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Holding on with a fist of iron

Myanmar's top general is an enigma hooked on fortunetellers. He faces winds of change.

May 23, 2008|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — In the hours after Tropical Cyclone Nargis ravaged Myanmar, U.N. officials tried to call the country's top leader to offer help. For several days, they got no answer and wondered whether Senior Gen. Than Shwe had gone into hiding, or even fled the storm-battered country.

Finally, the real reason became clear: Than Shwe didn't really want their help.

A combination of superstition, intimidation and isolation has kept him and a coterie of hard-nosed generals in power here for 16 years. The 75-year-old Than Shwe has presided with an iron fist over a military regime that has been more successful at nurturing its power than its people, purging rivals and putting down uprisings.

Usually, the senior general takes counsel only from his fortunetellers, whom he talks to first thing every morning, diplomats say.

The cyclone's winds changed the landscape of Myanmar, also known as Burma, and some now wonder whether a change in the government is also in store. Few think it will come quickly or easily.

Than Shwe's shuffling, bulldog appearance belies a formidable tactician canny enough to court regional powers as a balance to the perceived threats of the West, astute enough to sign cease-fires with 17 insurgent groups to prevent a common front, and cruel enough to brutally crack down on Buddhist monks leading peaceful protests last year.

The senior general regards himself as a modern king, the rightful heir of the ancient Burmese rulers and someone who should not be questioned, said Priscilla Clapp, the U.S. chief of mission in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002.

"Whenever he left the country, foreign diplomats had to go to the airport and line up on one side of the red carpet," she said. "He expects everyone to bow down to him."

Myanmar officials seem to have as little sway over Than Shwe as outside leaders do, Clapp said. "Even people close to him, even some of the generals under his patronage, say they don't really know him," she said.

To ordinary Myanmar citizens, he is even more of a mystery. Most people under his rule have never heard his voice -- only his words read by newscasters on state TV and radio. On the rare occasions he ventures out, he rides in armored Land Cruisers with dark, mirrored windows.

A week after the cyclone swept the Irrawaddy River delta, Than Shwe made his first appearance -- not to comfort the victims of the country's worst storm in living memory, but to vote on a referendum enshrining the government's power.

Instead of reassuring people that he was in control, the TV footage of him shakily walking to the ballot box with an aide at his elbow reinforced rumors that he is seriously ill, exiled activists said.

The images also captured the core reasons behind Than Shwe's compulsive grip on power. With several top rulers in failing health and a constitutional redistribution of power underway, the regime is in a fragile generational and structural transition, which makes the leadership extremely wary about any challenge or change from outside or below.

When then-Prime Minister Khin Nyunt seemed too willing to negotiate with the opposition in 2004, Than Shwe sentenced him to 44 years in jail and removed 3,000 affiliated officials, diplomats and United Nations officials said.

Several hundred monks and protesters remain in jail after September's protests, including someone who had been spotted on a video handing water to the monks, according to an internal U.N. report.

The person who seems to ruffle the general and his compatriots the most is opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. After her National League for Democracy party won the 1990 election, the regime rejected the results and she was jailed. She has been in prison or detention for 12 of the last 18 years, and the new constitution specifically bars her from public office.

In a 2005 meeting between then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Than Shwe in Jakarta, Indonesia, Annan mentioned her name.

"The generals and staff all closed their notebooks, stood in unison and walked out the door," said Steve Stedman, the then-assistant secretary-general, who was at the meeting. "It was one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen and left me thinking that these people really are out of touch with the rest of the world."

Than Shwe does pay close attention to the stars. His astrologers predicted that a disaster would befall the city of Yangon. So in November 2005, he moved the seat of government from there. It now resides in a mountain hamlet known as Naypyidaw, "abode of kings."

Safe in the hills from the cyclone that ravaged Yangon and the southern delta region, the general may feel all the more invincible.

"Don't underestimate him," said Leon de Riedmatten, who lived in Yangon for seven years while working for the Red Cross and later as a mediator. "The people around him are all terrified."

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