The man behind Burma’s secret nuclear plans, Senior General Than Shwe,is one of the world’s most brutal and reclusive dictators. Hidden in his bunker in the newly built capital, Naypyidaw (which means “seat of kings”), his appearances in public are rare and his interactions with the international community unusual.
Aged 76, the former postal clerk became Burma’s ruler in 1992, 30 years after the military under Ne Win first seized power. Colourless, uncharismatic and relatively uneducated Than Shwe rose through the ranks by simply obeying orders and showing loyalty. Indeed, his apparent lack of flair, initiative and intellect were precisely the qualities the army rewarded. He was not perceived by his superiors as a threat – and was rewarded accordingly. Far from showing courage or prowess on the battlefield, he led his troops into numerous defeats at the hands of the Communists – but that did not appear to have been a barrier to promotion.
A skilled manipulator, Than Shwe consolidated his power using classic divide-and-rule tactics against his rivals within the regime and his opponents among the democratic and ethnic groups. Trained in psychological warfare in the 1960s, he lectured for a time at Ne Win’s Central Party School, so he is steeped in the use of propaganda. Billboards across the country display the regime’s message in Orwellian tones.
His regime has relentlessly suppressed pro-democracy activists, while in its long war againt the ethnic minorities it has used forced labour, rape, extra-judicial killings and torture as weapons of war and has overseen the destruction of 3,000 villages. The Burmese junta ranks alongside its new partners North Korea as among the worst abusers of human rights in the world.
Than Shwe is heavily influenced by astrology. In 2005, he announced that he was moving the capital from bustling Rangoon to the middle of the jungle 600 kilometres away. It is believed that he made this decision on the advice of astrologers, although it was also a result of his fear of a US invasion and to protect him against another uprising. He reportedly has at least seven personal astrologers, including several dedicated solely to monitoring the fortunes of imprisoned democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
A new constitution will enshrine military rule, and elections scheduled for next year are expected to be a sham.