Is Than Shwe Still Pulling the Strings?

Saturday, December 10, 2011



Until recently, there had been no public statements by top Burmese government leaders or the country’s state-run press about the official status of previous junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe, and there continued to be speculation about whether the former dictator was still making key decisions behind the scenes.

But from the moment that US President Barack Obama began his recent Asia-Pacific trip until the day US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Naypyidaw to meet with President Thein Sein, senior Burmese officials and the state’s media mouthpieces seemed determined to drive home the point that Than Shwe had formally retired and was no longer involved in government business.

In an interview published on Nov. 16, Burma’s Information Minister Kyaw Hsan told the Wall Street Journal that Than Shwe is “in his house, doing a lot of reading, and enjoying a peaceful time.”

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at
The speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, Shwe Mann, was even more explicit. He told reporters that “The senior general is really retired,” and went on to state that “The senior general is absolutely not concerned with the party, nor the government, nor our parliament, nor legislative organizations.”

Then on Dec. 1, the New Light of Myanmar and The Mirror, both state-controlled newspapers, reported that “Snr-Gen Than Shwe (retired) and Daw Kyaing Kyaing's family donated US $1,300, 11 rubies, a pearl and a golden ring with 61 diamonds, which is valued at kyat 488,000, toward the Sacred Buddha Tooth Relic from China, which is now being exhibited in Rangoon.”

Despite the fact that Than Shwe had appointed a new commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Gen Min Aung Hlaing, just before a new president, Thein Sein, was sworn in at the end of March, this was the first time that the state media had referred to Than Shwe as “retired,” and a state newspaper would never take this major step without instructions from top government officials or Than Shwe himself.

In addition, since the time that the new quasi-civilian government was formally put in place, Than Shwe has not officially appeared in public or been directly linked to any decision or action by the government or the military. So by all outward appearances, it seems that the brutal sheriff who had an iron grip on power in Burma for almost twenty years has simply handed in his badge and rode off into the sunset.

This could be true, but it ain’t necessarily so, and prematurely assuming that Than Shwe has completely given up power both belies Burmese history and is naively dangerous.

A retired senior general once cautioned that Burma’s past military dictators never leave in peace, suggesting that they always come back to interfere in politics, and for evidence one needs to look no further than Than Shwe’s predecessor, Gen Ne Win.

Known by his subordinates as “The Old Man” or “Number one,” Ne Win ruled as Burma’s dictator for 26 years before officially announcing his resignation in July 1988 during the mass pro-democracy uprising.

Despite the fact that Ne Win had officially relinquished power in a public speech, in September of that year he personally orchestrated a military coup, appointed his own officers to the newly established State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and ordered the new junta to crush the uprising.

At the time, Ne Win did all of this behind the scenes, at least for the most part. But then in March 1989, the Burmese people were stunned and disgusted to open up the state-run newspapers and see photos of the supposedly ex-dictator at a dinner reception hosted by Snr-Gen Saw Maung, then the SLORC No. 1. Although the blood in the streets had barely dried and the secret police were still hunting down student activists, the official photo showed a laughing Ne Win sitting at the table with his cadre of sheepishly smiling coup-makers.

When an Asiaweek reporter asked Saw Maung that year whether Ne Win was still in power behind the scenes, the general replied that, “It’s most difficult for us to explain these rumors and allegations.... When people see me visit Ne Win, they think I am going for instruction or advice.

But he’s like a parent to me.”

In 1990, after student activists from Rangoon high schools ripped down Ne Win’s image from their headmasters' offices, Ne Win put a personal announcement in state-run newspapers instructing that his picture should be removed from government buildings.

This fueled speculation that Ne Win was finally relinquishing power, but then in 1992 he gave the order to fire Saw Maung and install Than Shwe at the helm of SLORC when Saw Maung began giving eccentric speeches and behaving strangely in public.

Although not directly involved in the day-to-day workings of the regime, Ne Win continued to pull the strings of power throughout the 1990s, even instigating a mini-coup of corrupt second-tier generals in 1997 upon his return from a trip to visit his counterpart General Suharto in Indonesia.

Despite Ne Win’s advanced age, the ex-dictator still wielded enough power and influence that Than Shwe needed him and his family out of the way in order to consolidate his own grip on the regime. So in 2002, Than Shwe’s junta accused the aged Ne Win of conspiring to stage a coup and placed him under house arrest, while his son-in-law and grandsons were thrown in prison on charges of treason.

It is not difficult to find similarities between Ne Win’s supposed retirement in 1988 and Than Shwe’s supposed retirement in 2011, especially if one remembers that in 1989-1990 there was a campaign and a free and fair election that for a brief moment brought hope to the Burmese people, only to have that hope dashed when the junta refused to honor the election results.

Therefore, regardless of what senior officials in the Burmese government are now saying in public, and regardless of the fact that Than Shwe—who was always reclusive—has all but disappeared from public view, many Burmese people believe that the former junta chief is still well-informed, watching closely and willing to pull the levers of power when necessary.

Logic says they have a point, because it defies logic to believe that a demonstrably paranoid control-freak such as Than Shwe—who had personally put his predecessor and mentor under house arrest—would suddenly step completely away from power and put blind trust in his appointed successors to take good care of his personal safety, assets and legacy.

