Last month Foreign Policy magazine ranked Burmese junta chief Than Shwe as the world’s third worst dictator, behind Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong-il. Than Shwe has ruled Burma since 1992 and presided over a campaign to eliminate political opposition and bring once-autonomous ethnic groups under the direct control of the military government.
Calls for Than Shwe to be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity are growing louder, but the senior general looks set to dictate the direction of the country from behind the scenes following elections later this year. Benedict Rogers, a campaigner with Christian Solidarity Worldwide and author of the new biography, Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant, tells DVB that several factors may in fact make Than Shwe worse than Zimbabwe’s brutal leader.
You haven’t met Than Shwe. How do you write such a biography?
Yes. That’s a very good question. Obviously I had a lot of challenges; limitations in finding out what could about him. But I had three major sources who helped me a lot. The first were a number of defectors from the Burma army. Some have known him from different times in his life and so they were able to share quite a lot of inside stories about him. Secondly, I interviewed a lot of international diplomats, former ambassadors to Burma, former UN special envoy Razali Ismail and other UN officials. And then thirdly, I had a lot of help from Burmese dissidents and activists who of course didn’t know Than Shwe personally but they had a lot of information to share. So, I was helped by defectors, diplomats and dissidents. They were my major sources.
What about the places you went to survey?
I’ve travelled extensively as part of my work with Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I travelled regularly to Burma anyway. But I travelled as part of research for the book to the different borders: the Thai border, the India border, the China border. And I also travelled to Rangoon and I made a one-day visit to Naypyidaw and had an opportunity to look at Naypyidaw. And in addition to that I travelled to other places to interview people. I met people in Malaysia, in Thailand, in Japan, in the United States, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. It took just over one year to write the book; probably about 14 or 15 months.
If you have the chance to meet him personally, what would you ask Than Shwe?
I think if I had the opportunity to ask him one question, I would ask him why does he preside over regime that is committing so many widespread atrocities against its own people? The catalogue of crimes against humanity that ultimately Than Shwe is guilty of is huge: rape as a weapon of war, forced labour, torture, the use of child soldiers, the destruction of villages, and so on. So I think my question for him as a human being is how does he feel about that and why does he continue to commit crimes against humanity, and allow himself to be seen to be a war criminal instead of a national leader.
What is the most powerful point about Than Shwe, and the weakest and cruellest point about this tyrant?
I think his strengths are that he is very, very skilled at manipulating people, creating division. Divide-and-rule is his great strength, and also misleading the international community. Very often he promises the international community just enough to ease the international community’s pressure on him. And then he delivers little of what he promises. But he is very skilled at keeping the international community waiting and buying time. I think his weakness: people say that he’s not very decisive, at least initially. He takes a long time to make decisions and then when he does make decisions, he makes very harsh and tough decisions. So, for example, with the Saffron Revolution, people said that if [former prime minister] Khin Nyunt had been around, Khin Nyunt would have been able to crush the protests with less brutality and less bloodshed but more quickly before they grew, whereas Than Shwe allowed the protests to grow very large and then crushed them with extreme brutality.
You could say that’s a deliberate tactic in order to flush out the opponents and see who is going to come out and get rid of them. But I think it is a weakness that he takes a long time to make decisions. And also he is not an original thinker. If you look at the plan being made for the election, the new constitution, it’s like a repeat of what [Burma’s first dictator] Ne Win did in the 1970s. History repeating itself? So I think he has very few ideas.
And then his cruellest characteristic is, I think, simply the fact that he has no compassion for his people. We saw that in cyclone Nargis where he, for some time, refused to allow international aid and international aid workers and so many lives could have been saved if he had responded to the natural disaster in a more compassionate way. So that’s one example. But I think he appears to be a person particularly devoid of any compassion for his people.
How would you describe Than Shwe?
I think he is a person who, having got to the top of the regime, is absolutely committed to power and to holding on to power at all costs. And so he is completely intolerant of any dissent in the opposition and any rivalry, and he is very skilled at crushing dissent and getting rid of his rivals. However, it is also worth noting that in his military career, he was a fairly mediocre soldier. He was not known as a brilliant soldier and he kept his ambition and his talent very quiet. So people didn’t see him as a threat. He rose up the ranks very quietly, and he was quite a dull character. But when he got to the top, he showed the determination to hold on to power at all costs.
Foreign Policy magazine ranks Than Shwe as the world’s third worst dictator. Do you agree?
I do. I actually think it’s a close competition between Than Shwe and [Zimbabwean president] Robert Mugabe for second and third place. I think [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-il undoubtedly is number one and the worst. But I think that Than Shwe in some ways is worse than Mugabe because Mugabe at least has done some kind of deal with the democratic opposition in Zimbabwe. It’s a very flawed deal and he continues to show real brutality as a dictator. But at least he has accommodated the opposition in some way in this government in Zimbabwe, whereas Than Shwe has completely tried to eradicate the opposition and kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. So I personally think Than Shwe could beat Mugabe in second place but definitely he deserves to be in second or third place.
If Than Shwe goes, will the regime go with him?
No. I think it would be a big mistake to assume that if Than Shwe is gone, everything will be OK because clearly the other generals are also very brutal and very keen to protect their own interests. So it is a brutal regime as well as Than Shwe being a brutal tyrant. However, there is no doubt at the moment that he is the number one in the regime. He does have real control over the regime. And what he says goes. So I think it’s no longer a collective regime, it is a dictatorship of Than Shwe. But that does not mean that when he is gone there wouldn’t be another dictator. There could easily be another unless there is a meaningful transition to democracy. Military rule in Burma doesn’t hold out any prospect of meaningful change.
Who will take his place?
Well it is not entirely clear. The majority of people talk about [junta number thee] Shwe Mann as the chosen successor, although some reports suggest that he is no longer as favoured as he used to be. I think it is clear that [vice chairman] Maung Aye, if Than Shwe dies tomorrow, will become number one because he is currently the number two. But if Than Shwe can, as he intends to, orchestrate the succession and can move into retirement with a chosen successor, he is determined that Maung Aye move in retirement with him. So if Than Shwe has his way, Maung Aye will not be the successor. Whether it is Shwe Mann, as many people think, or whether it is somebody else is not totally clear. But that is a likely scenario.