The Dictators: Part 10—Than Shwe Enjoys Absolute Power

By Aung Zaw 10 May 2013

This is the tenth and final installment in the series The Dictators, which delves into the lives and careers of Burma’s two most infamous military chiefs and the cohorts that surrounded them.

With Ne Win now gone and Secretary-2 Tin Oo having been killed in a 2001 helicopter crash, Khin Nyunt was the only regime leader remaining who could claim a stature even approaching Than Shwe’s.

The intelligence unit’s public relations effort to portray Khin Nyunt as a moderate who was exposed to international affairs continued to cause concern among Than Shwe and Maung Aye, who had not had the same early opportunities for education and travel as Khin Nyunt.

In addition, the tension between the army and the intelligence service had gone beyond compromise, with the infantry officers and field commanders all behind Than Shwe and Maung Aye. Everyone in the military was waiting to pop the champagne once the intelligence faction was purged.

And Khin Nyunt had an even more dangerous enemy than the army’s senior commanders—Than Shwe’s wife. Kyaing Kyaing never hid her hatred toward Dr. Khin Win Shwe, the wife of Khin Nyunt, a medical doctor who attended many receptions and chaired several social welfare organizations.

It was clear to most that in the eyes of Khin Nyunt and Khin Win Shwe, Than Shwe and Kyaing Kyaing were tasteless, dull, uneducated people, and the angry and jealous Kyaing Kyaing fought back by bringing gossip of the Khin Nyunt couple to Than Shwe, it being rumored that she even employed black magic against Khin Win Shwe.

When Than Shwe appointed Khin Nyunt prime minister soon after the Depayin attack in May 2003, it was clear that he would be the fall guy and was now powerless to defend himself. Khin Nyunt being axed was just a matter of time, and his protégé Foreign Minister Win Aung told his Asean counterparts that his boss was in danger and would need to flee the country. Burma’s neighbors, however, wouldn’t dare receive Khin Nyunt because of the diplomatic fallout that would occur.

On Oct. 19, 2004, Khin Nyunt was arrested on his return from Mandalay, and within a few hours his entire intelligence unit had been raided and dismantled in an operation overseen by Than Shwe and Maung Aye to which there was no resistance. Charged with insubordination and corruption, Khin Nyunt was taken to Insein Prison, where he spent his time in a bungalow that he had ordered built to keep Aung San Suu Kyi. He later received a suspended sentence of 44 years in prison and was placed under house arrest. Following the purge, the DDSI was renamed Military Affairs Security and placed firmly under the commander-in-chief of the armed forces—Than Shwe.

At a special briefing following Khin Nyunt’s arrest, Gen Shwe Mann and Lt-Gen Soe Win gave local businessmen details about the purge and the corruption cases against DDSI officers, declaring that no one is above the law. The intended message was that the regime would take action against anyone found to be corrupt, but no one took the warning seriously. The irony is that corruption and bribery has since spread like cancer to the top levels of Than Shwe’s regime, and people in Burma now joke that it is not only a butcher, but also thieves and dacoits, who run the country.

With all of his main individual rivals now either dead or sidelined, Than Shwe turned his attention to his legacy and protection from the more ambiguous threats of internal uprisings and foreign invasions, both military and diplomatic.

In 2006, the junta chief moved the capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw—a newly constructed city in the remote, mountainous jungles around Pyinmana in central Burma, adjacent to Shan, Arakan and Chin states. In the generals’ point of view, from their new command center in the country’s inner frontier, the Burmese armed forces have the advantage of being able to launch a protracted people’s war in hopes that during a drawn out resistance it could lure the enemy deep into the country’s central jungles, where they would be vulnerable and could be defeated.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Burma’s external enemy was China in the North. At present, however, Than Shwe and his military commanders believe any external attack will either come from the south by an amphibious landing in Arakan State or from the east by a land-based invasion via Thailand into Karen State. Under either of these scenarios, or the simultaneous launching of both, Rangoon would be cut off and vulnerable, most likely falling to any significant foreign invasion within a few days—hence the move to Naypyidaw.

Burmese military officers have poured over the invasion plans of “Operation Desert Storm” in Iraq, the US-Afghanistan War and the recent Kosovo War, paying particular attention to US strategies. In addition, the junta generals have studied tunnel warfare, specifically North Korea’s defense plan. Despite China’s admonition that tunnel warfare is no longer viable given modern bombing technology, military sources have confirmed that the regime implemented tunnel warfare strategies as early as 2000 and sent several delegations to Pyongyang since normalizing relations with North Korea in 2007.

However, in a paper entitled “The Road to Naypyidaw: Making Sense of the Myanmar Government’s Decision to Move its Capital,” Maung Aung Myo asserted that despite the strategic move of the capital to a remote, fortress-like location, if Burma did come under attack its armed forces would be put to the test because of a lack of training, wartime experience and operational capability. These weaknesses were exposed in 2008, when the Tatmadaw appeared unable to synchronize its army, navy and air force to confront naval aid vessels from the US, Britain and France that had closed in on Burmese waters to deliver humanitarian aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

As a result of the perceived external threats and internal weaknesses, Than Shwe and his commanders also changed the military doctrine taught at the National Defense College, with the “people’s war” doctrine evolving into the “people’s war under modern conditions” doctrine, which along with guerrilla warfare and tunnel warfare, now incorporated cyber warfare and information warfare to deal with an external threat. Than Shwe also issued orders buy more military hardware—his new shopping list included MiG 29 jet fighters, naval ships, missiles and submarines, and there have been reports and rumors that he is attempting to develop nuclear capabilities as well.

