The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
The Man in the Iron Mask

Burma’s reclusive despot remains mysterious even after reading this first biographical attempt

Since he rose to power in 1992 as the head of the then State Law and Order Restoration Council, Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s life has been a maze of rumor, conjecture and lies about his career, private life, rationale for repressive rule and personal motivations. British activist Benedict Rogers has produced a book that fuels the mythology of Than Shwe, but adds very little to his biography.

Review of Benedict Rogers, Than Shwe. Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant, Chiang Mai, Silkworm Books, 2010
Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant outlines the strongman’s early years as a postal worker before he joined the army (perhaps his whole life has been a slow process of “going postal”?). It follows his slow career rise as either a bureaucratic career climber or a conniving psychological warfare officer, his years as a notably not-brave infantry commander (although Rogers omits his well-publicized participation in the anti-narcotics Operation Moe Hein and Operation Nga Ye Pan in the 1980s) and, from seemingly nowhere, his emergence as the head of a resilient if deeply unpopular ruling military council. According to Rogers, Than Shwe’s rise in Burma’s repressive system hinges on this Psy-Ops background, yet he fails to adequately prove the point.

The author concedes that his biography is not the definitive study of Than Shwe, and unfortunately it is much less than that. The book’s purpose of compiling known information about the subject is flawed, as only one-fifth is about Than Shwe. Another fraction is about the Tatmadaw, and the rest is a meandering mash of recent Burmese history.

The sources and arguments are spare: several interviews with Burmese military defectors, liberal lifting of quotes from Burmese exiled media and a few academics, and a handful of brief interviews from the author’s rushed forays into Rangoon and Naypyidaw. The most informative sections come from the astute former British Ambassador Mark Canning, who unlike Rogers has met and spoken with Than Shwe as few others have. Conjecture produces uncertainty: the book is replete with surmise and suppositions. Essentially, it is a compilation of kaw la ha la (rumors), not a careful investigation. Which all begs the question, why the urgency to produce a book when the subject clearly required more robust research to unravel?

Two flaws, one methodological and the other conceptual, cripple the book: Rogers’ shrilly polemical style and his promotion of the man over the system. The author’s earnest indignation mars the narrative; it’s like reading a self-righteous sermon from a small-town vicar. While Rogers’ approach to the subject of Than Shwe to find solutions to the socio-economic abomination the military has engineered may resonate with some readers, it unfortunately won’t change many minds.

Rogers strains to insert his subject into every incident, atrocity and conspiracy of the past 30 years. Frequent charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, even genocide, fill the book: but as slogans, not careful establishment of command responsibility other than “he must have known”. Than Shwe’s supposed love of astrology and monarchical pretensions reads as lurid Orientalism: Rogers also employs palmistry to determine that Than Shwe “lacks compassion.”

Than Shwe is not a “cult of personality” despot, unlike some of his Iraqi, North Korean or African contemporaries of the last two decades. There are no giant statues, no literary pretensions or revolutionary canon: we’re mercifully spared the “Collected Thought of the Great Leader Than Shwe.” He prefers more corporate largesse and expression in the built environment; the doubling of the Tatmadaw since 1988 and profligate arms purchases, extensive spending on roads, bridges and dams while criminally neglecting the Burmese people’s health and education, the gangster-gauche gated-community of Naypyidaw with its golden king statues, parade grounds, massive ministerial buildings, and religious patronage as a route to legitimacy his politics can’t produce. But he permits his greedy progeny and Burma’s rising oligarchs to live lifestyles of the rich and shameless.

In zoning in on Than Shwe, Rogers obscures the barely understood military system he dominates, or serves, whose internecine intrigue continues to be a mystery to most Burmese and almost every foreigner. The dictator and his gang remain masked.

David Scott Mathieson is senior researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

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