Paranoia drives Myanmar's generals

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 August, 2005, 12:00am

Money and power drive Myanmar's secretive generals to suppress democracy and hold a vice-like grip on the leadership.

But increasingly there is a third motivator - fear.

The leadership has tightened control over the military and administration for fear that if they stepped aside they would face Nuremberg-style trials.

The country's top military leader, Senior General Than Shwe, has often told former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad that was his No1 fear.

Paranoia that the west is contriving a political assassination or outright assault is further driving the ruling elite away from the day-to-day realities confronting the rest of the populace.

'Power motivates the generals above all else,' says Win Min, an independent Myanmese analyst based in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

'If they have power, they can do and get whatever they want - money, jewellery and cars.'

In the past few months the army has been centralising authority in the hands of a few generals, especially the country's top two military rulers - General Than Shwe, the head of state, and General Maung Aye, who in effect is in charge of the military.

Twelve senior generals make up the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) that runs the country and 12 regional commanders control the countryside.

Almost every aspect of Myanmese life is dominated by the army. Economic activity is tightly controlled by the army and the media are rigidly censored.

'The military leadership has rewritten and reinterpreted history to reinforce their belief that only they can save the country, and have done so to a degree that they believe it,' Myanmar specialist Professor David Steinberg told the South China Morning Post.

General Than Shwe, who sees himself as the country's monarch, has a passion for luxurious and grandiose houses. 'He needs to feel that he lives in a palace,' says a Myanmese businessman who knows the general well.

He had massive pillars coated in jade in his recently built home in Yangon, before deciding they were not regal enough. He then spent millions of dollars on importing Italian slate before finally deciding the pillars needed to be of Chinese marble, according to a Myanmese building contractor.

Flamboyant dwellings were also built for all his children.

Top military leaders and their families are accumulating money and jewellery. When the former agriculture minister, General Nyunt Tin, was arrested a few months ago, five boxes of gold bars, diamonds and other precious stones were confiscated.

Imported cars - often smuggled in from Thailand or shipped from Singapore - are also popular. General Nyunt Tin's family had more than 30 expensive cars in their possession when the minister and his son were arrested.

'In Burma, power relates to whether you're in the military or not,' says Win Min, using the old name for Myanmar. 'There is an understanding in Burma that when you have stars on your shoulder, you have power and you're a big thing, but once you have no stars on your shoulder, you've no power and you're nothing.'

Three years ago when the generals moved against the grandsons of former dictator Ne Win, the top three men - Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt - slept for nearly a week in the heavily guarded War Office downtown as they feared Ne Win's son-in-law had hired a foreign assassin in Thailand.

The generals are extremely chauvinistic and xenophobic.

'They have a profound but misguided sense of nationalism, which they have used to attempt to legitimate their actions,' Mr Steinberg says. 'This includes the belief that all foreign governments have attempted at one time or another to divide up or otherwise undermine the state.'

General Than Shwe insists on being called king. When he visited the Myanmese embassy in Delhi during his official visit to India in October, everyone had to sit on the floor in deference to his royal position, said Indian diplomats.

He also behaved more like a monarch than a military leader in the way he dealt with former prime minister Khin Nyunt and the intelligence chief last October. Thousands of Khin Nyunt's supporters in the military and government were purged. Hundreds of the senior military intelligence officers were sentenced to hundreds of years in prison. Khin Nyunt himself was recently sentenced to 44 years.

General Than Shwe has recently become so preoccupied with the possibility of a foreign invasion, especially by the US, he is moving the capital 400km north of Yangon, into the hills in central Myanmar, to make it safer in case of an attack.

The problem is that the next generation of generals already in the process of being promoted into the ruling SPDC are likely to be just as uncompromising as their superiors.

'They are just clones,' said Win Min. 'Their children are already corrupt and dominating the country's businesses. So greed and fear [are] likely to fashion their outlook as much as it has Burma's present military leaders'.'