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Buried deep within secret Burmese army files obtained by DVB is a recording of Senior General Than Shwe in late 2005 speaking to top-level military officials during a four-monthly meeting.
“If we look at the list of fallen people, you will see that 38 people fell, and one person went missing; 59 persons wounded, 21 weapons were lost…” he says on the losses suffered by his army.
The record reveals the mindset and intellectual depth of a general who has been controlling Burma for more than a decade. But it also highlights problems faced by Burmese leaders everywhere, who struggle to provide positive leadership due to self-deception and an inability to adapt and accept criticism for fear of ‘losing face’.
Senior leaders want the participation and contribution of younger generations, but at the same time are unable to take into account what the new generations really want, and where they can perform well. The mentality of ‘old people know best’ is still widespread both in military and political circles in Burma, despite the rhetoric of wanting to build a ‘new, democratic’ society for future generations.
Than Shwe begins in a clear and sonorous voice, but the more you listen to the 50-minute speech, the more you realise his frustration, anger and helplessness. In order to make his point, the 72-year-old often uses long sentences, rhetorical questions and even humour. They are cobbled together in a repetitive way, sometimes using the omniscient tone of a Buddhist monk preaching his way to Nirvana, sometimes with the bullying tone of a schoolmaster admonishing his taciturn pupils.
“[Deserters] might run away because they could not bear the hardship of the battleground. And they might run away because they are afraid. And, they might run away because we treat them badly.”
However he falls short of facing up to the fact that soldiers desert because they have lost faith in the army or the regime itself. So, like a true despotic paternalistic Burmese leader, Than Shwe piles all the blame on his nearest henchmen, the commanders. The onslaught of blame first sounds like a soul-searching practice but it then tapers into a self-satisfying, pathetic moan.
“What is possible though is the majority run away because of the weakness in our treatment of them and administration… even if he ran away because he could not tolerate the hardships in battlefield, you need to make him able to endure it… if it is a question of cowardice, it could be cured…”
From this point on, the speech imperceptibly turns into a monk-style sermon combined with the tone of a sentimental drunkard philosophising over life and death. His assertions are incongruous and inconsistent, and constantly undercut each other.
“I said it before, no one is born with the habit of killing and slaughtering. We have to train our heart [to do it]… There is no one who is not afraid of dying. We are all afraid to die. Only God, saints and martyrs are not afraid of dying – I read it in books.”
And with a sense of pride he relates how his old friends and teachers, some village thugs, trained soldiers to be tough in order to illustrate the point that you have to be cruel to be kind.
“I was thinking to myself, he is such an inhumane person, such a barbarous person. ‘What are you doing that for?’ I asked. ‘What is the matter with you, lieutenant?’ he said. ‘If you feed them well here, they won’t have any endurance on the battlefield. You have to train them now so that they can endure it later.’ Yeah, that was not good but this has its own logic…”
“When you recruit, don’t let in military traffickers… they enter from one army and take all the materials they could grab and run away and join the other…if you see these army traffickers send them for about seven years in jail… during wartime, you can even give them up to death sentence. You are allowed to give death sentence during war time… You need to treat [them] like that…”
It is chilling to hear the way he utters the word death sentence with casualness. Notice how he just moots the idea and leaves it to his followers to interpret what he means exactly, as it is neither a proper order nor a passing remark – a devious practice often used by powerful leaders in order to avoid direct responsibility when things go wrong. Many innocent people were punished or even killed by soldiers with this kind of informal order in Burma.
He then tells his commanders to treat new recruits with respect and humanity, littering his speech with English translations in an attempt to appear intellectual and to impress his commanders:
“…A human being has ‘attachment’; ’attachment’ in English means sticking to, connected with one another… that is attachment. As for you, whatever you say, when a new soldier comes in, you need to treat him sweetly and courteously. It is necessary that he comes to love the army…If you do that they will have the attachment for you.”
For one thing, it never seems to occur to Than Shwe that the army or the country can’t be improved by just giving ‘necessary instructions’ without addressing real problems facing them. His rant is followed by a truly ironic remark given the wider context:
“Confidence and understanding are very important. In politics too, confidence and understanding are important. Confidence and understanding are important when nations deal with each other. For us too, confidence and understanding are important everywhere. If you treat them like that, confidence and understanding will rise voluntarily.”
