The Simple Soldier
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, August 04, 2020


The Simple Soldier


The Burmese junta commemorates Armed Forces Day with a massive display of military might in Naypyidaw. (Photo: NLC DUNLOP/PANOS)

Snr-Gen Than Shwe was once an unknown rising through the ranks of the armed forces—the sort of person it may now take to remove him from power.

Some former colleagues of Snr-Gen Than Shwe recall that the junta chief used to have little political ambition and lived a simple lifestyle. They say he actually thought he was on his way out in the 1980s and was preparing for retirement.

Gen Ne Win and his handpicked military commanders, who were politically ambitious, never considered the possibility that Than Shwe might one day rise to be commander in chief of the armed forces. To their minds, he lacked talent, vision and ambition. He was just another “yes man.”

lt-Col Than Shwe testifying at the trial of Capt Ohn Kyaw Myint

Indeed, his army colleagues recalled that the former postal clerk was “half monk and half soldier” during his early days in the armed forces, when he was assigned to teach history at the Central Institute of Political Science.

A devout Buddhist, Capt Than Shwe avoided politics and rivalry. However, he was faithful to Ne Win’s “Burmese Way to Socialism,” and a patriotic soldier.

When on the general staff in the War Office in Rangoon, then Lt-Col Than Shwe learned of several purges and abortive coup attempts against Ne Win.

In 1976, Capt Ohn Kyaw Myint, a staff officer serving under Gen Kyaw Htin, then commander in chief of the armed forces, plotted to assassinate state leaders, including Ne Win and his protégé, San Yu.

Along with other young officers who graduated from the Defense Services Academy, Ohn Kyaw Myint held clandestine meetings in the War Office to discuss the assassination of Ne Win, the strongman who first placed Burma under military rule. The young army officers were unhappy with corruption under Ne Win’s rule and believed the country was being driven into economic ruin.

Burma’s secret police uncovered the plot and set out to discover the ringleader. Ohn Kyaw Myint was hanged and several senior army officers were purged.

Than Shwe was among those who testified at the trial. As a result, he was promoted and became strategic commander in central Burma.

In the early 1980s, a bitter power struggle between the intelligence wing and the army forced Ne Win to make a dramatic reshuffle in the cabinet and armed forces. Some top commanders who were locked into the fight were removed and many mid-level officers, including Than Shwe, were promoted.

This was when a number of future leading lights began to move into prominence. Gen Saw Maung, the first chairman of the current military regime before he was succeeded by Than Shwe in 1992, and Col Khin Nyunt, who later became military intelligence chief, were among the beneficiaries of Ne Win’s last big shakeup before he fell from power in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

When Ne Win’s regime collapsed, Than Shwe became vice chairman of the newly installed junta. But even then it was rumored that he planned to retire soon. It was widely believed that the ambitious spy chief Khin Nyunt would assume the top post. But that didn’t happen.

In the early 1990s, a simple family drama revealed the relative power of these two men. When Khin Nyunt’s daughter appeared at an army swimming pool one day, Than Shwe’s daughters immediately left to make way. It was seen as an indication that as secretary one, Khin Nyunt was more powerful than the then vice chairman of the regime.

Now, however, Khin Nyunt and his family are Than Shwe’s prisoners, living under house arrest. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, there were even reports of how the former spy chief, his hair now graying, was seen climbing on the roof of his house to cut branches and remove debris by himself.

Today, Than Shwe is the most hated and feared figure in Burma. Besides Khin Nyunt, he has successfully removed many other powerful senior figures—including even Ne Win, who he placed under house arrest in December 2002 after a number of his relatives were found guilty of plotting against the ruling regime.

Who would have thought that Than Shwe, an unambitious lackey for most of his military career, would one day become a capricious absolute ruler, the man no one dares to defy?

Without any official announcement, Than Shwe relocated the capital in 2006. In defiance of international pressure, he continues to round up and imprison activists and dissidents.

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