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‘The General must not be disturbed’

Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe is undoubtedly number one. Since he took power in 1992, he has consolidated his own personal position in a way that means Burma is no longer ruled by a collection of Generals, as it was from September 1988 until the mid-1990s, but by one man, Burma’s tyrant.

Evidence of this is abundant, but an illustration came when British politician Andrew Mitchell MP visited Rangoon in 2007. He asked the Deputy Foreign Minister if he could visit Aung San Suu Kyi. The Deputy Foreign Minister trembled, saying only one man could give permission:  Than Shwe. “Well call him up then,” Mitchell suggested. Such an idea was enough to turn the Deputy Foreign Minister’s face pale. The Senior General must not be disturbed, he retorted.

Writing a biography of Than Shwe is far from easy. Few people know much about him, and access to him or his family, for an activist like me, is impossible. I requested an interview with him, and with the Burmese ambassador in London, but received no reply. Instead, I had to rely on anecdotes from defectors from the Burma Army who have known him at different times, during his military training, his time as South-West Regional Commander and as Senior General, and the impressions of international diplomats who have met him. I conducted extensive interviews with people such as former UN Special Envoy Razali Ismail, former British ambassador Mark Canning, former Australian, American, Japanese and Thai diplomats, and others. I also travelled to Burma, visiting Naypyidaw and talking to people in various parts of the country and along its borders about life under Than Shwe’s rule. I was told many stories, some of which I believe are true and others are impossible to verify. Rumour surrounds Than Shwe, but even if some stories are untrue, the fact that they spread says something about him and his family, and how widely disliked they are. In every rumour, there is at least a grain of truth, a flash of insight into his character and mindset.

Than Shwe was born in Kyaukse, an area near Mandalay well known for its conservative culture. His education was limited, and after only a year as a postman, he joined the Officer Training School (OTS) and rose through the ranks of the Tatmadaw. In 1958, the year the military took control of the government for the first time, Than Shwe joined the office of the Director of Education and Psychological Warfare, where he gained grounding in the skills of propaganda and divide-and-rule which he uses to manipulate and destroy his opponents today. His time in the Central School of Political Sciences a few years later was also influential. Tasked with teaching the Burmese Way to Socialism, Ne Win’s ideological framework designed to justify military rule, described by one former diplomat as “an amalgam of Karl Marx and Groucho Marx”, Than Shwe taught history. His love of the ancient Burmese warrior kings, on whom he models himself, and his penchant for giving visiting diplomats long, distorted lectures on Burmese history, is likely to have grown from this time. At least one reason for the move to a new capital, Naypyidaw, described by former British ambassador Mark Canning as “the most awful place you have ever been to,” is that Burmese kings had a tradition of building new capitals, as part of their legacy. Naypyidaw means “the Seat of Kings”, and is part of Than Shwe’s legacy.

According to those who knew Than Shwe during the 1960s and 1970s, he was not regarded as a particularly successful soldier.  Sein Thaung says he was “not very smart, very quiet, and always willing to say things to please the commander … but no one was impressed.” But this very lack of flair, ability, charisma and overt ambition was the secret of his success. “Than Shwe kept quiet – he knew that if you show off too much in the military, you are likely to be chopped,” said one of his former colleagues.

In fact, some question the extent of his battlefield experience altogether, and most doubt that the medals he wears today were earned. There are even some stories of real incompetence and cowardice. Former Communist solder Aung Kyaw Zaw claims that in a battle between the Tatmadaw and the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1980, Than Shwe was ordered to move his troops into Khangtang and the Loi Mwe Valley. He fulfilled this command, but then switched off his radio for two days and disappeared. “He went to sleep in the valley,” says Aung Kyaw Zaw. “He didn’t want to fight.”When he finally resumed communications, his superiors were furious. “They told him to take off his badge and rank and hand them over to senior officers. They told him he was incapable.”

Bizarrely, however, it was his very lack of competence that brought him to Ne Win’s attention. Although Ne Win and his top advisors doubted Than Shwe’s military prowess, they had no reservations about his loyalty.  “Ne Win didn’t like good soldiers, he only liked followers, dull people like Than Shwe,” concludes Aung Kyaw Zaw.

Than Shwe benefited from Ne Win’s suspicion of potential rivals in the regime, particularly after the coup plot against Ne Win in 1976, and was rewarded for his loyalty. His rose to become South-West Regional Commander, where according to those who knew him he developed a passion for infrastructure projects and false propaganda. He embarked on a campaign to improve literacy rates, and declared victory, claiming to have eliminated illiteracy in the Irrawaddy Delta. Others who were there at the time claim there remained many people who could not read or write.

