Ruler of Myanmar Known As 'The Bulldog'
Tuesday, October 2, 2007; 2:03 PM
BANGKOK, Thailand -- 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 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 of virtually absolute power.
Senior Gen. 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, also known as Burma.
After snubbing special U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari for three days, Than Shwe finally met him Tuesday. That came only after his foreign minister told the United Nations that change "cannot be imposed from outside."
"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 that maintains a "Than Shwe Watch" column.
Although there is continuing speculation about rivalries within the top military ranks, Than Shwe (pronounced tawn shway) wields near-absolute control over one of the world's largest armies, a 400,000-strong force that turned its guns on university students, brutally beat Buddhist monks, and hauled thousands away to unknown incarceration sites.
The 74-year-old junta leader has remained publicly silent throughout the crisis, sequestering himself in his remote, bunker-like capital, filtering news from the demonstrations and the outside world through the narrow prism of more than a half-century of military service.
"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 M. Seekins, a Myanmar scholar at Japan's Meio University.
Naypyitaw (pronounced NAY'-pee-daw), or "Royal City," 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 the portly, bemedaled 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 rich businessmen, a common practice among the military elite.
It also is rumored that the very mention of Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced ahng sahn soo chee), the detained opposition leader who has become an international icon for democracy, is said to throw him into spasms of anger.
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.