Dec 15th, 2009
Mizzima : by Mungpi Monday, 14 December 2009 23:39
In nearly two decades of undisputed and uninterrupted rule, Burma’s military supremo Senior General Than Shwe is certainly going down in the history of Burma as one man, who has vigorously contributed to the collapse of the Burmese economy, failure of the society, catered to the culture of impunity and drainage of mineral resources.
Despite the myriad consequences suffered by Burmese people, most people do not know what Than Shwe is really like. But every Burmese seems to have a basic understanding that Than Shwe likes to think of himself as one of the Burmese Warrior Kings of the past as he has placed his statue next to the famous Burmese kings in his new jungle capital city of Naypyitaw, in central Burma.
Revealing bits and parts of Than Shwe’s character is Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team leader of the Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a London-based human rights group. Rogers, who has long associated with issues in Burma and has written numerous articles, has been working on a biographical book on Than Shwe, titled “Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant”.
During a short stop-over in New Delhi, India’s capital, Mizzima’s Assistant Editor Mungpi, caught up with Rogers, to take a peep into the book he has written and which will be launched in February 2010.
Q. Can you tell us what your new book is all about?
Ans: The book is basically a Biography of Senior General Than Shwe and it is obviously not the authorized biography that it is a very much unauthorized biography, because we were not able to get the cooperation of General Than Shwe or his family or the regime. But it’s basically a book about Than Shwe, about how he rose to the top, about the nature of the regime and the military. And also what is happening in Burma today under General Than Shwe’s rule, and I believe it would be the first biography of Than Shwe.
Q: Why did you choose Than Shwe?
Ans: Well, I felt that there has been a question of biographies of other dictators like Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Ill, Robert Mugabe and others. And Than Shwe must be one of the world’s worst dictators and yet the world doesn’t really know very much about him. Even those of us, who work on Burma, don’t know very much about him. And I felt that it would be a good new angle on the Burma’s situation, a new way of telling the story about ‘What is happening in Burma. What the regime is like.’ The idea actually originally came from my friend Jeremy Woodrum, from the US campaign for Burma and he suggested to me, I thought it was a very interesting idea.
Q. It’s really interesting to know how Than Shwe rose to power, as we know very little about him during General Ne Win’s, socialist era, as well as during the earlier part following the military coup in 1988. Can you tell us how he started getting up to the ranks?
Ans: Well, I think, one of the most interesting things about Than Shwe is precisely the fact that he rose from the ranks quite silently and without really being noticed, but actually that is something about that nature of the military system in Burma. I think that Than Shwe rose to the top because he was not seen by his superiors to be a threat, he was seen as quite boring and quite lacking in original ideas, he didn’t display his ambition very overtly and therefore, he wasn’t seen as a threat by his superiors. Whereas officers, who show some initiative, some original thoughts and creativity tend to actually be seen as a threat by their superiors and who are then purged. So I think it’s precisely the quietness and the lack of initiative in Than Shwe that was the secret of his success. I don’t think it’s the case that he was not ambitious, he was ambitious but he kept his ambitions very quite. Everybody says that in all the meetings that had throughout his carrier, he sat silently in all the meetings. He just obeyed orders, and that’s the nature of the system. They want people who would just obey orders.
Q: So that says that Than Shwe must have been systematically planning his ambitions to materialize. Can you tell us how close was he with the former dictator General Ne Win?
Ans: Well, I think he was quite close. And I think Ne Win certainly identify him as a person who could take over. But he wasn’t as close to Ne Win as for example Khin Nyunt [former military intelligence chief] personally. I think that’s in terms of personal relationship, he didn’t have a close relationship. But I think in terms of Ne Win identifying Than Shwe as a man to take over, he was certainly close.
Q: How much does his wife, Daw Kyaing Kyaing, influence Than Shwe?
Ans: I think she has some influence but I don’t think it’s true that she is really the all powerful. He himself does know that he is in the top position. He does have his own agenda, his own ideas. But I think that one influence she has on him is that she takes astrology very seriously. And I think that she probably takes astrology more seriously than he does. She influences him with that. And also I think she has a particular dislike of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and again probably she influences him in that way as well.
Q: And could that be one of the reasons for Than Shwe to dislike or even loathe the name of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?
Ans: Yes. I think it could be one of the reasons. Several people that I interviewed for the book says that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi represents everything that Kyaing Kyaing and the other wives of military leaders do not. You know, she is very well educated, she has travelled internationally, she’s very sophisticated, she’s very beautiful and Kyaing Kyaing is neither beautiful nor educated.
Q. Talking about your sources, is it possible to reveal to us who are your primary sources in collecting the information regarding Than Shwe?
Ans: Yes, my two primary sources were: firstly, a number of defectors from the Burma Army who, over the years, have left Burma and all of whom knew Than Shwe at different stages of his life. So I interviewed some people who are living in exile, who had been in military training with him, way back in the 1950s. And then I interviewed a person who served as one of his doctors when he was the Southwest regional commander. And I interviewed people who’ve known him more recently since he became the Senior General. And in addition to the defectors, I have interviewed quite a number of international diplomats – British, American, Australian, Japanese and Thai diplomats, former ambassadors including the former British ambassador Mark Canning, former Australian ambassadors and former Thai ambassadors. And that was good because I wasn’t just hearing the western perspectives from the British or American. I was hearing from the Japanese and Thai perspectives as well. And also former UN officials, the former UN special envoy Razali Ismail, the former Special Rapporteur Yozo Yokota and Professor Pinheiro. These were all my primary sources. These are all the people who met Than Shwe at different times. And had also a lot of secondary documents as well.