He appears to ignore the fact that he himself fails to treat the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi with confidence and understanding for the sake of the country, inadvertently highlighting his own hypocrisy. Having realized the weakness in his argument, Than Shwe cracks a ‘joke’, using the analogy of his favourite sport, football, to ease the tension. But no one seems to find the joke funny, or it is likely that they dare not laugh out loud for fear of offending him unwittingly.
“I will tell you a funny thing… Some people just watch the game ball [ballgame] and do nothing. Forget the game ball. Just leave it and game it, am I right? Just call it a game. (giggle) Just game it straight away…(laughing)…Just cancel the game ball. The game ball doesn’t work anymore…
“Make sure that the training is not exploitative training. It used to have a bad name because it used to be ‘exploitative’, ‘exploiting’ group (giggles)… I don’t know whether that kind of thing still exists. You watch out for that. Don’t let yourselves be exploiting training.”
That, however, is more easily said than done. Than Shwe and his commanders know how difficult it is to command and reorganise a demoralized army, not to mention a rundown country with diverse racial backgrounds and interests. It is not that the generals do not want to carry out their duties well, but it seems that they do not have real political will to help the army or the country.
Moreover, those who have the will and the vision are often attacked and marginalised by those who only have the trickery and position, as the system itself is based on fear, flattery and intrigue. Than Shwe’s solution for improving the system is simple: try to persuade those not in accordance with your liking, and if they do not accept your advice, kick them out: “If you see people who are fed up, remove them”.
Having failed to give any feasible direction to his commanders, the speech meanders back to the importance of mentality, discipline and skill, but with a new analogy. “If you can’t train them in the training, it will become very difficult. The reason is it is already ruined at the stage of conception… There is no reason for the foetus to become good…”
At this stage, the speech resembles the middle section of a traditional Burmese orchestral performance with indecipherable cacophony as he touches on every subject from firing weapons accurately, pregnancy and foetuses, to training schools and the curricula, chanting words like mantras and sutras. Than Shwe’s speech might not be as long as Fidel Castro’s famed monologues, but it is just as boring and soul-numbing. But his special anger is reserved for deserters and he cannot help but express his anger against them.
“They kill their officer and join the rebel, take away the guns and landmines and mine our own troop; what kind of persons they are, I don’t know. They have no sense of ‘thanyawzin’ [attachment]. If you mine your own troops, you won’t have attachment to your troops, would you? Isn’t it? They are people like that. It shows that the mentality you have instilled itself is weak.”
He then promises his commanders that the Burmese army “will become a modern army without fail… It has to be a strong, capable, modern, trained army… Everyone has responsibility and you all need to fulfil it…It is not enough that you can fight because you are only army officers; officers have to do all.”
The full meaning of “officers have to do all” becomes clearer when another senior general tells the commanders that “combat is temporary and administration is eternal”, reiterating the army’s unwillingness to give up power despite the promise of a civilian government after elections this year.
The speech was delivered one year after Than Shwe’s main rival, former intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, was officially ‘permitted to retire for health reasons’, or more likely ousted by Than Shwe himself. Than Shwe and other senior generals do not like Khin Nyunt, who is younger and more intelligent, and they felt they were being upstaged by his popularity and success with persuading armed ethnic groups not to fight against the army.
Than Shwe in particular feels aggrieved and wronged by the way “young Turks” like Khin Nyunt are allowed to take advantage of his “goodwill”. But what he cannot admit is that he is a frustrated man who has been unable to learn new tricks after assuming the top position. He appears and sounds like a mannequin wrapped in a uniform that symbolises his power but which to comical effect hangs on him like an ill-fitting suit; the slave of his own uniform.
It will be interesting to see what Than Shwe does after the election if he is forced to ‘retire’ by his ‘elected’ comrades. Will he spend his remaining days in a monastery to atone for his violent past and declare himself a Buddha to be, or will he be still clinging to the uniform and to power? Whatever is the case, he will be replaced by another man in uniform sooner or later, and Burma will not fare better if he retains the same mentality as his predecessors.