- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2007

BANGKOK — The world now knows about Burma’s struggling Buddhist drive for democracy, but the dictator who rules the country is still obscure, grimly hidden behind dark sunglasses and a uniform decorated with military medals.

Gen. Than Shwe is seen only occasionally in photographs, usually saluting Burma’s powerful armed forces at parades and other ceremonies, his jowls framing a plump, sullen face.

He was born in 1933, when Burma was under British colonial rule. That may explain his regime’s frequent warnings that Britain, as well as the United States, want to exploit the underdeveloped country as an economic colony and establish a U.S. military base.

Gen. Than Shwe maintains that Burmese who demand democracy are simply dupes of London and Washington, which hope to gain control of Burma’s vast stores of oil, natural gas, gems, timber and other resources.

In a land often described as “Orwellian” because of the regime’s relentless truth-twisting, harsh censorship, endless sloganeering and severe jingoism, Gen. Than Shwe has perfect credentials based on his 1953-60 work churning out propaganda in the army’s psychological warfare operations.

His shoot-to-kill skills, employed against ethnic Karen guerrillas in eastern Burma, earned him a promotion in 1960 to become a captain. He ingratiated himself two years later by helping Gen. Ne Win seize power in a military coup.

Since 1962, the military — experimenting through its own confused Burmese Socialist Program Party — has ruled the Southeast Asian nation also known as Myanmar.

Gen. Than Shwe climbed the ranks, favoring bullets instead of ballots.

The current uprising by Buddhist monks, pro-democracy activists and ordinary people echoes the popular insurrection of 1988 that Gen. Than Shwe and other military leaders crushed.

An estimated 1,000 to 3,000 people perished in that idealistic attempt to topple the regime. Many people now fear an equally bloody confrontation.

During four years of the military’s internal squabbling after 1988, Gen. Ne Win was ousted and Gen. Than Shwe advanced.

Gen. Than Shwe’s official titles include prime minister and chairman of the junta’s ruling body, which he helped to brand as the State Peace and Development Council. He is also commander in chief of the military, giving him control of all levers of power.

The dreaded leader was embarrassed last year, however, after he hosted a lavish wedding for his daughter.

A 10-minute video clip from the wedding in Rangoon surfaced on the Internet and supposedly showed the bride, Thandar Shwe, swathed in sumptuous jewels. The video shocked viewers who know Burma as one of the poorest countries in Asia.

The champagne, five-star comforts and other opulence became a sore point among dissidents and the butt of jokes mocking Gen. Than Shwe’s insistence that his military regime is principled.

“Such mindless indulgence … is an affront to the millions of Burmese suffering under the incompetence and brutality of the country’s military leadership,” commented Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based magazine that monitors Burma and has received tens of thousands of dollars from Washington’s National Endowment for Democracy.

“The video and its authenticity could not be confirmed, but the junta leaders and their families were easily recognizable by people familiar with them,” said Radio Free Asia, which operates as part of a U.S. government and government-sponsored broadcasting group.

Gen. Than Shwe also boasts foreign policy achievements.

He elevated Burma’s international prestige by gaining admission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, courted China to become his close military and diplomatic ally and lured China’s rival, India, to be a partner as well.

China values Burma as a route south to the Bay of Bengal, providing it with port facilities and lengthening Beijing’s reach around eastern India.

New Delhi, meanwhile, appreciates Burma’s help in crushing guerrillas who fight for independence and autonomy in northeast India along Burma’s border.

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