Myanmar’s new foreign minister returns to the spotlight

Two years after seizing power, Myanmar’s coup regime has replaced its foreign minister, swapping one retired colonel for another in a bid to break its diplomatic deadlock with much of the rest of the world.

The new foreign minister, 70-year-old Than Swe, is a familiar face. In 2012, he was appointed ambassador to the United States by the quasi-civilian administration of former President Thein Sein. Before that, during the era of dictator Than Shwe, he was Myanmar’s top diplomat at the United Nations.

In his new capacity, he takes over from Wunna Maung Lwin, who has joined the 20-member military council that has been attempting to rule Myanmar since the coup.

The reasons for Wunna Maung Lwin’s removal were not clear, but it is believed that it had something to do with his failure to win over his counterparts within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

“From what I’ve heard, Wunna Maung Lwin was not well-liked in the international diplomatic community—especially within ASEAN. His attitude was, ‘If I’m not invited, no one can attend.’ They didn’t like that,” said one source close to the Naypyitaw regime.

Than Swe (second from left) with his predecessor Wunna Maung Lwin (third from left) and other DSA classmates—former vice president Nyan Tun and UEC chair Thein Soe—at a military dinner in 2022

The source was referring to ASEAN’s decision to exclude junta leaders from senior-level gatherings due to their refusal to abide by the regional bloc’s Five-Point Consensus, aimed at ending the crisis ignited by the military takeover.

As foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin was tasked with rejecting other countries’ criticism of the regime. But while some of his ASEAN peers gave him opportunities to make his case in person, he was otherwise treated as something of a pariah on the world stage.

As his successor, Than Swe is not likely to deviate from the script that made Wunna Maung Lwin so unwelcome in diplomatic circles. Even the fact that coup leader Min Aung Hlaing chose him for the job, and not someone who might have been able to take a different approach, already suggests that the junta has given up on trying to improve its international image, at least for the time being.

Instead, Than Swe will most likely busy himself with meeting the occasional foreign guest or issuing statements that fall on deaf ears. Apart from that, he has already begun to do some housekeeping. On January 15, he and the regime’s minister for international cooperation, Ko Ko Hlaing, held a virtual meeting with staff stationed at diplomatic missions abroad, reminding them that they are on the frontlines of the junta’s fight to win legitimacy.

This is a far cry from his heyday a decade ago, when he assumed his post as Myanmar’s ambassador to the United States amid a dramatic improvement in relations between the two countries. Now, post-coup, he finds himself once again trying to defend an isolated and reviled regime.

Like Wunna Maung Lwin, Than Swe belonged to the 16th intake of the elite Defence Services Academy (DSA)—the same class that produced several other high-ranking military officials, including Thein Soe, the current chair of the junta-controlled Union Election Commission, and Nyan Tun, the former navy commander-in-chief who went on to serve as vice-president under Thein Sein.

Than Swe and family

After graduating, Than Swe joined Infantry Battalion 40, based in Hopin, in Kachin State’s Mohnyin Township. He later carried out military operations in Karen State and was made a battalion commander with the rank of colonel. 

In 2000, however, he retired from the military to assume civilian posts, including that of director general of the Ministry of Progress of Border Areas, National Races and Development Affairs under the Than Shwe dictatorship.

Married and with two daughters, Than Swe has a son-in-law, Aung Ko, who has served as director general of the Political Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Aung Ko was also the main interpreter for Thein Sein during his five-year tenure as president from 2011-16.

Than Swe’s son-in-law Aung Ko acts as an interpreter during a meeting between UK Prime Minister David Cameron and President Thein Sein in April 2012 (AFP via Getty Images)

Until the February 2021 coup, Than Swe appeared to be enjoying his life as a former ambassador. His Facebook page features numerous photos of him travelling, both in Myanmar  and abroad. He is also known to spend a lot of time playing golf with former DSA classmates.

After the military overthrew the elected civilian government, however, he was appointed chair of the Union Civil Service Board, a position he held until last August.

During his time in that role, he reversed many reforms introduced during the decade-long “democratic transition” that ended two years ago. He reinstated many rules from the Than Shwe era, including a return to military-style uniforms for civil servants, as well as a requirement that they undergo military training and shooting practice.

After leaving the Union Civil Service Board, he became chair of the junta’s Anti-Corruption Commission, in which capacity he represented the military council at the 18th ASEAN Parties Against Corruption meeting in Cambodia last November.

Now in his most visible post since the military abruptly ended its experiment in power-sharing, Than Swe must now try to persuade the regime’s critics abroad that it is restoring normalcy, even as it continues to face an unprecedented challenge to its rule.

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