Than Shwe in the Hot Seat
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, October 15, 2019


Than Shwe in the Hot Seat



Burma’s despised despot is on track to face some earthly justice, if the divine variety doesn’t catch up with him first

Most Burmese regard themselves as fairly devout, regardless of what religion they practice. To some, this might seem like a case of seeking false consolation in the otherworldly. But to my mind, it makes perfectly good sense that Burmese people would want to cling to a belief in some sort of higher order. How else would you keep your sanity in a society so totally devoid of justice?

If there is one thought that is likely to put a smile on the face of most Burmese, it is of Than Shwe, their self-appointed master, finally facing the music the moment he shuffles off his mortal coil. Burmese are not vindictive by nature, but they can’t countenance the thought of crimes going unpunished. Justice must be done—if not in the here and now, then in the hereafter.

But as a wise man once said, justice must also be seen to be done—and in this respect, religion falls short of satisfying a basic human and social need.

That is why news that the Obama administration has decided to back a UN Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into crimes against humanity in Burma has been greeted as a major breakthrough. After decades of living under the rule of ruthless thugs, Burmese now have reason to believe that this long, dark era could one day end in a reckoning for Than Shwe and his enablers.

The announcement could not have come at a better time for Burma’s beleaguered opposition. With an election just months away, the country’s democratic forces—even those that have decided to take part in this farcical exercise—know that the regime’s plan to use it as a means of installing a new generation of military rulers is all but unstoppable.

But since this election is more about international legitimacy than internal political reform, real victory may ultimately prove elusive. Even the most committed appeasers—those who insist that the election is a major step forward, when it is in fact merely a continuation of the present system under a different guise—will find it difficult to congratulate the election “victors” if they are facing conviction for crimes of the highest order.

Of course, it would be unwise to expect the establishment of a CoI into the regime’s egregious abuses over the past two decades to result in a cathartic courtroom drama anytime soon. Justice is a painstaking process, and many obstacles lie ahead. But the wheels have been set in motion, and it is up to all of us to see that they maintain their momentum.

To a great extent, this means continuing with the work that has occupied many of us over the past 22 years. Thanks to the efforts of many dedicated people, we already have mountains of evidence of the regime’s mistreatment of political prisoners, brutalization of democracy advocates, use of forced labor and child soldiers, and vicious campaigns against ethnic minorities, including systematic rape,  summary executions of civilians and destruction of entire communities.

Beyond this, it will be necessary to ensure that the political will to pursue these charges does not flag. The CoI will have the power to refer the generals to the International Criminal Court to face prosecution for their crimes. Whether it exercises this power, however, will depend as much on the support of the international community as on the force of the evidence.

Sources in Naypyidaw say that Than Shwe has been informed of the move. His senior aides have not, however, been able to fully apprise him of the workings of a CoI, because they know little about it themselves. But they may soon find themselves working overtime to find some way to defend their boss against an international system of justice that renders the regime’s constitutional guarantees of immunity meaningless.

For his part, Than Shwe seems more focused on improving his prospects in the next life. The ailing dictator’s recent visits to the holy sites of Buddhism in India, apparently in the belief that piety will protect him from the karmic consequences of his actions in this life, show that he probably feels that death will catch up with him before the courts do.

Given his age and poor health, it could very well happen this way. But since the proposed criminal proceedings against him are more about sending a message to his successors than anything else, their purpose will be served even if Than Shwe does manage to keep the courts at bay long enough to meet a “peaceful” end (assuming his enemies in the military don’t get to him first).

But if most Burmese are correct in what they believe awaits him in the afterlife, Than Shwe may wish he had made his amends here among the living before his real judgment day is upon him.  

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