Until 8 August 1988 the military oddballs who have ruled Burma since their coup in 1962 may have thought it was all going rather well. But on that day – 8/8/88 – ageing junta boss Ne Win, an avid numerologist, concluded that the signs were propitious for a move sideways. In truth, the country was in turmoil. A popular uprising was being savagely repressed. Untold thousands of unarmed civilians were being slaughtered. Than Shwe, already a junta member, locked up his family at home, complaining that they were ‘scared to death’.
Renaming itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), in 1990 the deluded junta provided for an election to confirm itself in power, only to be met with a landslide victory by the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta placed her under house arrest – where she has remained ever since – and ignored the election result.
Than Shwe had by now risen through the ranks of the military regime and its ‘Burma Socialist Programme Party’. Born in 1933 – prior to Burma’s invasion by Japan during World War Two, and its independence from Britain thereafter – he began his working life delivering mail. He enlisted in the army at the age of 20 and spent a brief period engaged in ‘psychological warfare’. By the age of 50, he was handed command of the Southwest Region.
This relatively tranquil post in the Irrawaddy delta, close to the capital Rangoon, allowed Than Shwe’s tenure to be modest and uneventful. He and his wife liked to distribute presents to soldiers and aides. His children rode to school in army trucks instead of the luxury sedans used by other generals’ kids. He spent his time reading Time magazine, playing golf or dressing up in traditional Burmese outfits, invariably attended by bodyguards with betel nuts for him to chew. He was, as he remains, sullen and unresponsive.
By the time Ne Win’s number came up in 1988, Than Shwe was one of three officers in line to replace him. Profiting from the rivalry between the other two, he came out ahead of both. His most dreaded political weapon was his ability to bore everyone else into submission. By way of economic policy he championed big dams and the environmental trashing of his birthplace, Kyaukse – once celebrated as the ‘Oasis of Mandalay’. SLORC was renamed the ‘State Peace and Development Council’ – the country itself was reborn as ‘Myanmar’.
Yet the Burmese military junta – with Than Shwe as ‘Number One’ – has proved adept at achieving its only real aim, which is to stay in power. It has done so, in the name of ‘national unity’, by preying genocidally upon the cultural diversity of the country’s 50 million people, reducing them to impoverishment, slave labour, displacement and exile, thereby creating what is arguably the most deranged of all the world’s political regimes.
Enriched by oil, gems, narcotics, logging – and by the transnational corporations of one sort or another who deal in them – the junta has managed to evade any effective response from the so-called ‘international community’. Perhaps more by accident than design, Than Shwe both sealed up the Burmese economy after the regional economic crisis of 1997 and made a diplomatic ‘opening’ through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Burma has become an active member. India considers the junta an ally in the suppression of the ethnic ‘insurgencies’ which plague both countries along their shared border. China is a generous supplier of weaponry, finance and diplomatic support. The US favours economic sanctions, while the European Union has confined itself to restricting the trade in pineapple juice.
Than Shwe has on occasion looked ‘moderate’, allowing the Red Cross and Amnesty International to visit the country and even meeting Aung San Suu Kyi. But he has also banned every kind of freely reported news, including the Burmese death toll from the tsunami. Among an unknown number of political prisoners – for whom torture is routine – is 75-year-old journalist Win Tin, who has been held since 1989. Some 17 newspapers and magazines are proscribed and 50 foreign journalists blacklisted.
Former friends and associates apparently express surprise at the ‘new and different Than Shwe’. Power and paranoia, they say, may have corrupted the once ‘simple and honest soldier’. Others might point, once again, to the banality of evil.