Pointing the Finger at Than Shwe
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Pointing the Finger at Than Shwe

By Min Zin Friday, December 28, 2007


The political conflict in Burma has long been noted for its intractability. It is intractable not because it is irresolvable, but because it is resisting resolution. Of course, conflict in itself does not resist anything—people do. And the people of Burma know very well who the culprit is.

"In Burma, Snr-Gen Than Shwe is an autocrat," said a well-known lawyer in Rangoon who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for her safety. "He is not responsible to anyone else for what he does. He alone calls the shots."

In fact, Than Shwe is a typical Aristotelian tyrant—his despotism is conducted purely for his own personal benefit.

"Many foreigners I have met are not sufficiently aware of the real face of Burma's dictatorship," said Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) and a human rights activist. "Than Shwe deserves a name that is loathed in international politics and media, similar to that of Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Kim Jong Il of North Korea and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. We must put a name to the Burmese regime."

In this regard, the US government seems to have taken the initiative. A closer reading of the US State Department's latest press statement on Burma revealed a new trend of “naming the name.”

"The Burmese regime, led by Than Shwe, continues cracking down on democracy activists for peacefully expressing their political beliefs," opened the statement dated December 21, 2007, regarding the regime's arrest of six 88 Generation Students group activists. Instead of speaking about Burma's dictatorship in vague and faceless terms, the statement pinpointed the villain: "We deplore the regime’s actions and call on Than Shwe to release all political prisoners."

Sources close to the US State Department said that the three-sentence statement was well crafted to isolate Than Shwe as the person solely responsible for what happens in Burma.

It was probably the first time that the State Department has pointed to Than Shwe as a culprit, said a lobbyist in Washington.

Several military analysts in Rangoon as well as abroad have said that there is growing resentment within the military toward the erratic behavior of Than Shwe and his family ever since the uncovering of his daughter's lavish wedding, and the harsh crackdown on the peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks in September.

Meanwhile, some experts have started floating the idea of going a step further—isolating Than Shwe and using the language of "justice and accountability" against him. They estimate that holding Than Shwe personally accountable for the regime’s crimes against humanity may have a strategic impact in Burma's political transition. It might even help create a power balance between the junta and other potential partners in dialogue.

"Raising the prospect of justice and accountability for mass violations of human rights, along with corruption, can help to balance out the power difference and weaken the regime," said Patrick Pierce, a senior associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice. "The international community—the UN and Asean in particular—seems to be all carrot and no stick. There needs to be a balance."

However, the validity of the whole calculation will rest mainly on whether or not such strategic moves will encourage other generals to distance themselves from the aging Than Shwe, and facilitate some basic political and economic reforms.

Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese military analyst living along the Sino-Burmese border, dismisses such prospects. "It will be counterproductive," he said. "Instead of being a positive incentive to other generals, these moves will give Than Shwe a chance to rally his hardliners by pointing out the common threat."

A Rangoon-based lawyer also noted that although Than Shwe is an autocratic supremo, he has plenty of hardline people around him. Any talk of a prosecution against him will deter potential political transition in Burma. Moreover, it will remind the generals of late opposition party leader Kyi Maung's reference to the “Nuremberg-style trial” against former military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt.

However, some activists argue that if there is no chance of political thaw under Than Shwe's autocratic leadership, why bother waiting in vain without accumulating pressure to remove him? They advocate any action that will target Than Shwe and his family. 

Jared Genser, president of Freedom Now and co-author of the 2005 “Havel-Tutu Report” on rampant rights abuses in Burma, doubts the effectiveness of this strategy.

"Anyone can press for justice and accountability against Than Shwe under international law," said Genser. "But the problem is how seriously he will take such a threat.

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