In parliament Shwe Mann has built close relationships with several opposition MPs who until recently were being persecuted for their democratic inclinations. "There is an element of sincerity in these political relationships," says Rangoon political analyst and opposition sympathizer Khin Zaw Win. "As a result many opposition MPs regard Shwe Mann very highly." Those who have met him describe a quiet, collected, and relaxed man with an easy smile and good listening skills. (Shwe Mann declined FP's requests for an interview.) "He promotes debate and has tried to make the parliament accountable to the people and sticks to the constitution," one MP told me under condition of anonymity, citing his wariness of the still-dominant military. "Thein Sein is a consensus-builder who does not want to offend anyone, while Shwe Mann is more ambitious and perhaps more willing to take calculated risks for the good of the country."
And yet, at the same time, there are still worries that Shwe Mann is not quite as clean as he might want Obama to believe. A former member of Burmese military intelligence said that he and his colleagues consider Shwe Mann to be "more dangerous" than anyone in power. "He is very cunning and ambitious," said another former intelligence officer. "We have yet to see the real side of Shwe Mann. He has the ability to divide and rule and destroy the whole reform process." One U.S. State Department cable published by WikiLeaks in March 2007 bore the title, "Shwe Mann, Burma's Dictator-in-Waiting."
Such concerns are fueled by Shwe Mann's past career. He rose to the top of the Burmese military establishment by seeking a close relationship with former junta leader and dictator Than Shwe, who has a long-standing reputation for brutality. One senior military defector described Shwe Mann to me as a "Than Shwe rat" whose priorities are protecting his former patron from the International Criminal Court and securing his financial interests: "It was Than Shwe who got him to where he is today, so he is indebted to him."
Like Than Shwe, Shwe Mann attended the prestigious military academy that was responsible for grooming many of the regime's top brass. Soon after that he came perilously close to being discharged from the army for medical reasons, but was spared that shame by a highly-placed former academy classmate who got him a job as the director of a military school. Than Shwe, who became commander-in-chief of the Burmese military in 1992, saw a promising apprentice in Shwe Mann and made him one of his deputies. Like many other generals at the time, Shwe Mann also used family ties to expedite his ascent. His wife went to work as a teacher and nanny for Than Shwe's favorite grandson in an attempt to get on the good side of Burma's most powerful man.
It worked. According to another 2007 U.S. State Department cable, "when Than Shwe wants something done, ... Shwe Mann usually conveys his orders to the army and enforces his will." In 1997, Than Shwe shocked the county by firing all of his closest cabinet ministers. Shwe Mann benefited from the shakeup. He leapfrogged from a relatively junior rank to chief of staff, the third most powerful position in the army, and remained there until 2010, when Than Shwe officially retired.
Many inside Burma remain skeptical about Shwe Mann due to his role in the former regime. "I will never trust him," one young activist from Rangoon told me, who asked that his name be withheld to protect him from government retaliation. "He has been responsible for the killing and oppressing of our people for decades." Shwe Mann comes from a generation of battle-hardened generals who were sent to wage war against the various ethnic armies. He received a special commendation for his efforts fighting against the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), one of the many rebel groups campaigning for greater autonomy within the country.