Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Burma's former capital, Rangoon, where he met with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's reformist president, Thein Sein. These two people -- the former political prisoner and the former member of the military junta that put her in jail -- are now regarded as the twin engines of the liberalization process now under way in the country.
Less well-noticed was Obama's meeting with another politician: Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of Burma's parliament. Like President Thein Sein, the speaker is another ex-general, and has spent nearly his entire political career as a member of the same regime that harshly suppressed the pro-democracy movement. (Indeed, his wife and son currently remain on a U.S. sanctions list targeting the regime for its past human rights abuses, a fact that was presumably known to Obama at the time of their meeting.) At the same time, like Aung San Suu Kyi, Shwe Mann now speaks frequently of his enthusiasm for an open society -- assuring a visiting Hillary Clinton at one point, for example, that he and his colleagues had been watching old episodes of The West Wing as a crash course in democratic governance.
But it's probably not Shwe Mann's knowledge of prime-time TV that motivated Obama to seek out his company. The U.S. president's trip to Southeast Asia this week is part of the current diplomatic campaign known as the "pivot," the effort to re-weight Washington's foreign policy toward Asia. The ultimate aim of the new strategy is to balance against the rising influence of China, which has made substantial inroads into Southeast Asia over the past few years -- and especially in Burma, a country that lies at a geopolitical crossroads between India and China and also boasts rich natural resources coveted by its neighbors.
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For the Americans, that means not only restoring old alliances but also courting new friends -- and Shwe Mann is clearly viewed by the White House and the State Department as the sort of figure worthy of long-term investment. As a prominent ally of the reformist camp who nonetheless maintains close ties with leading army officers and business tycoons, the parliamentary leader has already staked a claim to a prominent role; many expect that he is likely to challenge the 67-year-old Thein Sein (who is known to be in poor health) for the top job sooner rather than later. And while Aung San Suu Kyi (also 67) remains the darling of those who wish Burma a bright and democratic future, it is the figures like Shwe Mann -- veterans of the old dictatorship who support the transition to democracy thanks to the material and political advantages they hope to gain from it -- who are likely to go on playing an outsized part in government regardless of the outcome.
Over the past two years Shwe Mann (65) has shown his mettle as a defender of the president's reforms. As the man who essentially runs the national parliament in Burma's remote jungle capital of Naypyidaw, Shwe Mann has pushed through several dramatic legislative reforms and has even been known to criticize Thein Sein for his allegedly "sluggish" approach to liberalization. The speaker has turned parliament into a lively and popular institution, surprising many who were skeptical about its freedom to act. All this -- along with his obvious vigor and good health -- has convinced many that Shwe Mann is the most likely candidate to succeed the current president in the next general election in 2015. It's that prospect, says Jim Della-Giacoma, a Southeast Asia analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), that probably persuaded Obama to start building bridges. "Under many different scenarios either based on short, medium, or long-term thinking, Shwe Mann is going to be a key player in Burma," says Della-Giacoma. "He is someone for the U.S. to engage now and cultivate for the future if, in the interests of supporting democracy, the U.S. sees its own common cause in bringing the national parliament to life as a legitimate democratic institution."
Shwe Mann has been praised for reaching out to political activist groups and encouraging reconciliation after years of oppression by the regime of which he was once a part. This past summer, he held a symbolic meeting with leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group, a civic organization representing the students who orchestrated a 1988 uprising that was brutally suppressed by government troops at a cost of 3,000 deaths (almost all them unarmed protestors). Most of the group's leading figures have spent the last twenty years languishing in prison cells across the country. Following the meeting, Ko Ko Gyi, a leading member of the group and prominent activist, gave the speaker a rave review. "In my opinion, he wishes to have a better country and is able to balance the government with the parliament," Ko Ko Gyi told me. "He has the courage and abilities to solve current difficulties as well as desires to see the emergence of a more democratic country."