General Knowledge

  • Share
  • Read Later
CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT / AFP / Getty Images

Nice medals But presumably not awarded for gallantry or valor

Hi, General. or, in the language of your propagandists: Senior General Than Shwe, Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council of the Union of Myanmar, salutations!

I've just read Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant, a summary by Benedict Rogers of the little we know about your long life. I already knew that you liked soccer, kung fu movies and killing people. But it was a surprise to read that, contrary to your image as a xenophobic brute, you speak decent English and read TIME. So: welcome to this review of your biography.

Two things puzzle me. How did a man so devoid of charisma rise to the top of a military regime? And if we're to believe the short answer — luck — how did you manage to tighten your grip on power?

You were born in 1933 near Mandalay, probably to a farming family. Rogers digs up few facts about the younger you, but instead rehashes your nation's turbulent history and speculates about what influence it may have had. After a year as a postal clerk, you joined the army, then so starved of officers that you became a platoon commander within months. Humble and obedient, you rose stealthily through the ranks.

In 2006, your daughter's wedding reportedly cost three times Burma's health budget, but in the early days you lived modestly. Your kids went to school in an army truck. You drank, but not prolifically; played golf, but not very well. A senior officer remembers you as "relatively boring." Then, in 1976, some fellow officers plotted to overthrow your tyrannical predecessor General Ne Win. They didn't invite you to join them because you were, as one officer remarked, an "idiot." But the plot was discovered and the officers purged, clearing your path to the top. Ne Win's star faded with the 1988 protests that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence. By now the regime's No. 2, you helped crush those protests. Four years later, with your boss apparently going insane, you outmaneuvered rivals to seize the top spot.

While no Einstein, you are skilled in military politics, in eliminating enemies and rewarding cronies. You have jailed thousands, waged a civil war against ethnic minorities and in 2008 obstructed aid in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which killed at least 138,000 of your compatriots. Your remote new capital was built at such expense that many question your sanity — which makes your nascent nuclear program all the more terrifying.

To enable you to become President after a sham election in November, you might resign from the military. (The general vanishes!) You have also showed sleight of hand in international affairs. Joining ASEAN in 1997 was a masterstroke: it became your chief apologist, more effective than any of those big American p.r. companies you have hired. China, India and the U.S. covet your oil and gas, and you have played these nations to your advantage as they battle for regional influence. This is why a dictator accused of crimes against humanity — a man who, notes Rogers, has torched more villages than Sudan's Omar Hassan al-Bashir — recently received red-carpet treatment in India, the world's largest democracy. You were even invited to visit the memorial to Gandhi, whose principles of nonviolence inspire Suu Kyi, a woman you tried to murder.

Rogers deserves credit for trying to illuminate a secretive life, but his book is overreliant on hearsay. (Is it really true that you "sank into a deep depression and barely ate" after crushing pro-democracy protests in 2007? I doubt it.) After 215 pages, it's still unclear who you really are: Rogers pulls off one mask only to discover another. But what you've done, and what you're capable of — that's crystal.