Image: Than Shwe
David Longstreath  /  AP file
Myanmar junta leader Sen. Gen. Than Shwe has remained publicly silent throughout the crisis in his country, and has not responded to calls for compromise with protesters.
updated 10/2/2007 8:04:37 PM ET 2007-10-03T00:04:37

The old soldier who leads Myanmar is called "the bulldog," and 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.

Rumors swirl around general
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. Video: Security eases

The leaked video showed his daughter, Thandar Shwe, wearing a staggering collection of diamond encrusted jewelry and extravagant clothing as the normally grim-faced junta members sat on gold-trimmed chairs and enjoyed a five-tiered wedding cake and champagne.

The Irrawaddy said the wedding cost $300,000 and the bridal couple received wedding gifts worth $50 million.

Than Shwe's early years were hardly so glittering.

Born in the central part of the country during the days of British colonial rule, he did not finish high school and worked as a postal clerk before joining the army at the age of 20.

Making his way through the ranks
It is not uncommon for ordinary people in Myanmar not to finish high school. But among its elite, many are highly educated, with university and postgraduate degrees.

The young officer served for a time in the army's psychological warfare department, and in 1962 helped Gen. Ne Win stage a coup against a democratic government that ushered in 45 years of continuous military control.

Rising through the ranks, he was posted to the country's frontier areas where the government has waged a brutal campaign against ethnic minority rebels— a campaign that continues to this day.

Along the way, he developed a reputation as an inward looking hard-liner, and later as an adept political manipulator who trusted few and tolerated no rivals.

To ensure loyalty of the officer corps, he ordered that the salaries of battalion commanders be raised tenfold.

Suppressing the powers of others
In 1992, four years after the military gunned down thousands in a failed pro-democracy uprising, Than Shwe emerged as the chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, the country's 12-member ruling body.

When the council's intelligence chief, Gen. Khin Nyunt, began to accumulate considerable power, Than Shwe in 2004 had him placed under house arrest and imprisoned or purged hundreds of his followers.

Khin Nyunt, a relatively flexible, sophisticated man who had initiated a dialogue with Suu Kyi, was regarded by some as a hope for at least some change in Myanmar.

"I met Gen. Than Shwe three times and found that he is a strongman with a great deal of self-confidence," said Thailand's former army chief, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin. "He has a strong belief that he has been doing the best for his country, so I think it will be hard to change anything in Myanmar despite the pressure from all over."

Two exit scenarios are touted: that one of his rivals, possibly the junta's No. 2 man, Senior Gen. Maung Aye (pronounced mawng ay), will overthrow him, or that nature will take its course. Than Shwe suffers from hypertension, diabetes and possibly intestinal cancer.

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