ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday October 7, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 19

Myanmar's `bulldog' still has plenty of bite

BANGKOK (AP) - The old soldier who leads Myanmar is called "the bulldog" -- for good reason. Pro-democracy demonstrators by the thousands may be willing to sacrifice themselves in the streets but they stand little chance of success unless they -- or other forces -- can oust a jowly, high school dropout with delusions of royal grandeur from his post.

Senior General Than Shwe has shown no willingness to step down as head of the ruling junta, compromise with protesters, or listen to international calls for reform in Myanmar. After snubbing special UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari for three days, Than Shwe finally met him on Tuesday. That came only after his foreign minister told the UN that change "cannot be imposed from outside."

Myanmar junta leader Sen. Gen. Than Shwe attends Armed Forces Day ceremonies in Yangon, in this March 27, 2005, file photo

"The very fate of Burma is linked to Than Shwe, whose manic, xenophobic and superstitious character bode ill for a country that needs to pull itself into the 21st century and into the international community of democratic nations," says the Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based news magazine.

Although there is speculation about rivalries within the top military ranks, Than Shwe wields near-absolute control over one of the world's largest armies, a 400,000-strong force that turned its guns on university students, beat Buddhist monks, and hauled thousands away to unknown incarceration sites. The 74-year-old junta leader has remained publicly silent throughout the crisis.

"As long as he is No. 1, things probably will not change. He is very, very stubborn, and he doesn't see the problem being with his council but with the demonstrators," says Donald Seekins, a Myanmar scholar at Japan's Meio University. Naypyitaw is the new capital deep in the countryside that Than Shwe ordered built in a bizarre act laden with royal pretensions.

Numerous, but unconfirmed, stories have circulated about Than Shwe acting like a king and his daughters ordering military officers to treat them as royalty. Diplomats say some members of his family and possibly even Than Shwe himself are also locked into corrupt dealings with businessmen.

One of the few glimpses into his life came last year when a video surfaced depicting the extravagant wedding of one of his daughters, further fueling deep-rooted hatred of the military among the population in one of the world's poorest countries. The leaked video showed his daughter, Thandar Shwe, wearing a staggering collection of diamond encrusted jewelry and extravagant clothing as junta members sat on gold-trimmed chairs and enjoyed champagne.

The Irrawaddy said the wedding cost US$300,000 and the bridal couple received wedding gifts worth US$50 million. Than Shwe's early years were hardly so glittering. Born during the days of British colonial rule, he did not finish high school and worked as a postal clerk before joining the army at the age of 20. In 1962 he helped General Ne Win stage a coup against a democratic government that ushered in 45 years of military rule.

Rising through the ranks 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 1992 Than Shwe emerged as the chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, the country's 12-member ruling body.

"I met General Than Shwe three times and found that he is a strongman with a great deal of self-confidence," said Thailand's former army chief, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin. "He has a strong belief that he has been doing the best for his country, so I think it will be hard to change anything in Myanmar despite the pressure from all over."

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