Book Review
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Book Review

Book Review: By Mark Whitman

Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant

A timely, eminently readable and important book

Dictators have long occupied the darker recesses of our minds and it is a rare person who is not part fascinated, part repelled by the many tyrants who have made history: the insanely ambitious Hitler, the murderous Stalin and more recently Pinochet, Samuel Doe, Mugabe, Idi Amin and the rest.

And what of Than Shwe? Where does this squat, seemingly unprepossessing, bespectacled and reclusive 77 year old, who has ruled and brought Burma to the brink of financial ruin during two decades, fit in this dubious hierarchy? Until now the answer has mostly eluded us: we knew only that the military dictatorship, with its 400,000 strong army, costing 40 per cent of the nation’s income, ruled through repression, cruelty and fear. And that presiding over this brutal regime was a farm boy, turned post office clerk, turned soldier.

Thanks to the research and lucid writing of author, journalist and adviser to the U.K. government, Benedict Rogers, we now have the first ever biography of Than Shwe, which contains a compassionate history of the Burmese people in parallel with his life, within one important and highly readable volume.

It is a compelling story, though much is shrouded in mystery and inevitably – as Rogers admits – in conjecture. But the conclusion is certain and for all Than Shwe’s low key personality and secrecy it is possible for the final, understated words of this book to state that the Burmese ruler is, ‘among the worst dictators in the world and stands accused of crimes against humanity’. Nobody reading this book will doubt the validity of that judgment.

Than Shwe did not rise dramatically to power. He enjoyed no spectacular victories, he seems to have been little educated and most observers consider him of limited intelligence. He is not a great orator or writer, certainly not charismatic. But he has determination, cunning and in his earlier years seems not to have been dis-likable nor ostentatious in his life style. He had a rare gift for sycophancy and a seeming lack of ambition that made him trusted. He worked his way steadily through the ranks and showed – as he does today – unswerving loyalty to the notion of military rule.

In the past nearly two decades since Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her party won a landslide victory only to have that victory denied to them and the Burmese people, Than Shwe has been at the head of a brutal regime; killing, imprisoning and torturing people, at war with ethnic minorities and siphoning off the rewards from the natural resources of the country into Singapore based and other bank accounts. Like other dictators before him he seems like the ‘devil’ incarnate: a role which contradicts that of an allegedly devout Buddhist, who betrays his beliefs as easily as he betrays the Burmese people.

Than Shwe was born in 1933 in the dry, flat area of Kyaukse. His official c.v. gives little away and Rogers has conducted countless interviews with those who knew or worked with him: exiles, politicians and the like. He has roamed the world in his research and visited Burma and the near areas some 30 times, he seems to have read every article, web site, book and other publication to come up with a version of the truth. It is a remarkable, pioneer work of research but never dry or overly academic. One comes away from it sadly wiser about the plight of the Burmese, the horrors of forced relocation and slave labour, the repression of any dissent, not least the Saffron revolt of three years ago and the appalling response made by the authorities to Cyclone Nargis. Also by the near insane decision to relocate the seat of power to the unsuitable area around the new capital of Naypyidaw.

And one is bemused above all by the longevity in power of its aging General in Chief. We can easily accept that he is no intellectual, not even that intelligent and that on occasion, luck was with him. But like Rogers we are left wondering how this xenophobic recluse has fooled so much of the world so much of the time. Underneath that bland exterior must be a will of iron, an obsessive ambition and a belief in his own bizarre policies that is quite beyond the imaginings of most people. Not unlike the mind set of other dictators, too long tolerated by the free world. (You will find Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant at Suriwong Book Shop and other outlets, including the Silkworm shop at Chiang Mai International Airport, priced 625 baht. It is also available from the publishers, Silkworm, in the City at 6 Sukkasem Road, T. Suthep. Their web site is and the ISBN number is 978-974-9511-91-6).