Lifting the mask – The Irrawaddy

The author of a new biography, “Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant,” talks about the reclusive military leader of Burma with Irrawaddy correspondent Simon Roughneen.

Cover of Unmasking Than Shwe

Mysterious, reclusive, brutal, misunderstood, superstitious, power-mad. These are words used to describe Burma’s ruling strongman, Sen-Gen Than Shwe. Less is know about this man than almost any other head of government, perhaps even less than Kim Jong Il, the apparently ailing ruler of North Korea and Than Shwe’s alleged nuclear collaborator.

Benedict Rogers’ new biography, “Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant,” is the first detailed study of the man who rules Burma with an iron fist.

Question. Your book is being published as Burma gears up for what opposition and exiled Burmese are calling sham elections or military elections. Some voices in the international community, perhaps describing themselves as foreign policy “realists,” have are more positive on the process, saying that it could potentially lead to some sort of democratization sometime in the future. Does this square with Than Shwe’s way of seeing the world, and his vision for Burma in the future?

Answer. Than Shwe’s intentions are to safeguard his legacy and protect himself, his family and cronies. He has absolutely no intention at all of any meaningful reform or democratization. However, there can and should be a difference between what we in the international community do and what people inside Burma do. I have no respect at all for those in the international community who have a rose-tinted view of what these elections mean. All of us should be in no doubt that this is a discredited and illegitimate process. However, I do understand and respect why some Burmese feel that they have no alternative but to make the best out of it. Some Burmese will want to take part and some will not, and I respect both points of view. But in the international community we have to be clear that it offers no hope for change.

Q. In its latest edition, Foreign Policy listed Than Shwe as third from bottom in its “Worst of the Worst” ranking of dictators around the world. Does what you found out in the course of your research tally with such a ranking?

A. Yes, that sounds about right. I think it would think it is a pretty close race between Than Shwe and Mugabe for second place, behind Kim Jong Il.

Q. In practice, researching and writing a biography such as this must be very challenging, given that the subject is a reclusive, isolated, apparently paranoid dictator, hidden in his jungle capital. Can you tell us how you dealt with these obstacles?

A. In the introduction I am up front about the limitations of the book, that I could not get close to Than Shwe and his inner circle . However, I did have access to a number of army defectors who have known him and worked with him at various stages. I had access to international diplomats who had access to him and had dealings with him. While I would never claim that this is the definitive life story of Than Shwe, I can say that I have uncovered and brought to light a comprehensive perspective on the man, and one that has not been published to date. I have been pleasantly encouraged by the reviews so far. Bertil Linter can be quite a tough critic, but he has written a very generous review of the book and that is very encouraging.

Q. Allegations about Burma’s nuclear program hit the headlines recently after an army defector provided classified information to DVB, later broadcast on al-Jazeera. Are there more defectors waiting to tell their story, to tell more about how things are inside Burma? How is the mood and morale within the junta’s army?

A. Over the 10 years or so that I have been working on Burma, I have met many defectors. One defector who helped me a lot with the book is in touch with former colleagues inside Burma and the army. The mood inside the army is very much one of low morale and a desire to defect or at least leak information to people outside, which might in turn undermine the regime. The only thing holding back many potential defectors is the insecurity of their position in neighboring countries, particularly Thailand. If more was done by the international community to ensure that defectors could have place of safety, then more defections would happen and more information would come out.

Q. What specifically are the issues, challenges and dilemmas for a potential defector as he or she weighs-up such a momentous decision?

A. Thailand and other neighbors have an agreement with the regime to return any Burmese soldiers or officers they find, and this makes any defector vulnerable to deportation, and the consequences once he or she is returned to Burma. Otherwise, defectors who come out and are outspoken face attack, assassination or can be disappeared by agents of the regime, for examples in places like Mae Sot near the Thai-Burma border. Another barrier is the attitude of the international community, which has a more complex approach to defectors than other asylum seekers, and countries are generally much more reluctant to accept defectors. Strangely though, when people defect through embassies, it seems to be much easier than if some one tries to defect through Thailand for example.

