Burma's Dear Leader

By Joshua Kurlantzick
Sunday, April 23, 2006


On a hot, dry afternoon this March, as I drove out of Mandalay, central Burma's largest city, toward the nearby hills, I got an immediate sense of the importance of Buddhism to everyday life here. Crumbling pagodas overrun with vines lined the road, their statues worn smooth by years of worshipers touching the faces.

As I wove past water buffalo and dilapidated ox carts, children and young adults flagged me down, rattling aging silver bowls for me to stuff with wads of kyat, the Burmese currency, to be used to restore these treasures.

But one pagoda didn't need any charity. A gleaming white structure swept spotless by a horde of workers, the modern pagoda was built by Burma's military regime as a supposed testament to its benevolence -- and, locals told me, in honor of the nation's ruler, Gen. Than Shwe.

One thousand years ago, Burma's monarchs also built pagodas and other religious structures -- more than 4,000 of them, in the central Bagan plains -- to demonstrate the power of the throne, to earn merit for their next life and perhaps to atone for some of their sins in this one.

Today, pagoda-mad Than Shwe is acting more and more like one of those classic monarchs. Ten years ago, Burma was an authoritarian nation, but it lacked the strange personality cult of totalitarian states such as North Korea and Turkmenistan. At the time, Than Shwe was just one of three generals heading the ruling Burmese junta and, diplomats told me, was considered the most dimwitted of the three. He had given few speeches -- just windy discussions of agriculture, supposedly a personal interest.

But the dimwit has proven masterful; over the past five years, Than Shwe, 73, has pushed out rivals and consolidated power. Despite his shellacked hair, wide jowls and thick glasses, he has turned himself into an object of Dear Leader-like adoration. And his already isolated government has become more bizarre, even moving its entire capital in recent months to a remote jungle redoubt called Pyinmana.

Burma's metamorphosis into a more North Korea-esque state began in 2003. After holding pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest on and off for more than a decade, the junta freed her in 2002, supposedly at the prodding of the most liberal of the three generals, Khin Nyunt. Optimism reigned, and Suu Kyi traveled throughout Burma announcing "a new dawn for the country."

Then Than Shwe stepped in. Suspicious of Suu Kyi, paranoid about the outside world and allegedly fearful of his own people, the senior general cut short any Burmese spring. In May 2003, thugs attacked Suu Kyi's convoy on a rural road, leaving 70 or more people dead; the U.S. State Department has publicly said that there is credible evidence that Lt. Gen. Soe Win, a close associate of Than Shwe, masterminded the massacre. Than Shwe has since held Suu Kyi under house arrest.

Than Shwe then turned on his partners. In October 2004, he had Khin Nyunt arrested and imprisoned many of his allies at Insein, a gulag that one former prisoner called the "darkest hellhole in Burma," which is saying something in a nation with some of the worst jails on Earth. Than Shwe replaced Khin Nyunt with Soe Win.

The xenophobic Than Shwe has closed local publications and started pushing out the small number of international organizations in Rangoon. The Burmese regime essentially evicted the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Swiss-based peace and reconciliation group with a long history in Rangoon. "Every NGO in Rangoon now is worried," one expatriate in the capital told me, noting that nongovernmental organizations also are being told they must funnel budgets through the state.

At the same time, the senior general has begun acting like a king. The general's relatives now refer to each other by royal titles, according to Burma analyst Aung Zaw; on a visit to India, Than Shwe reportedly required that people sit on the floor beneath him, in tribute to his self-appointed royal status. According to Bangkok-based Burma analyst Larry Jagan, the general has built a palatial residence complete with pillars coated in jade and Italian slate costing millions of dollars. When Than Shwe became dissatisfied with the Italian slate, he had it pulled out and replaced with even more expensive Chinese marble.

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