Why Did Burma's Leader Appear on TV in Women's Clothes?

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Khin Maung Win / AP

General Than Shwe, right, greets guests on Union Day in Naypyitaw, Burma, on Feb. 12, 2011

Clarification appended: March 1, 2011

General Than Shwe of Burma, the dour and taciturn leader of one of the world's most repressive military regimes, isn't known for his feminine side. His contempt for pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is partly rooted, most Burma analysts say, in the fact that she is a woman.

And so many Burmese were baffled earlier this month when Than Shwe and other top generals, appearing at a nationally televised ceremony, shed their dress uniforms for the Burmese equivalent of women's dresses. "I don't understand why the generals were wearing women's [sarongs], but they looked very weird," says a Rangoon mechanic, Myint Oo. In Burma, both men and women wear sarongs, but the patterns are distinctly different for each. Men wear a type called longyi, while women wear a design called acheik. The generals' sarongs appeared decidedly acheik. Although some acheik are based on patterns once worn by male royalty — Burma's last monarch, King Thibaw, was dethroned by the British in 1886 — many in Burma who saw the broadcast of the ceremony put a more sinister spin on the generals' sartorial selection. "It's yadaya," says a Rangoon astrologer who asked not to be named, referring to Burma's brand of black magic.

Burma has had three rulers in the past half-century, and all have been devotees of yadaya. General Ne Win, who ruled from 1962 to 1988, reportedly shot his own reflection in a mirror, on the advice of a fortune teller, to foil a foretold assassination attempt. His obsession with numerology led him to demonetize all bank notes in 1987 so that new notes could be printed — all divisible by his lucky number, 9. The move wiped out the savings of most Burmese and contributed to an uprising a year later. His successor, General Saw Muang, was replaced after erratic behavior that included a rambling, semi-coherent nationally televised speech brimming with references to magic and astrology. And Than Shwe, who replaced Saw Muang, is reported to have seven personal astrologers, several of whom are tasked with focusing solely on Suu Kyi, according to his biographer Ben Rogers.

Astrology, superstition and black magic are common in Southeast Asia, and Burma's rulers have rarely made any bones about their beliefs. But in what appears to be an attempt to tamp down on the talk over Than Shwe's television appearance, state-controlled media outlets have now denied access to Internet pages showing him attending the Feb. 12 ceremony for the national holiday Union Day. "I suspect that the Union Day Web page is being blocked precisely because there is speculation over whether Than Shwe is performing yadaya," says Ingrid Jordt, an anthropologist and specialist on Burma at the University of Wisconsin.

According to Wai Moe, a journalist with the Irrawaddy, an online magazine run by Burmese exiles, the generals' choice of sarongs sparked widespread speculation inside Burma about their motives, and two interpretations have gained the most currency. The first is that because astrologers have predicted a woman will rule Burma, Than Shwe and the other generals were attempting to fulfill the prophecy through a superstitious sleight of hand. The second, fuzzier interpretation is that by dressing in women's clothing, the generals were somehow trying to neutralize Suu Kyi's power. After Than Shwe brutally suppressed an uprising led by Burmese monks in 2007, anti-regime activists launched a campaign asking people to send women's underwear to the leader because they said the general believes that contact with the underwear will sap his power. By wearing a sarong, he may believe he is canceling out Suu Kyi's ability to sap what he views as the virile male power that underpins his leadership.

If this thinking doesn't appear to follow logic, it is, after all, superstition. And these stories have circulated in Burma before, particularly in regard to former intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt, who is also said to have dressed like a woman to counter the power of Suu Kyi. Although these theories are widely believed in Burma, the nation's rulers almost never give interviews, so they remain unconfirmed.

What isn't hard to confirm is that less than four months after Suu Kyi's release from her latest term of house arrest, the regime's attitude toward the Nobel Peace Prize winner is once again hardening. After she reconfirmed her support for economic sanctions against the regime, a state-run newspaper ominously warned last week that Suu Kyi and her followers would meet a "tragic end." She and her supporters have little reason to think the regime is bluffing: in 2003 a government-organized mob attacked Suu Kyi and her followers in northern Burma, killing dozens.

Burma held elections in November 2010 to try to put a democratic face on a country controlled by its military. But Than Shwe's notions of leadership are known to be based more on divine rule than democracy, and Jordt says his choice of dress earlier this month may have to do with the fact that the patterns of some women's sarongs are based on patterns worn by Burma's royalty more than a century ago. "Than Shwe is simply trying to dress in the style of bygone kings. Than Shwe's evocation of royal politics asserts a very Burmese and Buddhist idea about what the terms of political legitimacy are," Jordt says. She adds that, for some time now, Than Shwe has required that royal courtly language be used in reference to himself and his wife Kyaing Kyaing.

If the other generals who joined their boss that day have any reservations about wearing women's sarongs, they aren't saying so, lest they end up a victim of one of Than Shwe's periodic purges, as happened to Khin Nyunt in 2004. Whether he's a reincarnated Burmese king or just another old drag queen, Than Shwe's subordinates know it's never wise to cross Burma's cross-dressing senior general.

The original version of this article did not include an explanation of the difference between men and women's sarongs in Burma.