Commenting on his military experience against the Karen, one of the U.S. diplomatic cables accused him of human rights abuses: "Like most Burmese field commanders, Shwe Mann utilized forced civilian porters, including women and children, on a massive scale during operations against Karen insurgents." One of the 2007 U.S. diplomatic cables suggests that although Shwe Mann "is thought to be more open-minded, by all accounts he willingly participated in the brutal repression of September's pro-democracy protests" -- a reference to the Buddhist-monk-led demonstrations of that year that came to be known as the Saffron Revolution.
Another red flag for the international community is Shwe Mann's alleged involvement with the North Korean military. According to a leaked U.N. report seen by Reuters, Shwe Mann traveled to North Korea in November 2008 and signed a military agreement with Pyongyang. According to the U.N. report, which has yet to be made public, the agreement between the two countries potentially violates U.N. sanctions. The report also cites sources who claim that Shwe Mann visited a North Korean factory where ballistic missiles are manufactured. (An official itinerary of the visit obtained by the Democratic Voice of Burma, an exile news organization, also includes a reference to a missile factory visit.)
In December 2011, shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first visit to Burma, a Burmese newspaper published an interview with Shwe Mann in which he acknowledged his trip to North Korea, saying that the two countries had signed a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation: "We studied their air defense system, weapons factories, aircrafts and ships. Their armed forces are quite strong so we just agreed to cooperate with them if necessary." While Shwe Mann has vehemently denied any nuclear cooperation with North Korea, the U.N. report states that in May 2011 a North Korean ship suspected of attempting to transport missiles or other weapons to Burma was forced to turn around by U.S. naval forces before it reached its destination. The report also states that another North Korean ship on a similar mission in June 2009 turned around after becoming aware it was being traced.
Although Shwe Mann might not have a squeaky clean past, the United States will no doubt be quick to forget his shortcomings. While Aung San Suu Kyi might be Obama's preferred choice as a partner, there's no guarantee that she will be able to gain real political power any time soon. The present constitution actually bars Suu Kyi from taking part in the next election, and the rest of her party, the National League for Democracy, is likely to face greater competition if Shwe Mann follows through on his plans to transform the USDP into a full-fledged political party committed to reform. For the moment, the United States still has to rely on the former generals-cum-reformists like Shwe Mann -- people who wield real power under the current Burmese political system -- to steer the country in the direction Washington would like to see.
Despite the dark tones in his background, diplomats and some political observers in Rangoon insist that Shwe Mann has long shown moderate tendencies. "He really wanted to reform the country but we feel he was often held back by Than Shwe," one experienced European diplomat told me. Now that Than Shwe, his former patron, appears to have withdrawn from the political arena, Shwe Mann may have finally gained the space to emancipate his inner liberal. "He is using his old power to transform parliament and right the wrongs of the past," one opposition MP told me (again insisting on anonymity for fear of retribution). On several occasions the speaker has even chosen to directly challenge the president. The first public incident involved a disagreement over the introduction of a minimum wage for government workers. Thein Sein opposed the idea, citing inflation and a high government deficit. Shwe Mann moved ahead on the legislation nonetheless, building overwhelming support from legislators. A version of the bill passed in the end, though notably watered down.
Aung San Suu Kyi also appears to credit Shwe Mann's will to reform. Those around the opposition leader say that she and Shwe Mann, who both sit on a parliamentary committed devoted to promoting the rule of law, agree on a number of issues and have formulated a strategy to push forward with liberalization. "Democracy will live sustainably with peace and stability only when there is rule of law," Shwe Mann told fellow parliamentarians in a speech last month. "The three rely on each other. Therefore, everyone has to obey the country's existing laws and regulations to develop rule of law."