Did Burma’s generals change their ways because their leader feared the karmic consequences of his actions while in power?
BANGKOK — “I’ve puzzled over that,” said Sen. John McCain, when asked his opinion on why Burma’s government has undertaken several landmark reforms in recent months.
Observers have been surprised by the changes—such as the freeing of political prisoners, relaxed press curbs and a newfound environmental and social awareness—described by McCain as unimaginable one year ago. The Burmese government says the new course is irreversible, while outside observers believe the reforms to be real, though many, like McCain, are no more than “cautiously optimistic” and remind that more needs to be done—such as fair elections, a free press and peace in ethnic borderlands.
Many exiled Burmese and even some recently freed political prisoners remain skeptical, reminding anyone who cares to listen that Burma’s 2008 Constitution vests ultimate authority with the country’s military, and that even if Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) win all 40 Lower House seats in a by-election slated for April 1, it will not affect power structures inside Burma.
Behind the scenes, an 11-man National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) is said to be exercising real control, leaving President Thein Sein as the moderate-sounding front man attempting to launder the reputation of a cabal of military strongmen nationalists, who want Western sanctions lifted and to reduce the influence of an increasingly powerful China on their country.
Former junta dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe is said to head the NDSC, though close aides such as Shwe Mann, now speaker of Burma’s Lower House of Parliament, say that Than Shwe has retired from politics. Certainly the reforms undertaken by successor Thein Sein, suggest—on the surface, at least—a clean break with Than Shwe’s draconian rule and appear to confirm that the near-octogenarian ex-senior general has indeed retired.
But then, reforms or no reforms, nobody can really parse the signals from inside what is still one of the world’s most opaque polities. McCain believes the reforms to be partly a reaction to the Arab Spring, partly a desire to end Burma’s long isolation, partly a weariness with a decades-old pariah status.
Some are curious as to why Than Shwe would cede power to Thein Sein—a man he reportedly dismissed as his “postman” when the current president was still just prime minister under the former junta.
“We have to ask, why is Than Shwe letting this happen, and why now?” said Thai academic Thitinan Pongsudhirak. Than Shwe, after all, seized power in 1992 and later put former ruler Ne Win under house arrest, where he remained until his death in 2002. Does he not fear a similar fate for himself and his family?
Clues lie, perhaps, in what Thitinan described to The Irrawaddy as Than Shwe’s “farewell tour,” visiting India and China shortly prior to the 2010 parliamentary elections, after which he formally ceded control to today’s nominally civilian government under Thein Sein.
While visiting India from July 25 to 29, 2010, Than Shwe made cash donations to monks, meditated at Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment, and laid a wreath at the Mahatma Gandhi’s grave.
“I have heard from several inside sources that Than Shwe sees himself as deeply Buddhist,” said Thitinan. “He has money, he has power, but we cannot dismiss the possibility that he cares a lot about his spiritual well-being, despite the many abuses he was responsible for.”
It could be, therefore, that Than Shwe has stepped back from power because he fears bad karma from transgressions committed by Burma’s ruling regime when he was still at the helm, such as the beating and jailing of hundreds of Buddhist monks during the crackdown on the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
In response, the Burmese monastic community declared a religious boycott of the generals and their families, refusing to accept their alms or offer them the Buddha’s teachings—both necessary for earning karmic kudos. According to recently freed U Gambira, one of the leaders of the Saffron protests who was tortured in jail, the boycott still stands.
Burmese Buddhism has long been infused with nat worship—placating spirits to generate good fortune in worldly affairs. Knowing this, and seeing first-hand the nature of military rule, many Burmese question the sincerity and depth of Than Shwe’s Buddhism, says Ingrid Jordt, an anthropologist who studies Burmese religion and culture.
As far as Than Shwe is interested in his spiritual well-being, according to Jordt, he is following yadaya che, a non-Buddhist ritualism aimed at reversing bad fortune or compensating for misdeeds.
This can sometimes be passed off as Buddhist merit-making, as per Than Shwe’s pilgrimage to India, but sometimes there is no disguising the voodoo element, such as former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt’s cross-dressing incantations in 1990, when he dressed as a woman in a yadaya ceremony aimed at preempting predictions that a woman (Aung San Suu Kyi) would take power in Burma.
Jordt does not believe Than Shwe has retired, and that underneath the recent reforms, the power structures remain the same.
“Burma’s military (now civilian) leaders do not care a fig about democracy. They only care that the international community sees what they are doing as democracy. They will shape-shift as they need to,” she says.
Than Shwe is not out of the picture, she adds, but simply no longer needs “to micro-manage according to the old system.”
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