BOOK REVIEW Life and times of a dictator Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant by Benedict Rogers
Reviewed by Bertil Lintner
CHIANG MAI - When Myanmar military dictator General Ne Win was still alive,
foreign pundits often postulated that the country would change for the better
once he passed from the scene. The country would still be ruled by the
military, they predicted, but by a younger generation of more reform-minded
officers that would bring Myanmar, also known as Burma, out of the Dark Ages.
Ne Win relinquished formal power in the late 1980s and pulled strings from
behind the scenes leading up to his death in 2002. Did Myanmar change after
that? Yes - but arguably for the worse. Repression intensified, with the number
of political prisoners reaching into the thousands. Economic reforms put more
in circulation, but intensified already rampant corruption. The government
spent even less on health and education while ramping up military spending.
Today, the Myanmar military is more firmly entrenched in power than at any time
since Ne Win's coup d'etat in 1962, which ended a 14-year period of weak but
functioning parliamentary democracy. Now the era of Myanmar's current
strongman, General Than Shwe, is drawing to an end. The 77-year-old general
will soon retire and he has promised the country's first democratic elections
in 20 years to mark the transition.
A new generation of pundits has predicted hopefully that Myanmar is on the cusp
of positive change. They believe a hitherto unknown generation of Young Turks
and other supposed closet liberals within the military will come to the fore
and push the country in a more democratic direction. Elections, they predict,
will at long last give civilian leaders some say over the country's governance.
In all likelihood, however, foreign pundits will be proven wrong yet again.
Benedict Rogers' highly readable new book shows why Myanmar's military, even
with Than Shwe's imminent retirement, has no intention of giving up power any
time soon. After this year's polls Than Shwe may no longer be Myanmar's de
facto head of state, but he has ensured through that he and his by now
immensely wealthy family will be well protected when the next generation of
soldiers assume power.
"Motivated by power and a determination to hold onto it," Rogers writes, "Than
Shwe will use any tool necessary, from detention, torture and violence against
his opponents, to lies, deceit, delay and false promises to the international
community, or the manipulation of astrology and religion to convince his own
There is scant evidence that the next generation of military officers will be
any more liberal in their outlook than their predecessors - in the same way as
Than Shwe's generation certainly was no more broadminded after taking over from
Ne Win. After half a century of wielding absolute power, the Myanmar military
has developed its own ways of dealing with internal dissent and external
And democratic reforms, even minor and gradual ones, are not part of that
mindset, as Rogers' book thoughtfully illustrates. Ne Win set the repressive
agenda when he and the army seized power 48 years ago, and those ways have
survived him through several of his successors.
To be sure, Rogers does not feign objectivity in his assessment of Than Shwe's
life and times. As a member of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human-rights
organization that specializes in religious freedoms, he has been a Myanmar
activist for many years and openly declared his support for the country's
pro-democracy opposition. But that does not detract from this well-researched
To the contrary, it is the first thorough study of Myanmar's undisputed
strongman. It chronicles with detail how Than Shwe rose from a lowly position
as a junior postal clerk to the most powerful soldier in the military-run
country. Joining the military as a teenager, he was always immensely loyal to
his commanders, a trait the book argues was a key to his eventual success.
Those who questioned their superiors and official policies were ruthlessly
purged under the new military order that Ne Win introduced after 1962.
Despite claims in his own official glorified biography, Than Shwe did not see
as much combat as other top army officers who fought in jungle battlefields
against ethnic insurgent groups. Rather he was attached to the military's
Psychological Warfare Department and, later, the grandly named Central School
of Political Science, where officers and other soldiers were taught Ne Win's
"Burmese Way to Socialism" ideology.
Rogers quotes one of his inside sources as saying that Than Shwe "never talked
about the country and its prospects with me. He seemed only focused on pleasing
the higher officers and leaders. He always praised the leaders and never showed
any ambition. He was certainly proud of being a soldier. He followed orders ...
Rogers traces Than Shwe's rise through Myanmar's post-World War II period, the
short-lived democratic era in the 1950s, and the disastrous years of austere
socialism in the 1960s and 1970s which brought on the 1988 popular uprising and
its bloody suppression. In 1992, Than Shwe became chairman of the ruling junta,
known then as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC. He was
promoted following the resignation of his predecessor General Saw Maung, who
had become increasingly erratic.
Once in a position of absolute power, the postman-cum-tyrant, to use Rogers'
description of Than Shwe, was surprisingly durable. Over the years he displayed
an unprecedented megalomania among Myanmar military leaders. Few could have
guessed that the often sullen and always taciturn soldier would endeavor to
build a new capital city, Naypyidaw, or "the Abode of Kings", from an obscure
patch in the jungle.
Nor did many foresee that he would replace Myanmar's original national
philosophy of "unity in diversity" with a new concept of a unitary state in
honor of the country's ancient warrior kings and empire-builders, Anawratha,
Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya. Many believe his construction of the new capital
city aims to leave behind a "Fourth Myanmar Empire" as a legacy of his rule.
It is unclear how Than Shwe's promised democratic transition fits with those
kingly designs. Whether Myanmar holds elections this year, next year, or never,
all the structures he put in place signal that the military is geared to remain
in power for the foreseeable future. Rogers correctly portrays Than Shwe and
his military henchmen as modern-day "tyrants" - and history shows that from a
position of power tyrants have seldom negotiated their own demise.
Anyone who believes that a post-Than Shwe Myanmar is headed in a democratic
direction should read this valuable book.
Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant by Benedict Rogers with a foreword
by Vaclav Havel. Silkworm Books (May 2010). ISBN - 978-974-9511-91-6. Price
US$20, 256 pages.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic
Review. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.