Burma ex-general Shwe Mann rides wave of change

U Shwe Mann walked quietly into the room, and thanked me for the interest the BBC is showing in Burma. We need your help too in our endeavour, he said.

I was then free to ask him any questions I wanted. There were so many. We soon ran out of time. Throughout he was relaxed, if careful in his answers, and courteous.

This was the third-ranking general in the SPDC, the secretive military council that ruled Burma, often brutally, for more than 20 years. A government that only four or five years ago branded the BBC and other international broadcasters as "Assassins on Air, Sky-full of Liars".

Such is the dizzying pace of change in Burma now.

Years ago, when it was nearly impossible for journalists like me to visit Burma officially, we used to glean any snippets of information we could from those - usually diplomats or members of UN missions - who were allowed fleeting access to the country's military rulers.

They offered one consistent impression - that Shwe Mann was the man to watch. A protégé of senior general Than Shwe, who had risen rapidly after a successful career as a combat officer, he was open to the concerns of the international community in a way that most of his colleagues were not.

Today, as speaker of the new parliament in Naypyitaw, he is one of the architects of Burma's reform drive, a double-act and rival to President Thein Sein. Many observers see him as the most likely replacement for Thein Sein when his term of office ends.

'Protect national interests'

That rivalry has been on display recently over a badly-needed foreign investment law. MPs in parliament, many with their own vested business interests, inserted clauses deemed too restrictive to attract the foreign investment the country needs.

The president demanded amendments to make the bill more investor-friendly. Some were inserted, but the president has demanded more. The bill has been delayed several months.

"We want foreign investment - we need it for our country's development", Shwe Mann told me. "But it has to be based on rule of law. The MPs need to ensure they protect the interests of our nation and people, as well as those of foreign investors."

He said once it was discussed in parliament next month, and then returned to the president, it would have to become law within seven days.

What about his relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi, the main opposition leader in parliament, and a woman kept under house arrest for 15 years by the military government he served in.

Image caption Shwe Mann said he and Aung San Suu Kyi shared a common goal

"We have a good relationship, we are colleagues," he said. "She is not my enemy, and I am sure I am not hers. She has good qualities and she loves her country. We share the same ambition - to serve the nation and people."

I asked whether he thought a federal political system would help resolve the long-running war between the Burmese army and ethnic armed groups which have ravaged border areas for decades.

"We are discussing this in parliament," he said. "The ethnic nationalities want a federal state, with autonomous regions and equal rights. But there are misunderstandings about what federal means. Is it like the United States, or the Russian Federation?

"It takes time to change from one system to another, but for me, I don't want to see revolution, I would rather see evolution."

He warned that the issue of the Muslim Rohingya minority was very sensitive. Recent communal clashes between Rohingyas and Buddhist residents in Rakhine state left at least 80 people dead. The issue requires immediate attention, he said, but we have to treat all the groups there equally or there will be more tension.

'Learning lessons'

One question was uppermost in my mind throughout the interview, the question I think anyone would want to ask such a prominent official in the old regime. Why did reform take so long to get started in Burma, and why was the old regime so harsh towards its opponents?

I got what was the standard response of military leaders in the past; that the threat posed by the various ethnic insurgencies was an important factor, that the former rulers did want to develop a democratic system, but the "situation" made this impossible.

But did he have any regrets about his personal role in that regime?

"I won't say regrets. But we have learned a lot. We must learn from our past so that in future we can serve our people better."

And the reforms - could they be reversed?

"Our reforms are irreversible," he promised. "Our goal is still to build a multi-party democratic system and a market economy."

There is a great deal that could still go wrong in Burma. Long-suppressed grievances are being expressed openly for the first time, and people are competing for power and resources. It could get messy, even violent.

Shwe Mann, and other soldiers-turned-reformers, will be challenged over their past roles, and over their often extensive business interests.

Bur right now this former general looks very comfortable riding the wave of change that has so surprised the rest of the world.