When Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi spoke warmly on a recent radio show about a critical meeting that followed her landslide election victory, she was referring to talks with the very man who had detained her for 15 years.
Listeners might have been surprised by the Nobel peace laureate’s gentle tone towards Than Shwe, former head of the junta that ruled Burma for nearly half a century.
But it was just one of several conciliatory gestures Suu Kyi has made towards her one-time enemies since the 8 November poll, underlining her transformation from persecuted democracy icon to pragmatic politician.
Her readiness to forge alliances with even those she once reviled could augur well for Burma, no longer a global pariah but still a country fraught with political risk as Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and the military prepare to share power.
“We should think of working for the emergence of a brighter future based on the present situation, instead of thinking why we didn’t do it in the past,” Suu Kyi said after meeting Than Shwe, whose regime kept her locked up in her lakeside Rangoon home and prevented her dying British husband from visiting Burma.
In the month since her election triumph, the 70-year-old Suu Kyi has also held talks – cordial, according to media reports – with President Thein Sein, a former military commander, and armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing.
In other mollifying moves, she has called on her supporters to restrain their victory celebrations and warned NLD lawmakers not to call themselves “winners” in media interviews.
“It’s about smoothening the way,” said analyst Richard Horsey, a former senior United Nations official in Burma. “It’s about building relationships and political positioning, which is very important.”
The events suggest that Suu Kyi, who often comes across as stern and uncompromising, is settling into realpolitik.
The army’s powers have not substantially diminished since a shift to semi-civilian rule in 2011: Under the constitution, it is guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in parliament, and controls three big-budget and powerful ministries.
Than Shwe resigned as head of state and army chief in 2011 and stepped away from active politics, but diplomats and observers say he retains enough clout to make the closed-door appointment with Suu Kyi a major step in easing her party’s formation of government.
“It is the truth that she will become the future leader of the country. I will support her with all of my efforts,” the former dictator was quoted as saying by his grandson Nay Shwe Thway Aung after the meeting.
Suu Kyi’s journey from the barricades to the corridors of power began over three years ago when she won a parliament seat. She cultivated ties with assembly speaker Shwe Mann, another former general who had been part of Than Shwe’s inner circle.
Shwe Mann was sacked from the leadership of the then-ruling party by President Thein Sein in August, partly because of his closeness to Suu Kyi. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party was trounced in last month’s election.
“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and I meet quite often,” Shwe Mann told Reuters last week, referring to her with an honorific.
“We got to understand each other during these meetings,” he added, calling her “straightforward, courageous and very frank”.
Now, Shwe Mann advises Suu Kyi on how to navigate the transition and deal with the military. “We thought that it’s important to use (Than Shwe’s) influence to the best advantage of the country by holding frank and sincere talks,” he said.
The military has made no official comment on Suu Kyi’s meeting with Than Shwe.
“No doubt U Than Shwe still has influence on all and enjoys the respects of both the military and the government,” said a high-ranking military lawmaker who did not want to be named. “But we can’t say for sure that the current commander-in-chief will nod to everything that others say when it comes to national security.”
Despite her own tribulations at its hands, Suu Kyi has refrained from openly criticising the military and she once admitted to having a “soft spot” for the armed forces. Her father, General Aung San, is the hero of post-colonial Burma, as the country was once known, and one of the founders of its army.
Analysts say Suu Kyi is also treading carefully after what happened in 1990, when the military ignored a thumping election victory by the NLD, placed her and hundreds of her party members under arrest, and continued in power.
“This traumatic experience is informing their very careful approach,” said Horsey, the analyst, referring to the NLD.
“It is informing the talk of reconciliation in a broad sense, but more practically Suu Kyi is reaching out to other political forces saying: ‘We’re going to reach out and work hand in hand.'”