Burma's paranoid dictator plots his dignified exit

Senior-General Than Shwe is giving his regime a makeover as he calculates the safest way to step down. Peter Popham reports

In the run-up to a long promised but still unscheduled general election, the first for 20 years, Burma's military dictator, Senior-General Than Shwe, has taken a step full of peril: he has ordered his uniformed cabinet ministers to resign from the army.

Those faceless generals who adorn the front page of the New Light of Myanmar, the regime's daily paper, inspecting fish-packing factories and barrages, will still be running the country, and anything resembling democratic governance will be as far away as ever.

But the look of things will have changed. The ministers will wear longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong-like garment. And crucially for them, they will no longer enjoy the status and respect which, in a country ruled with an iron fist by the military for half a century, is the army's prerogative.

Irrawaddy, the expatriate Burmese news website, predicts trouble. "Senior-General Than Shwe is facing a mutiny among his subordinates," it claimed last week. "There are growing signs of discontent among his cabinet ministers... They have been betrayed by their boss.

"Like it or not, army uniforms are a symbol of authority in Burma," it went on. "Those who wear them always get priority over those who don't. They are respected and can expect easy co-operation from others. Suddenly they will lose that privilege."

Leaving the army also means that those ministers will not be included in the 25 per cent quota that the army has reserved for itself in the planned new parliament. "Now they are on their own," Irrawaddy columnist Bamargyi pointed out. "Unless Than Shwe supports them with some dirty deals from behind the scenes, they are sure to lose. Once this happens, they are down the drain."

In trying to rebrand his military dictatorship as a civilian administration, the 77-year-old soldier who has been the boss of his nation of 50 million people for the past 18 years, and who was recently named by the journal Foreign Affairs as the world's third-worst dictator after Kim Jong-il and Robert Mugabe, thus faces a major challenge.

And in trying to withdraw from the scene while remaining in control, he faces an even tougher test: how, as King Lear deludedly put it, to "shake all cares and business from our age,/ Conferring them on younger strengths, while we/ Unburden'd crawl towards death"? How to do that without getting the Goneril and Regan treatment – or much worse?

How, in other words, to live out the rest of his days enjoying the billions he has plundered from the state, without ending up like his late boss Ne Win, Burma's dictator from 1962 to 1988, who, on Than Shwe's orders, ended his life locked in his lakeside villa in Rangoon under house arrest while his sons languished in jail under sentence of death?

How to avoid the fate of Khin Nyunt, the military intelligence chief and for many years Than Shwe's number two, who is also under house arrest with no prospect of release (while some of his underlings were tortured to death) after China hailed him as "Burma's Deng Xiaoping"?

According to Ben Rogers, author of the first-ever biography, Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant, which is launched in London next week, acute anxiety about his security is behind the fact that, two years after announcing elections, the senior general has yet to say when they will be held.

"He wants to make sure that everything is sewn up perfectly and that he can continue to govern from behind the scenes," said Rogers, a human rights advocate with Christian Solidarity Worldwide. "He will hold off naming the date until he's certain he's got all his ducks in a row. He doesn't want to give the candidates any room for campaigning."

A similarly secretive, paranoid approach dictated the most extraordinary decision of Than Shwe's career, and the one which, for good or ill, will assure him immortality of a sort: the removal of Burma's capital from Rangoon to a hot, malaria-infested, seismically sensitive wasteland in the centre of the country.

The idea of moving the army's HQ out of Rangoon had been in the air for a number of years, and may have been mentioned by Than Shwe to Aung San Suu Kyi in one of the fruitless meetings they held in 1994, while the opposition leader was under her first spell of house arrest. Rangoon is in the far south; for an army engaged in multiple counter-insurgency operations in the north and east, a base in the centre made strategic sense.

But unbeknownst to the outside world, Than Shwe nursed a far more drastic plan. "At precisely 6.37 am on 6 November 2005," writes Rogers, "hundreds of government servants left Rangoon in trucks shouting, "We are leaving! We are leaving!" ... Five days later, a second convoy of 1,100 military trucks carrying 11 military battalions and 11 ministries left Rangoon. Perhaps influenced by astrologers, Than Shwe had decided to move the country's capital. He had given government officials just two days' notice."

