But this high-minded talk meets with a decidedly cynical reception from informed observers, who say that the parliamentary leader doesn't necessarily practice what he preaches. "We all know how corrupt he and his sons have been," one ethnic opposition politician told me. In this context, he says, Shwe Mann's frequent public sallies against sleaze come off as "obnoxious."
The U.S. Treasury Department appears to have shared those suspicions. In 2008, the Treasury's U.S. Office of Assets Control announced that it was imposing financial sanctions on Shwe Mann's wife, Khin Lay Thet, and one of his sons, Aung Thet Mann, the director of a company also targeted by the same measure. The Treasury action singled out Aung Thet Man's close links to Zay Ta, one of Burma's biggest oligarchs. "Tay Za has used his business relationship with Aung Thet Mann to win favorable business contracts from the Burmese junta," the Treasury statement noted.
Shwe Mann's other son is married to the daughter of yet another leading business tycoon named Khin Shwe, who was placed on the sanctions list in 2007. "He also considered very corrupt due to the activities of his sons and resented by some generals senior to him in the army," alleged another WikiLeaks cable. (As a senior member of the regime, Shwe Mann was himself targeted by U.S. financial sanctions until September 20, when he and Thein Sein were both taken off the list.)
Of course, it's not out of the question for a high-ranking member of a dictatorial regime to change his ways. Many of those who served as senior figures in Burma's military dictatorship have now swung their support (at least in public) to President Thein Sein's course -- presumably under the assumption that they will be able to keep the wealth and connections they accumulated under the old regime while benefiting from the lifting of their country's pariah status. It's certainly true that the old rulers' move towards openness has not always been dictated by noble, altruistic motives. Last December, shortly before his meeting with Clinton, Shwe Mann admitted his anxiety to Burmese generals: "We do not want to end up like the Arab dictators. One day they were very powerful. The next day they died ignoble deaths."