Myanmar’s Reclusive Leader
JUNE 22, 2009
Few countries outside North Korea are more beholden to the whims of a single man than Myanmar. But unlike Kim Jong Il, the subject of recent Western biographies, very little is known about Myanmar’s paramount leader, Senior General Than Shwe.
Than Shwe on Armed Forces Day Myanmar’s capital of Naypyidaw on March 27. (Getty Images)
A reclusive hardliner who often refuses to speak with Western leaders, he has presided over Myanmar’s disintegration into one of Asia’s most dysfunctional economies and a nation plagued by human rights abuses, including the use of forced labor to enrich the military and its allies, according to human rights groups around the world. His hatred of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi , Myanmar’s leading opposition figure, is said to be so intense that he will not allow her name to be spoken in his presence.
The general is rumored to suffer from a number of medical ailments, and some analysts believe he may be looking for a way to retire without exposing himself to international human rights judicial proceedings. The regime unveiled a “roadmap to democracy” several years ago that includes plans for a national election next year. That said, provisions in the country’s constitution all but guarantee the military or its allies will maintain control. Even so, some foreign observers are hopeful that a change of power will at least bring some more reform-minded generals to the fore, and create an opening for more engagement with the West.
His public appearances, mainly on state-run television, are stage-managed and typically involve stiff greetings of visiting foreign dignitaries or reviews of military parades; in photographs, he is seen as a slightly portly figure with slick black hair in military uniforms draped in medals.
The few military personnel with access to “Number One,” as he is referred to by some Myanmar residents, rarely bring up contentious issues for fear of displeasing him, and his decisions in policymaking are final, say people who work with the government including diplomats and aid workers.
That helps explain why it took so long for the government to allow foreign aid after last year’s Cyclone Nargis, which killed 135,000 people, despite support from a number of senior generals. In the days following the disaster, letters and phone calls to Gen. Than Shwe from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon went unanswered, though the two did eventually meet several weeks after the disaster.
Borrowing the traditions of earlier powerful Myanmar emperors who conquered large parts of Southeast Asia, Gen. Than Shwe built his own capital, Naypyitaw, which means “Abode of Kings,” on a remote plain, spending hundreds of millions of dollars. His wife, Kyaing Kyaing , regularly visits the country’s most prominent Buddhist monasteries to curry favor with monks, and in March this year, Gen. Than Shwe and his wife attended a ceremony to consecrate a huge, gold leaf-covered pagoda in Naypyitaw, according to local news reports. At the event, Ms. Kyaing Kyaing threw banknotes into the air and donated money to thousands of local people, the reports said.
Born in a central Myanmar town in 1933, the future supreme leader worked briefly as a postal clerk before joining the army, according to a biography published in the 1990s by Myanmar’s Ministry of Information and translated for The Wall Street Journal. He trained in the military’s psychological warfare unit and participated in its campaigns against ethnic minority rebels. He entered senior ranks of the government by 1988. Student riots rocked the country that year; after a change in leadership and several years of political uncertainty, he emerged in 1992 as the country’s top leader.
His government’s bloody crackdown on monks who led peaceful protests in 2007, and his refusal to hand power to Ms. Suu Kyi, whose party won national elections in 1990, led the U.S. and Europe to impose progressively tough economic sanctions over the past decade.
Myanmar citizens enjoy one of the lowest standards of living in Asia, and many expressed outrage a few years ago when video of his daughter’s lavish wedding leaked to outside news organizations. In the video, she is seen decked out in diamond-encrusted jewelry while family and friends sip from glasses of champagne.