So Naypyitaw, which translates as "Seat of Kings" and is dominated by oversize statues of Than Shwe's favourite royal forerunners, will be this man's monument. "It's the most awful place you've ever been to," said Mark Canning, a former British ambassador to Burma. "It's a collection of buildings scattered over scrubland. But they are all just dispersed, and there are two or three kilometres between each building. One can only presume it's so they don't get bombed or something, to spread out the targets." As a resident of Naypyitaw told one foreign journalist, "Although [Than Shwe] is a king, he is afraid of many things. He thinks that here he will be safe."

Naypyitaw thus incarnates what Suu Kyi once said about fear. "It is not power that corrupts, but fear," she noted in 1990 when she was already under house arrest. "Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it... Fear slowly stifles and destroys all sense of right and wrong."

Only in a system dominated by fear could a man like Than Shwe rise to the top and stay there, because throughout his career he has given the impression of being so unimpeachably mediocre as to be without ambition or hope of success. He was a man incapable of provoking fear until suddenly he was at the top of the tree, and now he has held his nation in thrall for nearly two decades.

The comments of those who have had dealings with him are uniformly unflattering. "Short and fat with not a strong voice," says one. "Relatively boring," says another. "No evident personality." "Our leader is a very uneducated man." "There were many intelligent soldiers but he was not one of them...a bit of a thug." "You feel that he's got there by accident..." The closest Than Shwe gets to being complimented is in the description of a former World Bank official: "He is such an old fox!"

Born in 1933 in the central Burmese town of Kyaukse, Than Shwe quietly rose through the ranks despite having no striking military successes, until he was appointed deputy defence minister in July 1988 in the midst of the biggest revolt since the military takeover, the regime's moment of greatest danger.

In 1990 he was there alongside the erratic, sometimes deranged General Saw Maung, head of the new State Law and Order Restoration Council, who once drew his pistol on fellow generals during a game of golf and was eventually deposed. Then it was a contest between Than Shwe and military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt – who crucially had no experience as a commander in the field, and thus no chance of being accepted as chief by the army. Eventually Khin Nyunt, too, was flung from the battlements, a denouement waiting to happen. "Every single chief of military intelligence in Burma has been disgraced," said a former ambassador. "It's rather like being the drummer in Spinal Tap – you end up disappearing."

Than Shwe's mediocrity may have had its effect on Western attitudes towards him: he is easily under- estimated. As Rogers points out, he "has demonstrated time and again his skill at offering just enough of a concession to hold the international community at bay whenever pressure intensifies...Each time the pressure eases, Than Shwe quietly abandons his promises."

Meanwhile at home he has continued on the path set by his former superior Ne Win decades back: hugely expanding the size of the army, which now includes tens of thousands of children in its ranks, and continuing the campaigns of quasi-genocidal terrorism against the Karen and other ethnic minorities.

According to Sergio Pinheiro, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma from 2000 to 2008, writing in 2009, "Over the past 15 years the Burmese Army has destroyed over 3,300 villages in a systematic and widespread campaign to subjugate ethnic groups." At the same time he has kept Burma's civilian population in poverty and hopelessness. The only "reforms" he has pushed for have had the aim of perpetuating military rule under a disguise that fools nobody.

It is safe to predict that sooner or later Than Shwe will get his come-uppance. It may come from his immediate subordinates, furious at being kicked out, and an army that has never held him in esteem. The civil servants of Naypyitaw, incandescent at being exiled from the civilised comforts of Rangoon, may play their part. The monks, whom he arrogantly and foolishly refused to appease in 2007, could have a role.

But however certain his eventual downfall, you would have to be a very brave optimist to predict that he will be replaced by someone significantly better.

The general in brief

Born in 1933, Than Shwe joined the army at 20. He became Burma's top military leader in 1992 – four years after thousands of protesters had been massacred in Rangoon. The reclusive 77-year-old is thought to be superstitious, often consulting astrologers. In 2007, his new Burmese constitution effectively barred opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from office. Some credit the general with negotiating ceasefires with ethnic rebel armies, although he has also been accused of brutally suppressing minorities. He has been linked with high-level government purges, including that of Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt in 2004.

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