Despite presiding over a system of widespread forced labour, Than Shwe gained a reputation among those who worked for him as Regional Commander as a modest man with simple tastes and no signs of the cruelty and corruption endemic in his family and regime today. One of his former staff says that in the early 1980s, Than Shwe was “a nice guy”.

But if a palm-reader were consulted, they would not conclude that Than Shwe is a nice guy. According to palm-readers, most people have three lines on their palms: a life line, indicating health, a head line representing intellect, and a heart line, meaning compassion. Look at a photograph of Than Shwe waving, and you will see: he has no heart line.

After the brutal suppression of the democracy movement in 1988 and the return of a fully-fledged military regime, Than Shwe became the number two, under General Saw Maung. He manoeuvred skilfully to oust Saw Maung in 1992, perhaps together with Khin Nyunt, and became the Senior General. Rumours suggest Than Shwe may have been involved in drugging Saw Maung. However, even despite his ruthlessness in ousting Saw Maung, Than Shwe was perceived as a stop-gap. Ne Win saw him as less of a threat to him than Khin Nyunt, and therefore a safer bet. Diplomats say he was seen as a “short-termer”. A former Thai ambassador recalls: “He played the fool at the beginning, giving the impression of a parochial, unambitious person, giving Ne Win the impression that he could trust him, that he was not hungry for power. He was a mastermind – he fooled everybody.”

Razali Ismail says Than Shwe can be “very charming and friendly when he wants to be,” but most diplomats who have met him describe him as “cold and humourless”.  Humour, said one, “is not part of his personality” and he has a “plump, sullen face”. He speaks English quite well, loves Manchester United, watches Chinese Shaolin martial arts movies, reads TIME magazine and, reportedly, surfs the Internet. He eats simply, preferring basic curries, fried morning glory, fish-head soup and gourd and magnolia fritters. He is slow to make decisions, but when he does, he tends to overreact. During the Saffron Revolution, he reportedly went into a deep depression, and refused to eat anything except chicken rice soup.

His wife, Kyaing Kyaing, is a significant influence, particularly as far as astrologers are concerned. She had been married before, to another soldier who was killed in battle. Versions vary, but one account suggests Than Shwe was ordered by his superior to marry his fallen comrade’s widow, while another version says soldiers drew lots to decide who should marry her and he drew the short straw. She is known to dislike Aung San Suu Kyi at least as much as he does, if not more. Former diplomats say that Aung San Suu Kyi “represents everything that [the Generals and their wives] are not” – she is beautiful, intelligent, sophisticated, highly-educated and well-travelled.

How has Than Shwe maintained, indeed tightened, such a strong personal grip on power? He is despised and feared in equal measure, yet unlike other dictators, possesses no charisma to inspire loyalty. The answer, according to one diplomat, is that he controls the levers of power, especially regarding patronage and promotion. Many soldiers owe their careers to him, just as he owed his to Ne Win. Only when he had reached the very top did Than Shwe assert his own power. When he went as far as putting Ne Win and his family under house arrest, it was, says a former diplomat, “a pretty powerful statement of intent.” He has built several power bases, notably the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA), a group of business cronies, the new capital, a new constitution and fake elections that will ensure military rule and protection for him and his family after his eventual retirement or death.

These are just some of the themes I explore in my book, in addition to his family’s greed and corruption, his grandson’s antics and the crimes against humanity perpetrated by his regime. In addition, the book examines the influence of astrology, the drugs trade, the nuclear programme, arms purchases, biological and chemical weapons, relations with China, Russia and North Korea, Khin Nyunt’s demise, Maung Aye’s role, the development of the USDA and Swann Arr Shin, the cronies, the succession, Naypyidaw, the Saffron Revolution, Cyclone Nargis and Than Shwe’s attitudes toward Aung San Suu Kyi who, according to Razali Ismail, “frightened the hell out of the military”. The conclusion I reach is that Than Shwe is a skilled manipulator, who knows how to play people off each other. Although not educated academically, it is a mistake to underestimate him or to think of him as mad or stupid. He is ruthless and brutal, but he knows what he wants and has shown a remarkable ability to get it. His very colourlessness and lack of flamboyance is the secret of his success.

Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). His book Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant will be published by Silkworm Books in June 2010.