Than Shwe—Man in the Iron Mask
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Friday, May 24, 2019


Than Shwe—Man in the Iron Mask

By Aung Zaw FEBRUARY, 2005 - VOLUME 13 NO.2


Burma’s paramount leader may be an unknown figure to most, but he has shown his leadership mettle


The Burmese hardly know their paramount leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe. His former close friends knew him as an honest and simple soldier. But even if he lacks charisma and possesses few rounded leadership skills today, he has an iron grip on power.



Lately there has been a proliferation of tales and rumors about him and his family, though reliable sources have trouble verifying them. The reclusive Than Shwe rarely meets journalists, and the government releases only snippets of news about his and his family’s activities.


Rumor has it that Than Shwe acts like a king, and his daughters order military officers to treat them like royalty. Some insiders say he wants to be remembered as a benevolent king. The 72-year-old general is known to bear a grudge against the regime’s main opponent Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest on and off since 1989. Just the mention of her name is said to send him into tantrums.


Domestically, Than Shwe is said to like watching Chinese Shaolin martial art movies, and his favorite grandsons are treated like contenders. He occasionally plays golf, a pastime favored by military brass, including his late predecessor Ne Win.


But there are some hard facts breaking through the wall of silence around Burma’s paramount leader. Born in 1933 in Kyaukse, Mandalay Division, Than Shwe joined the army aged 20. Before that he was a lowly postal clerk. A year later, he attended the Officer Training School as an Intake 9 student and became an army officer before enrolling in the civilian Institute of Central Politics. In 1958 he was attached to the army’s psychological warfare department.


His rapid rise in the army began with postings in Karen and Shan states. But little has been recorded about any battles with minority ethnic insurgents there. In 1978, at the age of 50, he reached the rank of colonel and was one of the youngest commanders in the army in the military’s Southwest Region. Ten years later he was a lieutenant-general.


He was a member of Ne Win’s ruling Burma Socialist Program Party, or BSPP, where he became a central executive committee member in 1988. Analysts note his political thinking today is still very much in the style of the old BSPP. For instance he set up a BSPP-style Union Solidarity Development Association, of which he became chairman. He also convened a National Convention in 1993, ostensibly to draft a constitution. But the convention has yet to achieve anything.


During the long BSPP era, Than Shwe was known as a faithful anti-reformist.

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