Shwe in 2010. Photo: AFP


As head of state, Than Shwe empowered the military rather than the NLD to draft a new constitution, which enabled it to control the national convention with nominated representatives.

This charade drifted in fits and starts from 1993. Meanwhile, the senior leadership of the NLD was in prison or under house arrest. In protest, the party left the national convention in 1996.

The new constitution, drafted without NLD participation, entrenched a 25 per cent block of unelected seats for the military in both legislative houses, serving as a “veto” on constitutional changes. A hasty referendum to ratify the new constitution was held while the Irrawaddy Delta was recovering from the May 2008 devastation of Cyclone Nargis, which killed 150,000 people. International observers were denied access, ensuring the referendum had little credibility. In Myanmar, it was derisively referred to as the “Nargis Constitution”.

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“The military mindset of using coercion instead of persuasion or negotiation prevented national consensus on the future constitution,” Ye Htut writes.

In accordance with the 2003 road map to democracy, an election was scheduled for 2010. However, the NLD boycotted it as its senior leaders were incarcerated and Suu Kyi was confined to house arrest. All were ineligible for election. Unsurprisingly, the USDP won 80 per cent of the seats in an election dismissed internationally.

Soon after, Than Shwe decided it was time to move on. To relieve the mounting pressure from the US, EU, Asean and the UN, Than Shwe initiated meetings with Suu Kyi as political theatre to signal discussions were under way for a peaceful transition of power.

Thein Sein casts his vote in the 2015 elections. Photo: EPA


Than Shwe retired in 2011, dissolving the SPDC. He also astonished everyone by skipping over ranking General Shwe Mann to nominate fourth-ranked General Thein Sein to be his successor as president. Shwe Mann had previously been the senior general’s favourite, performing important crisis-management roles, proving most capable and perhaps too independent. 

For most generals, including Shwe Mann and Than Shwe, amassing wealth was par for the course. Thein Sein was the exception. He was honest, diligent and unambitious. He was no threat to anyone, including the corrupt. Shwe Mann was appointed speaker of the Lower House. Perhaps preferring not to have a supreme successor, Than Shwe made no attempt to alter the collision course he had orchestrated between the two men.

“When the power struggle between President Thein Sein and Speaker Shwe Mann intensified, other USDP leaders approached Than Shwe and pleaded with him to intervene, but Than Shwe refused to do so,” Ye Htut writes. Ye Htut characterises Thein Sein as well-meaning and sincere. He worked to strengthen the institutional framework for transparent and accountable government, with checks and balances between the executive, judiciary and legislature. His agenda was clear. However, the president lacked the killer instinct and guile to outsmart Shwe Mann, who felt he should be the boss. Thein Sein did not seek power. Nor did he use it when he should have.

The military mindset of using coercion instead of persuasion or negotiation prevented national consensus
Lieutenant Colonel Ye Htut

Hillary Clinton, as US secretary of state, described Thein Sein as more accountant than president, referring to his notes constantly, unwilling to interact spontaneously. There seemed no real persona behind the official mask.

Ye Htut identifies Shwe Mann as the key saboteur of the president’s reform agenda. He was acting chair of the USDP, as the 2008 constitution barred the president from party affairs. Shwe Mann used the USDP to control the legislature and manipulated the legislature as speaker to frustrate the president’s reforms, to the nation’s detriment.


Ye Htut identifies three major governance failures of the Thein Sein era.

First, the cancellation of the Myitsone Dam project. Second, the abandonment of the National Education Law to upgrade schooling with UN agencies. Third, the  violence against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.

Ye Htut blames these and other failures on the dysfunction arising from Shwe Mann’s bitterness and the lack of unity in Thein Sein’s cabinet. Despite that, he credits the president with bringing the NLD and Suu Kyi into the political process, ending media censorship, re-engaging with the international community, stabilising the currency and opening up to foreign investment.

“Thein Sein’s cabinet was anything but a united one,” he writes. “Some ministers thought they owed their positions to Than Shwe, and some sat on the fence waiting for the day when Shwe Mann became president.”

One wonders how the transition would have unfolded if roles were reversed, with Shwe Mann as president and Thein Sein as speaker. There would not have been the bad-faith sniping and plotting. The government would not have been crippled. There might have been a smoother transition, with firm principles of governance.

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Ye Htut provides acute insight into Shwe Mann’s targeted ambushes. He amended the Tribunal Law to weaken judicial power and expand parliament’s mandate. He transgressed the separation of powers. He promoted divisive election options for “first past the post” or proportional representation before cutting a side deal with the NLD, which opposed proportional representation.

“Thein Sein was not ruthless like Than Shwe, a smooth operator like Shwe Mann, or a charismatic individual like Aung San Suu Kyi,” Ye Htut writes. “President Thein Sein was too nice to be president amid Myanmar’s turbulent politics.”

Shwe Mann wanted to be president after Thein Sein, and undermined him at every turn. He promoted a populist agenda to court Suu Kyi and the media, casting himself as working for reconciliation. He transformed from feared general to smiling politician and cultivated rapport with Suu Kyi, freezing out the president to further his own ambition.

In contrast to Thein Sein, Shwe Mann was everything the president needed to be but wasn’t.

Cyril Pereira is a media consultant who has been based in Hong Kong for 35 years

Myanmar’s Political Transition and Lost Opportunities (2010-2016), by Ye Htut, published by ISEAS, Singapore, 2019, Paperback 259pp