Q: I have a very vague general understanding that Than Shwe is not a good diplomat. But we know that he recently paid a visit to Sri Lanka, which is one of his rare visits to foreign countries. Do you have any idea how good he is in dealing with all these foreign diplomats?
Ans: It’s true that it’s a very rare visit and it’s quite a surprising visit. Most of his foreign visits in the past have been limited to China, India, Singapore and a few other Southeast Asian countries. But it was interesting that he should go to Sri Lanka. And my suspicion is he went to Sri Lanka primarily to learn about how the Sri Lankan government had dealt with the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), to see if there are any lessons to be learnt.
In terms of his general foreign relations, I think it’s important not to underestimate Than Shwe. You know, many of us think Than Shwe is stupid, uneducated and boring. And to certain degree he can be stupid and not very interesting. But many of the diplomats that I have met said that actually he can be much more charming than we realize and when he meets foreign diplomats if he wants to be charming, he could be, and also his level of English is much better than what we realize. He can actually understand certainly quite a lot and he can speak in English. I think he is more intelligent and more educated perhaps than we think. Although his education has not been formal education, he never went to university.
Q. Talking about his education, what is then Shwe’s highest level of education?
Ans: We believe he completed high school but he didn’t go to university. He finished the high school and he joined the postal service, similar to Ne Win, who also joined the postal service. He also worked for a short time as a postal clerk and then he joined the military and he did military training.
Q. In the military, as we understand generally, he is a specialist in psychological warfare. Do you think he uses the psychological warfare tactics to run the regime?
Ans: I think he does. Probably the most obvious example of that is the divide and rule strategy, which he actually uses successfully throughout the country in many ways with the different ethnic groups, for example, in 1995 the split of the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) from the KNU (Karen National Union) and more recently the split of another faction in the KNU and other parts of the country as well. So I think, in terms of divide and rule and also propaganda, he is really on psychological warfare.
Q. Why do you think Than Shwe purged the former Prime Minister and Military Intelligence Chief Khin Nyunt? How powerful is Than Shwe compared to Khin Nyunt?
Ans: I think we have in the past, tended to overestimate the role of Khin Nyunt and underestimate the role of Than Shwe. I think in reality Than Shwe was always the number 1, since he became the number 1, he was number 1. And I think Khin Nyunt’s influence was limited. And in some ways that was one of the frustrations I think Khin Nyunt wanted to do more. And I think Khin Nyunt’s fall came because Than Shwe tolerated him up to a point but then when he crossed the line he was going too far and was becoming too much and Than Shwe said that’s enough and got rid of him.
Q. How tight is Than Shwe’s security in his home?
Ans: I think his security is very very tight. And particularly now, that he has moved to Naypyitaw. I think he is in his own bunker in Naypyitaw and surrounded by people who provide physical security, but by also people who owe allegiance to him, people he has promoted and they are indebted to him. So he has that political security by surrounding himself with loyalists.
Q. And who among the generals has access to Than Shwe?
Ans: Well, I think Maung Aye as the number 2 certainly has some access. Even if they don’t meet each other often they have regular contact. And clearly Thura Shwe Mann and Myint Swe, two of his chosen prodigies have regular access to him.
Q. Lately, Myint Swe has been speculated of having a close relationship with Than Shwe also rumoured to be the favourite heir to replace Than Shwe, but earlier there were also speculation about Shwe Mann succeeding Than Shwe. What do you say about that? And there is also a missing person in all these speculations, Maung Aye. What about him and where does he stand?
Ans: Well, I think in regard to Maung Aye, it is clear that, if Than Shwe would have to die tomorrow then Maung will become no 1 because of the hierarchy in SPDC. But if Than Shwe can plan his succession, I think it is very clear that Than Shwe doesn’t want Maung Aye to succeed him, so he and Maung Aye will retire together. And he would want either Shwe Man or Myint Swe to succeed him. In terms of whether it’s Shwe Man or Myint Swe, to me it’s still unclear. To me, until recently everyone was saying Shwe Mann and when I read the book most people were saying Shwe Mann. Although some people were saying that Myint Swe is definitely a clear contender. But still people were saying Shwe Mann. As for the recent speculations gave the idea that it might be Myint Swe, think it’s too early to tell. And one of the problems is with regime is that rumours spread, and actually sometimes rumours spread because that is nature. But sometimes I think the regime deliberately spreads rumours in order to cause confusion or they allow rumours to spread. And this rumour about Myint Swe, I can’t comment until it happens.
Q: So do you think that the rumours about the rift between Than Shwe and Maung Aye could be a deliberate plan or do you think there is certainly a big rift between the two?
