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SPDC WHO'S WHO > THAN SHWE
THAN SHWE  

SPDC Chairman
Senior General
Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces

Born: 2 February 1933 in Kyaukse, Mandalay Division
Wife: Kyaing Kyaing
Children: Five girls and three boys

The current de facto dictator of Burma, Than Shwe heads up the 12-member State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

 
MILITARY CAREER

His rise to power had inauspicious beginnings, as he worked as a postal clerk until the age of 20 after failing to finish high school. He joined the military in 1953 and graduated from the Officer Training School in Hmawbi, Irrawaddy Division.

In 1958, he became attached to the psychological warfare department, where he spent five years. He taught for four years at the Central School of Political Science.

In 1962, he helped General Ne Win stage a coup against the democratically elected government.

During his rise through the military ranks, Than Shwe was posted to Burma’s frontier areas, where the military has been engaged with ethnic nationality armed opposition groups for decades. He developed a reputation as an inward looking hard-liner, and later as an adept political manipulator who trusted few and tolerated no rivals.

In 1988, he was serving as Chairman of the Burma Socialist Program Party’s Regional Committee in Irrawaddy Division when the military took control of the country in a prelude to the formation of the State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC). Than Shwe later became SLORC Vice Chairman, Deputy Minister of Defense, and Army Chief of Staff.

On 23 April 1992, Than Shwe emerged as SLORC (later SPDC) Chairman.

Ranks held

1960 – Captain
1983 – Commander of the Southwest Region
1985 – Vice Chief of Staff with the rank of Brigadier General
1985/86 – Major General, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army
1987 – Lieutenant General
1990 – General
Post 1990 – Vice Chairman, Deputy Minister of Defense, Army Chief of Staff

CONFLICTS WITHIN THE SPDC

In 2004, when PM Khin Nyunt began to accumulate considerable power, Than Shwe had him placed under house arrest and imprisoned or purged hundreds of his followers. Khin Nyunt’s softer stance on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and issues of democratization also reportedly contributed to his downfall.

Rumors of tension between Than Shwe and second in command Maung Aye have circulated for years. Observers speculate that factions loyal to both men exist within the military and ministries. Promotions, appointments, and reshuffles often reflect the political maneuvering driven by their power struggle. Maung Aye reportedly opposed the use of violence during the Saffron Revolution.

BUSINESS TIES AND CORRUPTION

On 26 January 2007, SPDC authorities released about 372 custom officers who had been detained at Rangoon’s Insein Prison as part of the junta’s self-proclaimed anti-corruption campaign on the Customs Department in November and December 2006. Sources in the Customs Department said that the release was caused by the authorities’ fears that further investigations would expose corruption cases involving Kyaing Kyaing.25

RELATION TO THE DEMOCRACY MOVEMENT

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

He strongly opposes allowing any political role for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and reportedly cringes with anger at the very mention of her name.

In the weeks following the May 2003 attack on Daw Suu’s NLD convoy known as the Depayin Massacre, Than Shwe admitted in a letter to an Asian diplomat that the arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had been premeditated. He also rewarded Lieutenant General Soe Win, believed to have orchestrated the attacks, with successive promotions.

Stonewalling the UN

Than Shwe looked to mute international criticism immediately after the Saffron Revolution and met with UN Special Advisor on Burma Ibrahim Gambari. However, on Gambari’s two subsequent visits, he rejected appeals for talks as the SPDC rebuffed all UN appeals and recommendations.

In the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, Than Shwe twice refused to answer phone calls from UN Sec-Gen Ban Ki-Moon. He also did not answer letters sent by Ban.

PERSONAL DATA

Xenophobia

Growing up under colonial occupation by the British and the Japanese fostered the extreme nationalism and xenophobia that has shaped his policies. In statements and speeches, he makes frequent reference to “colonialists” and “neo-colonialists” and “external destructionists” as he attempts to stoke fears of attacks on the national stability and solidarity that trumps all other concerns. While amplified to achieve political ends, his fear of outside elements and influence and foreign invasion has real roots, and he believes that only the military can maintain Burma’s independence.

Than Shwe’s unwillingness to work with the United Nations and its representatives reflects his well documented stubbornness and hostility to external elements.

Megalomania

Than Shwe is said to think and act like a king and is rumored to seat visitors to his home in chairs lower than his, just as Ne Win did. His family members prefer to address each other with royal titles.

Astrological beliefs

Than Shwe and Kyaing Kyaing are deeply superstitious. Than Shwe developed a belief in astrology through Kyaing Kyaing, originally a strong believer in nats, or spirits, astrology and yadaya, a kind of ritual said to ward off ill-fortune. After an astrologer told Kyaing Kyaing her husband would lead the government someday, Than Shwe developed his interest in astrology and yadaya and began to seek the advice of astrologers and soothsayers.

Than Shwe and Kyaing Kyaing allegedly employed yadaya rituals in an occult bid to influence meetings between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the SPDC liason minister Aung Kyi.

Astrology strongly influenced the sudden and costly relocation of SPDC’s ministries from Rangoon to Naypyidaw that began in November 2005. An astrologer reportedly warned Than Shwe that his regime would collapse without the move, which began on 6 November 2005 at the astrologically auspicious time of 6:37 am. Five days later, on 11 November, at 11 am, a second convoy 1,100 military trucks carrying 11 military battalions and 11 ministries left Rangoon.

Lavish wedding controversy

In 2006, a video surfaced depicting the extravagant wedding of Thandar Shwe, one of Than Shwe’s daughters, and Major Zaw Phyo Win, a deputy director at the Ministry of Commerce. The leaked video showed his daughter wearing a staggering collection of diamond encrusted jewelry and extravagant clothing as junta members sat on gold-trimmed chairs and enjoyed a five-tiered wedding cake and champagne. The wedding reportedly cost $300,000, and the bridal couple received wedding gifts, including jewelry, houses, and luxury cars, worth $50 million.

The video enraged the public as its clear depiction of the junta’s opulence contrasted sharply with widespread poverty.

Lo Hsing Han, drug kingpin and Chairman of Asia World, and his son Steven Law, Asia World director, planned and funded the affair. The US targeted both, Asia World, and its subsidiaries, for financial sanctions in February 2008.

Poor health

Rumors regarding Than Shwe’s poor health have circulated for years, including erroneous reports of his death. Than Shwe is believed to suffer from diabetes and hypertension.

A 31 December 2006 trip to Singapore for a “medical check up” fueled speculation about his health as his hospitalization drew longer than expected. For the first time, he could not attend the Independence Day official dinner on 4 January 2007; the SPDC quarterly military meeting in Naypyidaw scheduled to be held on 8 January had to be postponed. Some sources attributed his Singapore trip to intestinal cancer, others to a coronary artery blockage.

His 27 March 2008 appearance and 15-minute speech at the Armed Forces Day commemoration event in Naypidaw quieted talk of his failing health, although observers note that his age and health concerns will play a key role in any future transition of power.

Fast facts

• Than Shwe is a patron of the USDA, the junta’s civilian mass organization, which was formed in 1993. Observers believe that Than Shwe will use the USDA to maintain the military’s grip on power in a subsequent “civilian” government.
• In March 2006, Than Shwe’s salary increased fivefold, from 200,000 kyat to 1.2 million kyat.
• Than Shwe rarely appears in public. His secrecy adds to constant speculation about his health.
• Than Shwe did not appear in public for two weeks, or issue a statement, following Cyclone Nargis.
• He lives near Naypyidaw in one of several lavish mansion estates the SPDC generals built for themselves out at the new capital.