Q. Than Shwe seems to be trying to re-brand his regime with allusions or references to Burma’s ancient kings and kingdoms, hinting at his own supposed links to a mythologized past. Is Than Shwe a reincarnation of Burma’s long-dead kings?

A. Than Shwe sees himself as a sort of warrior-king, a modern version of those figures from Burma’s history. For example, Burma’s kings liked to build and establish new capitals for themselves, something that he has replicated by building a new capital in Naypidaw, which of course means “Seat of Kings” in Burmese. Though of course he has other reasons for building the new capital—be that paranoia about another uprising in Burma, the need to hide military facilities, fear of an attack from a foreign power. As irrational as some of this might be, these are factors in his thinking.

Q. Can you tell us more about Than Shwe’s psychology of rule? He is rumored to be heavily influenced by astrology and highly superstitious. Is this the case?

A. Astrology is a factor, but it conditions his thinking more about the timing of events, the duration of prison sentences, for example, than it is an over-arching or guiding principle. Certain events are timed to run on given auspicious dates, but that does not mean that Than Shwe is merely a crazed superstitious tyrant, and we must not fall into the trap of stereotyping him or underestimating him. He is brutally clever and adept at divide and rule. Astrology is arguably more important in his wife’s way of thinking than in his own.

Q. How strong an influence is his wife on him personally and politically? Is she a Lady Macbeth figure or is that an overstatement?

A. First, the limitations of how close I could get to Than Shwe come into play here. I wasn’t a fly on the wall in their home, and that is an understatement! But she does have some influence, particularly when it comes to Aung San Suu Kyi. Daw Kyaing Kyaing dislikes her as much, if not more, than her husband.

Q. Can you tell us more about that dislike? Is it personal, political, or a mixture?

A. It is a combination. Politically she represents a challenge to Than Shwe, who sees himself as the elderly father figure in ruling his country. She is younger and upsets that patriarchal vision. She is also everything, frankly, that Daw Kyaing Kyaing is not: she is beautiful, internationally savvy, cultured, well-educated.

Q. As well as your role as East Asia specialist with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, you work closely with the Conservative Party in the UK, which recently returned to power. First, has Prime Minister David Cameron or Foreign Secretary William Hague read your book? Secondly, how do you hope it will influence policy in the UK and internationally.

A. Not that I am aware of, but I hope they will. The Speaker of the House of Commons has kindly agreed to speak at the upcoming UK launch of the book which I am looking forward to very much. I hope that the book will serve as a wake-up call for those who, as I said already, take a somewhat benign or falsely optimistic view of what the scheduled elections mean for Burma.

I also outline that I believe, like many others, that there should be a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma and Than Shwe’s role. In terms of British policy, I do not anticipate much difference from the previous government. William Hague has already shown a strong commitment to Burma advocacy while in opposition, inviting Zoya Phan to address the Tory Party conference, as well as speaking at her book launch in London. Both David Cameron and William Hague have met with Charm Tong. David Cameron’s chief-of-staff is a long-time friend of Aung San Suu Kyi. I think, however, that leadership on Burma will come from the Foreign Secretary rather than the prime minister, unlike under Labour where Gordon Brown spoke out on Burma himself.

I want to conclude by saying that I hope the book will dispel beyond doubt the myth that Than Shwe is someone we can just sit down and have a cup of tea with, and launch into a rational discussion of how to reform his country. He understands one word, one concept—that is force. I am not advocating nor do I believe in the use of military force, nor do I believe in isolating the regime. We have to remain aware of the nature of the man who rules Burma, and his unwillingness to listen to reason. The international community needs to come together on a strategic policy to bring targeted pressure and targeted engagement to bear on Than Shwe, including a commission of inquiry, and if my book can contribute to bringing this about, or at least a better understanding of why this is necessary, then it will have achieved something.

Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant, will be launched at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok, on Thursday July 1 at 8pm. See
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