It should also be remembered that Than Shwe is a master political chess player who first manipulated himself into the position of dictator and then for years manipulated the international community through PR moves and promises of reform. He even managed to hide the fact that he was spending a large chunk of the nation’s cash resources to build the new capital Naypyidaw in the jungles of central Burma, not to mention the possibly hundreds of millions of dollars he and his cohorts in crime siphoned from the state coffers.

Because there remains no transparency or accountability in the Burmese government, regardless of whether or not Than Shwe is making day-to-day decisions for the state, he will have no qualms about influencing the current administration when it suits his desires, and to assume otherwise is both unnecessary and foolish.

There are several explanations as to why Than Shwe would step out of the spotlight and operate behind the scenes in this manner. One reason may be to cut off any momentum towards an “Arab Spring” type of uprising in Burma and avoid the fate of Mubarak or even worse, Gaddafi. But what may be the most convincing reason would also explain why government officials took such great pains to send the message, just before Clinton’s arrival, that the ex-strongman had officially retired.

The US government made it very clear before the 2010 election that it was unacceptable for Than Shwe to remain in power by donning civilian garb, and if Clinton picked up the scent that he was still running the show there would be no chance that the US would lift sanctions anytime soon. There is probably nobody who stands to economically benefit more from the removal of Western sanctions than Than Shwe and his family.

It therefore rings true when military insiders report that although the former junta general has “retired” from the front page of the newspapers, he still acting as if he is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and enjoys enormous power. These insiders say that Than Shwe is surrounded by the senior army officers who served him in the past, can summon current commander-in-chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing, President Thein Sein, Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo and Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann whenever he wishes, and even his aides have direct access to top government officials.

Although Than Shwe is too clever to leave any fingerprints, circumstantial evidence of his involvement in major government decisions can still be found.

For example, before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit, Burmese government officials sent out clear messages that another batch of political prisoners would soon be released.

Yet that expectation was suddenly doused at the time of the summit and no more prisoners were set free. Now one sees little chance of an additional release happening before the parliamentary by-elections, because an earlier release would allow the 88 Generation Students group leaders and other political activists to take part in the campaign and possibly even compete in the polls.

In addition, the parliamentary by-election, which Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) will compete in, was postponed until at least March. This would place the polls conveniently after the date that next year’s budget will most likely be adopted and thereby block Suu Kyi and the NLD from participating in any budget discussions in Parliament.

Finally, just before Clinton touched down in Naypyidaw, military chief Min Aung Hlaing showed up in Beijing to ink a defense cooperation deal.

Each of these maneuvers had all the hallmarks of Than Shwe’s modus operandi.

There are persistent rumors in Rangoon and Bangkok that a hard-line faction wants Than Shwe to return to power. But if the former dictator is able to exert his authority without any personal accountability through Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing—both of whom would not be in the positions they are in today if not for Than Shwe—while at the same time convincing the international community to ease their diplomatic and economic isolation of Burma, why would he want to come back unless forced to do so?

While Than Shwe was still formally in power, US Charge d’Affaires Larry Dinger sent a cable to Washington, which was revealed by WikiLeaks, that said “The most senior generals are looking for an escape strategy” and “The current senior generals are getting old … (they) undoubtedly want assurances that, if they voluntarily step aside, they and their families will retain their assets and will not be prosecuted.”

Than Shwe’s “escape strategy” was meticulously planned and implemented over many years. It’s highpoints were the 2008 Constitution designed to keep the military and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in power, the privatization scheme that placed most of the nation’s assets in the hands of the top generals and their cronies, the rigged 2010 election, and the cunning appointments of Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing, neither of whom were individually powerful, to the top government and military posts.

In his 2009 Armed Forces Day speech, Than Shwe said, “Democracy in Myanmar [Burma] today is at a fledgling stage and still requires patient care and attention.” He then cryptically added that, “As a Myanmar proverb puts it, a recently dug well cannot be expected to produce clear water immediately.”

Reading between the former dictator’s lines, the first of these statements justifies continued control of the country by the former junta’s top brass, including Than Shwe himself, and the second justifies long delays in implementing any significant change that dilutes such control.

In one form or another, the senior leaders of Burma’s new government are continuing to loyally repeat Than Shwe’s mantra, including President Thein Sein, who delivered a very similar message to Clinton during her visit.

But even a well-planned escape strategy and the placement of loyal officers in top positions does not give Than Shwe the absolute assurance he craves regarding either his own personal safety and economic security or the maintenance of ultimate power by the military leaders—whether they are wearing army uniforms or civilian clothes—which he believes is necessary both to protect the country and hold it together. For this type of assurance, he needs to stay at least somewhat personally involved and in control of major decisions.

In reference to Than Shwe, one businessman close to Burma’s top brass told me, “No one wants to wake the sleeping tiger.” The real question, however, is whether the tiger is even asleep.

There is no way of knowing exactly how much control Thein Sein has retained and how much influence he wields, but to assume the answer is “none” is to put blinders on when analyzing the political environment in Burma. And when one wears blinders, one can easily get sideswiped by a tiger hiding in the jungle.



  1. Anonymous said... :

    that sure..

  1. Anonymous said... :

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    အျမင္ကပ္တယ္ ထြီ..

  1. Anonymous said... :

    Hoohoo---how nice he look!!!

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