Despite the strategic reasons for the relocation of the capital to Naypyidaw, some in Burma still say that Than Shwe built the new city on the advice of his astrologer, who reportedly told him and Kyaing Kyaing that the capital must be relocated before a catastrophe, which could be interpreted to be Cyclone Nargis or the 2007 Saffron Uprising. Whether this is even partially true is unknown, but the propensity of Than Shwe and his wife to resort to astrology, numerology and other forms of the occult is a widely known fact in Burma.

For example, the junta’s decision to construct a 31 building Parliament complex in Naypyidaw is a deliberate allusion to the Buddhist concept of the 31 planes of existence. Similarly, the regime relocated its capital in November, the 11th month, because the number 11 is also quite popular with the regime—in Burmese Buddhist tradition, there are “eleven fires” fueled by sentient attachment: greed, hatred, delusion, birth, aging, death, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow and despair.

In addition to constructing the new Parliament buildings, government offices and military command center, Than Shwe also built the Naypyidaw pagoda, a replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. The Naypyidaw pagoda is 99 meters high and is covered in gold foil. The New Light of Myanmar reported that Than Shwe and his family donated a Buddha tooth relic that came from China to be placed inside the pagoda, which has ironically been given the name Uppatasanti, or “Peace Pagoda.” Uppatasanti is the name of a sutra written by a monk in the early 16th century that was intended to be “recited in time of crisis, especially in the face of foreign invasion.”

Than Shwe’s program of building new pagodas and renovating old ones is seen by many as a cynical effort to win merit and compensate for his authorization of brute force to break up the monk-led September 2007 uprising. He also believes the pagodas possess supernatural properties that will protect his position of power.

One of the most sacred places in the Shwedagon Pagoda is Aung Myay, the “Victory Ground.” Many people go there to pray and wish for success and fortune, and this is the place where kings, princes and generals of ancient kingdoms traditionally have come to pray for success before they leave for war. Burmese dissidents claim that in 2007, soldiers and officers went to the Aung Myay, pointed automatic rifles and bayonets at the ground and chanted “To Victory” before going out into the streets and firing upon unarmed demonstrators.

Also in 2007, the regime ordered the country’s entire population to grow a nut called Jatropha Curcas that has a limited commercial use in the production of candles, soap and biodiesel fuel. Even city dwellers were instructed to grow the shrub (also known as “physic nut”) in their back yards and on balconies. The real reason for ordering people to grow physic nut became clear when it was noted that the Burmese name for the nut, kyet suu, has the astrological meaning of Monday-Tuesday, whereas Suu Kyi means Tuesday-Monday.

Speculation rapidly grew that Than Shwe’s astrologer suggested that by planting kyet suu throughout the country, Suu Kyi’s powers could be neutralized. In the same year, farmers in the Pegu Division were forced to grow sunflowers, which in Burmese are called nay kyar, meaning “long stay.” Than Shwe was advised that this agricultural conversion would ensure his “long stay” in power, even if it meant forcing his rice-growing population to survive on sunflower seeds.

Than Shwe is not the only general to use the occult in the performance of his official duties—many are known to seek regular advice from astrologers, monks and soothsayers in search of answers to political conundrums, and they indulge in rituals to cure the problems of state. For instance, Ne Win was advised to ride a wooden horse on his aircraft and to ask the pilot to circle his birthplace nine times, as well as to issue banknotes in denominations of 45 and 90 kyat.

And Khin Nyunt was advised to dress up in women’s clothing, complete with the signature flower that Suu Kyi wears, in order to steal power from “The Lady.” The power of these rituals is no laughing matter to Than Shwe—when both Ne Win and Khin Nyunt were arrested, he also ordered that their personal astrologers be detained.

The aging dictator does not even hold a monopoly on narcissism and bizarre beliefs in his household. If he is a mad despot, his wife Kyaing Kyaing is the deranged queen and some of the acts and rituals employed by the powerful couple to ward off bad luck are peculiar in the extreme. For example, the peacock is a symbol on the student flag and also a symbol of the opposition NLD party.

In the early 1990s, when the student movement remained a potential threat to the regime, four peacocks were brought to a pagoda and sacrificed—a bewildered witness saw officials slit the throat of the peacocks and make an offering to the shrine. Then when the country was preparing to vote in the National Constitutional Referendum in May 2008, Kyaing Kyaing climbed to a plinth of the Shwedagon Pagoda, an area banned to women, and walked around the structure three times followed by attendants sheltering her with gold and white umbrellas shouting “Aung Pyi,” which means “victory” in Burmese.

One of Than Shwe’s other acts of voodoo at the Shwedagon Pagoda had all the hallmarks of a man possessed. When United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon and envoy Ibrahim Gambari visited Shwedagon, they were guided to a newly installed Buddhist statue that appeared to be made of jade and had never been seen in public before.

The UN dignitaries were each given photo-ops of them making an offering and praying in front of the sculpture. Although it apparently missed the gaze of Ban Ki-moon and Gambari, the Burmese did not fail to notice that the face of the statue was not that of the serene and enlightened Buddha, it was an effigy of the aggressive and brutal Than Shwe. Embarrassed regime officials later admitted that they were ordered to conduct this crazed ritual at the behest of their narcissistic octogenarian dictator.

Then in 2010, a prophecy circulated in Burma that the next ruler would be a woman. Afterwards, a bizarre order was issued in Naypyidaw instructing government ministers to dress from head to toe in traditional Burmese finery normally reserved for Buddhist novitiation ceremonies: gaungbaung headdresses, immaculately white taikpon jackets and velvet sandals.

In addition, the ministers were ordered to wear brightly colored silk longyi, which in Burma are usually worn by women on special occasions. This prompted superstitious Burmese to say that the order must have come from Kyaing Kyaing, who wanted to prevent any woman from becoming a leader in the future.