BANGKOK — Amid speculation about a power struggle in Naypyidaw between “reformists” such as Burma’s President Thein Sein and “hardliners” such as Vice-President Tin Aung Myint Oo, recently released US diplomatic cables provide a portrait of the man believed to still wield the balance of power in the military-dominated country: Snr-Gen Than Shwe.
The apparent onset of a factional contest is seen, some say, in developments such as the rebranding of the old Myanmar Human Rights Body (MHRB) as a human rights commission and the recent offer of amnesty to Burma’s political exiles. In contrast, recent appointments, such as that of Maj-Gen Soe Shein as head of the country’s military intelligence, suggest that Than Shwe maintains a decisive influence behind the new institutions.
According to accounts drafted by US officials based in Burma, last year’s election was less about reform than about ensuring that Than Shwe’s successor did not subject him and his family to the fate he imposed on Ne Win, the former military dictator who was put under house arrest by Than Shwe in 2002.
A Burmese businessman told the US embassy that “many of the top generals believe Than Shwe knows he has only a few years to live, and has dictated the timing of the referendum and elections to make sure a parliamentary government, overseen by the military, is in place before he dies.”
US diplomatic cables from the country’s embassy in Rangoon depicted Than Shwe as a paranoid recluse, secluded from reality by sycophants and yes-men, yet simultaneously able to maintain absolute authority. According to then US Chargé d’Affairs Shari Villarosa, writing in a Jan 11, 2008 cable recounting her meeting with Yin Yin Oo, a Burmese Foreign Ministry official described as close to current House Speaker Shwe Mann, “No one speaks truth to power for fear of losing their privileged positions.”
Despite his “increasingly erratic behavior,” coming around the time he traveled to Singapore to receive medical treatment, Than Shwe remained “firmly in power and in control” and was “single-handedly calling the shots regarding the upcoming constitutional referendum and the next steps of the roadmap, including the parliamentary election,” according to another cable dated April 25, 2008.
In the days following the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster, Than Shwe is described as “worried about a US invasion” and “isolated and unaware of the scale of the catastrophe that has befallen his country.” At the time, the Burmese rulers were castigated internationally for refusing for weeks to allow international humanitarian assistance to enter Burma, despite the destruction and death toll wrought by the cyclone.
Indicative of how centralized power—and fear, it seems—had become in Burma, the cable outlined that “no-one will approve visas for international humanitarian assistance workers without his direct approval,” suggesting that Than Shwe was prone to micro-management when it came to issues he was sensitive about, such as the presence of foreigners in Burma.
Seemingly exasperated with the official reaction to the Nargis disaster, which killed over 140,000 according to official figures, the business and media contacts referred to in the cable “pleaded with the US to request the Chinese to send a high-level emissary to speak to Than Shwe regarding the gravity of the situation, and to urge him to let in international humanitarian experts.” According to some accounts, of all the foreign delegations in Burma, only the Chinese diplomats could ensure that Than Shwe received or even read their messages.
Speculating on the extent of Than Shwe’s self-imposed isolation and the fear-ridden inertia his rule generated, the contacts even “doubted that [UN Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon’s message to Than Shwe had even been delivered to him, as no one dared push up any bad news to the Senior General.”
Other cables point to Than Shwe lambasting visiting United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari, disputing that Burma had any humanitarian problems and restating the claim that there are no political prisoners inside the country.
Than Shwe apparently cited what the cable says were “bogus humanitarian statistics” while meeting Gambari—possibly similar data and interpretations to those given by Burmese officials at rare press conferences and seminars attended by diplomatic representatives. Along similar lines, at a Dec 3, 2007, news conference, Minister of Information Brigadier-General Kyaw Hsan, Director General of Police Khin Yi and Minister of Labor Aung Kyi “presented the regime’s conspiracy theory of how external agitators, not popular discontent,” were the cause of the nationwide monk-led protests in August and September 2007.
Despite his apparent omnipotence, Than Shwe revealed some vulnerabilities. According to one view given to the American embassy, he shunned extended stays away from Burma for medical treatment, as he was paranoid that rivals could move against him in his absence.
The cable recounting Than Shwe’s verbal assault on UN envoy Gambari jumped on old rumors that the regime’s No 2, Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, was plotting against his boss, citing a Machiavellian scheme to stir Than Shwe into “a harder line” against the UN, which in turn could justify a move against him. However, it is unclear if such an attempt to oust Than Shwe was ever likely, given that his hardline reaction to the 2007 protests and negligence after Cyclone Nargis went unimpeded by would-be plotters. According to the post-Nargis US embassy account, “the military and bureaucracy remain paralyzed with fear.”
Despite his sullen alpha-male exterior, Burma’s military dictator was simultaneously capable of maudlin self-pity and peevish envy, it seems. In a meeting with American embassy officials, a departing Chinese diplomat recounted that Than Shwe once held his hand and asked, “Why do they sanction me—I have no villas and no foreign bank accounts, and yet they idolize a female [Suu Kyi] who has done nothing for the country?”
It seems that Than Shwe was not always so detached from reality, and, that in the past, he at least made the effort to spin a softer line to foreigners, without recourse to either blatant denials of patently obvious truths or completely-ignoring foreign dignitaries or representatives
A much older cable, from September 1992—the year he seized power—has the newly enthroned dictator telling the departing Indian ambassador that “the military cannot stay in power too long without risking unpopularity” and that “Burma’s economy won’t recover without foreign expertise.” The newly installed strongman even conceded to the Thai government that Burma held political prisoners—much to the chagrin of Khin Nyunt, the Prime Minister and intelligence svengali later ousted by Than Shwe in 2004.
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