Future scenarios

Increasingly hardline positions on policy issues are likely to emerge in the immediate future since a series of military appointments shows that Than Shwe and his hardliners are still in control. It appears that Than Shwe will continue to make critical decisions and demonstrate his authority by appearing at important meetings from time to time. Than Shwe is likely to also continue to play Maung Aye off against Shwe Mann in order to maintain his centrality as a balancing figure, as he did with Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt in the past.

At the same time, Than Shwe will probably delegate more power to Shwe Mann, whom he considers to be loyal to him. Than Shwe is, however, also likely to keep hold of the purse strings, rather than handing monetary power to Shwe Mann. General Ne Win also held onto this power after he retired from the military. By giving more power to Shwe Mann, Than Shwe appears to believe that more and more generals will side with Shwe Mann than with Maung Aye. This is a tactic Ne Win used to pave the way for men loyal to him to rise through the ranks.

Although Than Shwe has a succession plan, he might not be able to follow through with it if his health deteriorates further. Than Shwe reportedly fainted after his November 2007 meeting with the Chinese Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, who brought a confidential letter from the Chinese Prime Minister urging Than Shwe to expedite the road-map process and economic reform.[28]

Than Shwe’s reluctance to initiate economic reform is likely to result in greater socioeconomic hardship for the Burmese people. His refusal to cooperate with the international community has increased various governments’ frustration with the regime and will likely lead to increased external pressure.

For the intermediate term, there are three possible scenarios.

The third scenario could still come to pass if demonstrations break out again. Than Shwe’s refusal to make the country’s socioeconomic problems a priority and to enter into a dialogue with the opposition could make people increasingly frustrated and lead them onto the streets again. Many activists, including the monks who organised the 2007 demonstrations, are in hiding in the country and are waiting for another opportunity to take to the streets. Unlike in 1988, many did not flee to the border. If mass demonstrations happen again, and if Than Shwe orders the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators, some authorities could refuse to comply and Maung Aye might be in a position to take over. The morale of many officers has been low, since the regime has not been able to convince them why the military had to use violence against revered monks in the 2007 demonstrations.

If Than Shwe steps down or is removed, there will be no dominant figure like him to dictate hardline positions, as power is likely to be distributed among the top leaders. Although Than Shwe might perceive Shwe Mann to be loyal to him, it is likely that he could become more pragmatic when Than Shwe’s influence over him diminishes. This is what happened to Ne Win’s protégé, Khin Nyunt, when Ne Win’s power gradually waned after 1988. It is likely that any post-Than Shwe junta will be more vulnerable to pressure from the pragmatic officers in the military, from citizens, from the opposition parties, including the ethnic minority groups, and from the international community, and it could be compelled to make gradual economic and political reforms.

[28] Interview with a businessman close to the military, 20 November 2007.