Ans: It’s quite difficult to tell and I think there is good reason to believe that there is difference in opinion between them. And many people have said to me when I was researching the book. Maung Aye didn’t like some of Than Shwe’s decisions including the severe crackdown on the saffron revolution. One of the interesting things people have said is that Than Shwe tends to take decisions very slowly. But when he does take a decision he overreacts, he takes a very severe decision. It’s also the case in saffron revolution. So I think Maung Aye and Than Shwe do have differences. But I also think Maung Aye is never going to challenge Than Shwe because he knows the consequences. If he challenges and fails and he lives a very comfortable life as the number two, so I think they will stick together even though they may not agree.
Q. Do you think Than Shwe is choking out his seven-step roadmap including the 2010 elections, as part of his “exit plan” to retire from the military or maybe to allow him to get away with whatever he has done?
Ans. Yes, I think it’s primarily about two things. Firstly, ensuring protection for himself, his family and his prodigies and cronies and people, who are close to him. He is also keen that even after he dies, his family and close allies are protected. And secondly, I think, he does model himself to a certain extent on the ancient Burmese warrior kings and in Naypyitaw there is the statue of the three kings. Because in Burmese history, the kings had a tradition of building new capitals or leaving a legacy. So I think both the elections and also the move to Naypyitaw are about leaving a legacy so that Than Shwe in Burmese history is seen as the person who left this legacy.
Q. Talking about the statue and he seems to like to think that he is also one of the great kings in Burmese history. So do you think that he is really obsessed with all these ideas?
Ans: I think he is. When you go to Naypyitaw, I went to Naypyitaw for a day and it’s really an extraordinary place particularly the new pagoda, they built there for the replica of Shwedagon pagoda, which is covered in gold on the outside and the inside. Lots of money has been spent on it and it’s lit up at night. Looking around Naypyitaw, it’s clear that Than Shwe’s part of his decision to move to Naypyitaw is his idea of following the Burmese traditional kings.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about Than Shwe’s health?
Ans: There have been over the years sporadic reports about his health and people think he is about to die and is very old. And then suddenly he reappears and he seems quite strong and in good health. We know that he is a diabetic and we also believe that he may have cancer (prostate cancer) and went to Singapore for treatment. But he does seem to be quite healthy when he appears in public. He doesn’t looked ill or frail, he looks still in reasonable health although he is quite overweight, clearly lives a good life. But it’s hard to really know but it doesn’t seem that he is in bad health.
Q. How obsessed is Than Shwe with astrology?
Ans: I think astrology is certainly a big influence on him in terms of deciding timing of decisions. So, when he announced the move to Naypyitaw, the timing was carefully chosen. Similarly, with some of the prison sentences that have been passed on activists in recent years, those were carefully chosen for astrological reasons. I think in terms of the actual decisions it may be a factor, but I think it’s a factor alongside other factors. For example, with the move to Naypyitaw, I think the advice of the astrologers may have been one reason. But I think there are also other reasons: the historical legacy, and also the desire to protect themselves from the possibility of a nationwide uprising, having the bunker city in the centre of the country. And also the paranoia, misplaced paranoia of foreign invasion. So, I think those strategic factors whether they are justified or not were also influential in addition to astrology.
Q. Based on the information that you have, would you conclude that Than Shwe is paranoid with the possibilities of a foreign invasion?
Ans: I think he is. And particularly after the Iraq war and if you read some of his speeches, which we quote in the book, he has ordered the soldiers, the military and the USDA [Union Solidarity and Development Association] to prepare for specifically an American invasion. So I think he does have that fear. It’s misplaced, you know, there is no likelihood of it happening, but he certainly has that fear.
Q. We know that Than Shwe is a dictator, a sick man, a xenophobic and obsessed with astrology. But why do you think the military generals and soldiers in Burma fear him so much and accept his rule?
Ans: Well, these are the questions I’ve been asking throughout the research for the book because I couldn’t understand why a person who really has no charisma, he has no personal ability to inspire people is obyed. Why he’s been so successful. And also couldn’t understand, why so many people complain about him. They complain about him personally, not just the regime. And yet, nobody does think about it within the regime. And my conclusion is that, the problem is really with the system, that the Burmese military has a tradition of – ‘you don’t move against you superior even if you hate them you just don’t do it.’ Combined with the fact that Than Shwe has been very successful in creating a cultural patronage within the regime, where he has rewarded a lot of people and promoted a lot of people. So a lot of people feel indebted to him and therefore they are loyal to him out of fear because they don’t want to lose their positions. There is this culture of fear that prevents those within the regime from doing anything to remove him.
Q. Would you say that Than Shwe is a part of the military institution that’s been ruling Burma more than 40 years? Or would you say that he is a determined individual dictator?
Ans: I think he’s actually both. He’s certainly the product of the system. And I think the problem in Burma is much bigger than Than Shwe. If you get to Than Shwe, if you just get with Than Shwe, that’s not going to solve the Burmese situation. However, I think he is particularly a hardline person in the regime. He is someone who really does want to hold on to power at all costs. He doesn’t want to compromise, he doesn’t want to negotiate. And he is an individual who’s exerting particular control over the system as well as being the product of the system.