Among Manchester United Football Club’s 300 million or so supporters worldwide are two Burmese men whose love of the game spans generations. One is a stout, bespectacled, betel nut chewing septuagenarian, the other his favorite teenage grandson, and like many of their soccer-mad compatriots they stay up late into Burma’s tropical nights to watch live broadcasts from faraway England. So far, so normal. But knowing the grandfather in this touching scene is Senior General Than Shwe, the xenophobic chief of Burma’s junta, makes it seem all wrong. Rabidly anti-Western, yet pro-Wayne Rooney, is this the tyrant we know and hate?
That English football is one of Than Shwe’s surprise passions might seem trivial, but it raises a serious question. With U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying on Sept. 24 that Washington would begin “engaging directly” with Burma’s military leaders after 20 years of American censure and sanctions, how well do we really know the junta “We don’t understand it very well at all, although it’s not very easy to understand,” says Donald M. Seekins, a Burma scholar at Meio University in Okinawa, Japan. Trying to fathom the regime’s worldview doesn’t mean we condone its human-rights abuses; many believe that ongoing atrocities by the Burmese military constitute war crimes. But policies based on a flawed understanding of Than Shwe and his men will be ineffective or even counterproductive, warn Burma experts. Now, therefore, is time to get to know the generals starting with the man his soldiers call Aba Gyi, or Grandfather.
Loyalty and Dishonor
Than Shwe, the junta’s chief since 1992, is Burma’s enigmatic but undisputed leader. “He exercises almost absolute power,” says Seekins. “Nobody wants to challenge him, at least openly.” His origins were humble. Born in a village not far from Mandalay, Burma’s last royal capital, he dropped out of high school and worked in a post office before joining officer-training school and rising up through the military ranks, specializing in psychological warfare. Unquestioning loyalty was “the secret of his success,” says Benedict Rogers, co-author of a forthcoming book called Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant. “He always followed orders. He was never seen by anyone as a threat, and therefore was rewarded with promotions, precisely because he didn’t really demonstrate any flair or initiative.”
Since reaching the top, Than Shwe has shown “a talent for hanging on to power,” says Seekins. Rivals are ruthlessly purged: Khin Nyunt, his ambitious former spy chief, has been under house arrest since 2004. Burma watchers say loyal officers are rewarded with opportunities to enrich themselves through graft and rent-seeking.
The West might regard him as backward, but Than Shwe, 76, sees himself as a bold reformer who took a bankrupt nation and threw it open to foreign investment, who built not just roads and bridges but a grand new capital called Naypyidaw “Abode of Kings.” The reality is a little different. Foreign trade has enriched the junta; the Yadana natural-gas project alone has earned the regime $4.83 billion since 2000, according to the Washington-based nonprofit EarthRights International in a recent report. But most Burmese still live in wretched poverty. The new capital is an expensive boondoggle.
And yet to write off Than Shwe as the deluded head of a hermit regime is a mistake. The junta has shrewdly adapted to 20 years of breakneck growth in Asia, first drawing investment from Southeast Asian neighbors until a new regional giant emerged. “In 1988, nobody in the Burmese military knew how quickly China would grow economically,” says Seekins. “But as this was happening [the regime] took advantage of that situation to promote close ties to China.” Burma joined ASEAN in 1997, gaining further allies against Western criticism and more trade opportunities , and is improving ties with India. Even at Naypyidaw, once a symbol of seclusion, the junta plans to build an international airport to handle over 10 million passengers a year. “They’re much less isolationist than we think, although they choose their friends carefully,” says Rogers. “Those friends tend to be countries that turn a blind eye to their conduct.”
Even the junta’s notorious xenophobia is rooted less in a desire for isolation than in an ingrained fear of invasion. Burma has been occupied by many foreign powers over the centuries and riven by ethnic insurgencies since its independence from Britain in 1948. The Burmese military’s historical role is to safeguard the country from all foes, foreign and domestic. The generals regard a threat to their regime as a threat to the nation. This might seem “misguided, even deluded,” observes Andrew Selth, a Burma analyst with Australia’s Griffith University, but the generals’ fear of invasion is real and has been constantly stoked by Western actions and rhetoric. During pro-democracy protests in 1988, the U.S. deployed a naval taskforce off Burma’s coast and later lumped the country with Iran and North Korea as an “outpost of tyranny.” Whether real or perceived, Western hostility has prompted the junta to take two concrete actions: building one of Asia’s largest standing armies, and seeking closer links with China and Russia, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
Read “A Closer Look at Burma’s Ethnic Minorities.”
Read “Viewpoint: Why Foreigners Can Make Things Worse for Burma.”