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,
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.
1960 – Captain
1983 – Commander of the Southwest Region
1985 – Vice Chief of Staff with the rank of Brigadier
1985/86 – Major General, Deputy Chief of Staff of
1987 – Lieutenant General
1990 – General
Post 1990 – Vice Chairman, Deputy Minister of Defense,
Army Chief of Staff
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
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
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.
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
Than Shwe’s unwillingness to work
with the United Nations and its representatives reflects
his well documented stubbornness and hostility to external
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
• 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.