Than Shwe: The Man in the Iron Mask
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Than Shwe: The Man in the Iron Mask

By Aung Zaw Wednesday, October 31, 2007


In order to see positive political change in Burma it’s clearly necessary to understand the psyche of Than Shwe and his men.

[Photo: AFP]

Various informed sources close to the armed forces and the military government have disclosed to me that Than Shwe told his generals at an emergency meeting that they have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

He asked his men to launch a diplomatic, “damage control” offensive after the brutal crackdown in September. But he is not prepared to surrender his seven step “road map”.

The sources also said that the regime’s propaganda machine is running well at the higher level and among the soldiers. The regime’s spin on events is that the US and exiled media were behind the September uprising. Officers said the strength of American staff at the newly built US embassy in Rangoon had been increased just before the uprising.

During the uprising, soldiers and officers were instructed to beat and kill monks and to raid monasteries, where they were told “bogus monks” had infiltrated the Sangha community with the aim of destabilizing the state.

Soldiers and their families were also ordered to watch state-run Myanmar television and to avoid popular foreign TV broadcasters like the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera during the uprising in September.

This clearly indicates that soldiers and their families, who are Buddhist, are not happy with the crackdown on the monks. Rangoon’s Ngwe Kyaw Yan monastery, a prime target of army raids, was frequently visited by the families of some army officers.

Some high ranking generals reportedly received angry phone calls and complaints from family members who regularly visit Ngwe Kyaw Yan monastery and other temples. 

This increasing dissent and unhappiness within the armed forces is a serious problem that Than Shwe will have to tackle as a matter of urgency. He may have to reshuffle his cabinet and top leadership of the armed forces in order to quell dissent and possible schisms.

This isn’t new, however. After the Depayin massacre, when Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters were violently attacked, he introduced a “road map” and appointed Gen Khin Nyunt to head the cabinet as prime minister. One year later Khin Nyunt was ousted and replaced by Than Shwe’s trusted man, Gen Soe Win.

Last week’s reshuffle indicated that Than Shwe is still in control and has tightened his grip on power. After Soe Win’s death, Lt Gen Thein Sein, Secretary one of the ruling council, was appointed prime minister.

The hardliner Lt-Gen Tin Aung Myint Oo, bearer of the Thiha Thura title, became Secretary one.

The appointment of Labor Minister Aung Kyi to be “liaison minister” between Suu Kyi and the regime is seen as a ploy to buy more time and to create more breathing space for the regime.

Indeed, Aung Kyi’s recent meeting with Suu Kyi was clearly intended to deflect international criticism. Some government sources suggested that it was aimed at appeasing China and Russia, the regime’s allies.

Inside the army, top generals are restless amid persistent rumors that Than Shwe’s deputy, Gen Maung Aye, who is currently army chief and deputy commander in chief of the armed forces, has been increasingly sidelined. During the uprising, there was a rumor of a possible countercoup by Maung Aye against Than Shwe.

The example of Gen Ne Win, who resigned as head of the armed forces after reaching the retirement age of 60, paving way for a younger generation to take over, is being raised. Of course, Ne Win left his trusted men in top positions in the armed forces.

Than Shwe—whose age has been officially given as 74— doesn’t dare relinquish his powerful position in the Tatmadaw. He trusts no one.

Enter Gen Shwe Mann, who bears the Thura title, and who is now the regime’s number 3 man and is joint coordinator of the army, navy and air force. He rose quite rapidly to the top ranks, and Than Shwe might now want to make him commander in chief, bypassing Maung Aye.

Informed sources told The Irrawaddy that Than Shwe now closely works with Gen Shwe Mann and Thein Sein. They are both known to be good listeners and get on with each other. Thein Sein is from Defense Services Academy 9 and Shwe Mann is from 11.  

Faced with fresh sanctions and increasing international pressure, Than Shwe, the former psychological warfare officer, is expected to bring more dynamics to the political landscape in Burma.

With changes and a reshuffle, more cosmetic changes can be expected to emerge on the horizon.

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