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30 May 2006

Myanmar's junta, world's worst human rights tyranny, does its desperate worst to hold on to power

Senior General Than Shwe (born 2 February 1933) is the ruler of Myanmar (Burma), serving as chairman of the State Peace and Development Council since 23 April 1992. (image and text: Wikipedia; rest of Wikipedia bio of Than Shwe at bottom)

Tuesday 30 May 2006 8:11 AM BST

Myanmar junta preparing
civilian face, foes say

by Chawadee Nualkhair

BANGKOK (Reuters) -- Myanmar's military junta is using a civilian front to kill off detained Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party and put an acceptable face on its rule as international pressure mounts, exiled foes alleged on Tuesday.

The Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) could win eventual elections and cloak the junta in civilian guise, the Thailand-based Network for Democracy and Development (NDD) said.

"The regime is little interested at this time in genuine democratisation, and has already developed an elaborate plan using the USDA to hold onto power," former Thai ambassador Surapong Jayanama said in a preface to an NDD report.

"The UN Security Council is needed to end the political deadlock in the country. The people of Burma should not have to wait any longer," he said in a report entitled "The White Shirts: How the USDA will become the new face of Burma's Dictatorship."

The former Burma, isolated from the West and increasingly estranged from its neighbours, said in 2003 it would embark on seven-step "road map to democracy."

It is still on the first step, a national conference writing a new constitution boycotted by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy because of her latest detention, which began three years ago.

The conference is not due to meet again until late this year.

The junta drew international flak again on Saturday for extending Suu Kyi's house arrest for another year despite a direct appeal from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to set her free.

The Nobel peace laureate is virtually incommunicado and last month the junta accused her NLD, hit by a recent wave of resignations which its officials blame on pressure from the regime, of having ties to "terrorists."


The junta is using methods ranging from business threats to promises of free telephones to expand the USDA at the expense of the NLD, which won an election in 1990 but was never allowed to take power, the exiles' report said.

One unnamed former NLD member switched allegiances two years ago after the USDA threatened his business, it said.

"The USDA secretary and two other township USDA officials came to my home and threatened not to issue the yearly permit to run my stores if I continued refusing to resign from the NLD and then join the USDA," it quoted him as saying in March.

The USDA, formed in 1993 as a social organisation, now claims 22.8 million members, nearly half the country's population. Membership is compulsory for government employees.

More recently, it has played a leading role in organising mass rallies against the NLD and last year the junta gave the USDA some power over foreign non-governmental organisations.

The junta told the NGOs they had to take USDA officials on field trips and get its prior approval for local staff they wanted to hire, aid workers say.

It counts high-ranking members of the State Peace and Development Council, as the junta is known formally, as patrons, secretaries and members of its Central Executive Committee, the exiles' report said.

"With a long history of oppression, the potential for the USDA to become a political party and run in future elections is troubling," it said. "A transition to a new, civilian government would be in name only."

- 30 -

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Senior General Than Shwe (born 2 February 1933) is the ruler of Myanmar (Burma), serving as chairman of the State Peace and Development Council since 23 April 1992.

Early Life and Career

Than was born in Kyaukse, Mandalay Division. He worked in the Burmese postal service, but at age 20 enlisted in the army, where he spent several years in the psychological warfare department, engaged in the fight against Karen rebels. In 1960, he was promoted to the rank of captain. After the military coup which ousted Prime Minister U Nu in 1962, Than Shwe continued rising through the ranks. He reached lieutenant colonel in 1972, colonel in 1978, Commander of the Military District of the South West in 1983, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, brigadier-general and Vice-Minister of Defence in 1985 and then major-general in 1986. He also obtained a seat on the ruling party's Central Executive Committee.

Appointment as Chairman of SPDC

When the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was created as a response to the bloody protests of 1988, Than Shwe was appointed as one of its 21 members. He grew to become the right-hand man of then ruler, General Saw Maung. On 23 April 1992, Saw Maung unexpectedly resigned, citing health reasons, and Than Shwe replaced him as Chairman of the Council, head of state, Secretary of Defence and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Style of Leadership

Shwe initially appeared to be more liberal than his predecessor, as he set free political prisoners, and began to relax the restrictions on democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been placed under house arrest after the crushed elections of 1990. He renamed the country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, and in 1993, ordered the writing of a new Constitution. Than Shwe relaxed some state control over the economy, and has been a vocal supporter of Myanmar's participation in the Association of South East Asian Nations. He also oversaw a large crackdown on political corruption, which saw the sackings of a number of ministers in 1997. Though he is often seen as not tolerating criticism, he has, for the first time in many years, allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International to make visits to Myanmar.

However, Shwe's government has continued the persecution of Myanmar's ethnic minorities, such as the Karen and Shan peoples. He launched a campaign of repression against Muslims in Myanmar's north that forced an estimated 250,000 people to flee to Bangladesh as refugees. The new Constitution has never been finished, and is still in the committee stage, as of 2004. He has continued the suppression of the free press in Myanmar, and has overseen the detention of journalists who oppose his regime. While he oversaw the release of Aung San Suu Kyi during the late 1990s, he also oversaw her return to detention in 2003. Despite his relaxation of some restrictions on Myanmar's economy, his economic policies have been often criticized as ill-planned.

Than maintains a low profile. He tends to be seen as being sullen and rather withdrawn, a hardliner and an opponent of the democratization of Myanmar. He marks national holidays and ceremonies with messages in the state-run newspapers, but rarely talks to the press.

For many years, Than was seen as being something of a figurehead as head of state, with the power over policy being held by his ministers. However, more recent reports suggest that, in recent years, he has been consolidating his power over the country. When he reached the mandatory retirement age of 60, he simply extended it, which has led to suggestions that he may remain as head of state for the rest of his life. He has also been linked to the toppling and arrest of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, which has significantly increased his power.

Than Shwe's wife Daw Kyaing Kyaing, who is an ethnic Pa-o, plays a major role in politics. She is known to have taken bribes, and was involved in a public bribery scandal in 2004.

In May 2006, he met with UN Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari in Naypyidaw, and permitted Gambari to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi.

External links

* Than Shwe Watch on The Irrawaddy

* Burma's hardline generals on BBC News


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