The Soldier And The State

Written by Andrew Marshall

Posted on 19 October 2009

The Soldier And The State

Read the story in TIME magazine

The U.S. wants to talk to Burma’s junta, but Washington must first do its homework on the general known as the Grandfather

By Andrew Marshall

AMONG Manchester United Football Club’s 300 million supporters worldwide are two Burmese men whose love of the game spans generations. One is a stout, bespectacled septuagenarian, the other his favorite teenage grandson, and like many of their soccer-mad compatriots they stay up late to watch live broadcasts from faraway England. So far, so normal. But knowing the grandfather in this touching scene is 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.

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 (Thailand gets most of its natural gas from Burma), 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.

Rogues Gallery

Than Shwe is burma’s paramount ruler, but he is not alone at the top. Hard-line loyalists within the military include General Thura Shwe Mann, his likely successor, and U Thaung, a former ambassador to the U.S., now the Science and Technology Minister who is believed to be driving the junta’s long-held ambitions to acquire nuclear technology. Also influential are a handful of Burmese business tycoons, many of whom — like the generals themselves — are the subject of U.S. and E.U. sanctions that severely restrict overseas travel and investments. Lobbying of Than Shwe by these business cronies could explain the warm welcome accorded in August to pro-engagement Senator Jim Webb. State-run television showed a smiling Than Shwe pumping the former combat Marine’s hand, while the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a junta mouthpiece, reminded its readers that “even an influential U.S. senator opposes the economic sanctions against our country.”

The junta has survived and prospered despite two decades of ever tightening sanctions. Yet the years have not dimmed its desire to have those sanctions lifted. “Many people say [Than Shwe] doesn’t care what the world thinks, but he does want pariah status removed,” says Rogers. He also wants “a veneer of legitimacy” and hopes the planned 2010 elections will provide it. Than Shwe has vowed to create a so-called “discipline-flourishing democracy” that will not only entrench military rule but protect his legacy — and his skin. In 2002, suspecting a plot against him, Than Shwe put Ne Win, the man who had first elevated him to power, and his daughter under house arrest and jailed his grandsons. “Ne Win died in ignominy,” says Christina Fink, author of Living Silence: Burma Under Military Rule, a landmark book about life under the junta. “Than Shwe must be painfully aware that the same could happen to him.” The junta chief has another weakness: his family. He allows them “to run wild,” says Rogers. In July 2006, his jewel-bedecked daughter Thandar Shwe, one of eight children, married an army major in a lavish ceremony that angered many in this poverty-stricken nation.

Standing Alone

Many in Burma’s pro-democracy movement — and in the U.S. Congress — view any overtures to the generals as appeasement and say Than Shwe personally has blood on his hands. Aung Lynn Htut, a former Burmese diplomat and army major who defected to the U.S. in 2005, claims Grandfather personally ordered the massacre of 81 men, women and children on a remote Burmese island in 1998. Five years later, Than Shwe’s thugs attacked the convoy of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at Depayin, west of Mandalay, killing or injuring dozens of her supporters.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate remains his greatest rival. “He personally dislikes her,” says Seekins. “It’s not just a political calculation. He finds her too opinionated, too Westernized, too outspoken as a woman.” In August Suu Kyi was found guilty of violating the terms of her house arrest after an American man swam uninvited to her lakeside home. Her initial three-year prison sentence was commuted to 18 months of house arrest because, said the order read aloud in court, Than Shwe “desires … to exercise leniency upon her.

Military defector Aung Lynn Htut is unconvinced. He warns that his former commander will do anything to discredit Suu Kyi, a longtime supporter of Western sanctions. Than Shwe met Webb as part of a campaign to portray the Nobel laureate as “the enemy of the Burmese people [who] is too stubborn to lift sanctions,” he says. But even Suu Kyi’s pro-sanctions stance is no longer a given. U.S. engagement was “a good thing,” she admitted recently through a spokesman for her National League for Democracy party.

Suu Kyi sounded cautious, and who can blame her? Than Shwe “remains impervious to the appeal of reform or compromise with the opposition because he wishes at all costs to maintain a personal monopoly on power,” says Seekins. So will a fresh diplomatic onslaught work? The new U.S. approach on Burma is the product of a White House that stresses diplomacy over confrontation. “It’s more a change in tactics than overall strategy,” says Fink. Also driving the policy review are Washington’s concerns over China’s influence over Burma and Than Shwe’s apparent nuclear ambitions. Seekins believes Washington risks overestimating the junta’s willingness to open up. “The U.S. government may find itself in the same position as the Japanese government during the 1990s, when Tokyo believed it could get the [regime] to mend its ways by giving it some economic incentives.”

For now, at least, the junta seems to be engaging all over the place. Last month its Prime Minister, General Thein Sein, became the highest-ranking Burmese official in 14 years to address the U.N. General Assembly. He told delegates that sanctions were “unjust.” While in New York City, Thein Sein conferred with both Webb and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. Back in Burma, Suu Kyi met a senior junta official and is thought to have discussed the lifting of sanctions.

That won’t happen anytime soon. It would send “the wrong signal,” warned Campbell. His boss agrees. “Sanctions remain important as part of our policy,” said Hillary Clinton, describing them and engagement as “tools” to achieve the same goal: democracy in Burma. Considering Than Shwe’s nonexistent track record on reform, U.S. officials are right to downplay the impact of engagement. Barring any real concessions from the hard man himself — starting with the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners prevented from running in next year’s polls — democracy remains a distant prospect. “Everyone is calling for reform, but I don’t think Than Shwe feels any urgency about it,” says Seekins. “Nothing much will change until he passes from the scene.” One man controls everything that happens in Burma.

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