Monday, May 21, 2012

General Than Shwe: Old Soldier Fading Away?

(Direct translation of Aung Shin’s article from his Blog “A Journalist from Myanmar”.)

I thought most people would like to know where our SG (Senior General) Than Shwe is and what he is doing nowadays. That’s why I write this article and post it on my blog.

It was quite amazing the way I met him face to face that day about 4 - 5 years ago.

That day in Naypyidaw I was somewhere not that far from the army barracks there. Only thing I know was I was in some part known as Upper Office of the War Office complex in Naypyidaw. I didn’t know which part exactly though.

At far distance the grey peaks and troughs of Pegu-Yoma ranges were clearly visible. There were bamboo bushes and Ingyin groves all over the deep forest where I was. And the War Office’s buildings and staff barracks were scattered around in small groups. Between the buildings were only electricity and communication poles and the connecting cables.

My Day In Naypyidaw?

Annawyahta, Bayinnaung, and Ahlaungphaya.
Well known as the great-army-chief (tat-choke-kyi) our Senior General is still working and the building where his office is known as the building-one (ah-saung-tit). But the non-descript building I was in now could not possibly be that building one.

All the office buildings inside the War Office are neatly-built grand buildings allocated for various army departments and the respective generals who are the directors of the departments.

All are long three stories buildings but from outside they all appear like just two stories as their ground floor is almost like a basement hidden well below the ground level.

SG Than Shwe’s house was supposed to be well away from his office as his house was at the upstream end of Yezin Dam roughly at the north-eastern part of this massive War Office compound.

Neatly and systematically positioned in the whole War Office are the guard stations for perimeter security and internal security, the specialized office buildings for departmental head brigadier generals, departmental director major generals, and BSO (Bureau of Special Operations) chief lieutenant generals, the estate of grand houses for the generals, the living quarters and barracks for office-staff soldiers, the buildings for special security, telecommunications, and transportation departments.

Without really meaning it right now I was deep in the vast War Office. And I knew here could be neither the SG’s office nor his house. The building did not appear to be an important one. It was more or less an ordinary army barracks but the building was strangely quiet. Here could be the place where the SG took a rest away from the offices for peace and quiet, I wondered as I was wandering nervously around the strange place.

Inside the Mysterious War Office

War Office Complex at Naypyidaw (2008).
Actually I was in the War Office to accompany a visiting army officer who was also a close friend and unexpectedly he had brought me along here. At the main gate the army guards searched and interrogated us thoroughly. After that everything was smooth and easy once we were inside.

Every visitor to the War Office has to register as a visitor and go through tight security procedure. The male civilian visitors are to change into a standard Burmese male dress of tight-pone (the Burmese traditional jacket) and sarong if they are wearing anything else.

I had been to the War Office once or twice before for official business. But this time was not a business visit. I was just accompanying my friend for no serious reason at all. I didn’t have a camera with me and so I couldn’t take any photos as my record of this visit. But I had a very strong desire to take photos of the inside of this mysterious War Office.

Normally the only civilian outsiders who could come in here were the construction workers from the ongoing projects inside the compound, various merchants and traders, relatives of the generals, and the well-connected businessmen. For someone like me who didn’t really have a valid reason it was extremely dangerous to be here in this warlike compound.

So far I was lucky as there were not many soldiers and officers here in this building. But the building next door had too many of them as I could clearly see them really busy working. They wouldn’t even take notice of me.

Or they just wouldn’t notice of a stranger once he or she is inside the compound after being thoroughly checked at the main gate. I was just watching and studying anyone coming into my sight as if my life depended on it.

I then thought it would be nice since I was already inside the War Office if they let me see the SG Than Shwe and speak to him. Then I thought I could be in shit if he asked me who I was and what business I was here for. I wouldn’t know what to say back to him as I didn’t have a reason at all.

I could also be in shit if I replied to him that I just felt like talking to him. Not just me but my friend the army officer who brought me along with good faith could also be in serious shit too. Maybe I shouldn’t meet the SG or even see him accidentally. And I prayed quietly to Lord Buddha that I didn’t accidentally run into any other well-known generals here.

And my bloody officer friend had suddenly disappeared leaving me alone in the building. After sitting there for a while I felt stressed out and bore. So I looked outside and the surroundings seemed peaceful and okay to go out for a stretch.

So I went out and walked around and found a small quiet pool of water and a few brick houses inside a brick-walled compound. I saw three or four Toyota pickups from army there too. At the gate to the compound were armed soldiers.

I immediately thought this place could be a nice and quiet place to live if all the soldiers and officers were not here for the War Office. I didn’t stay there long and came back to the building I just left. There behind the building I found a small building which appeared to be a very special abode. I was curious and so I went closer to scrutinize.

Once nearly there I immediately realized I was in serious shit.

Accidentally Meeting the Old Man

Standing guard at the door was an army colonel. Few other army officers were there too. They appeared to be acting really nervous and seriously alert as if a very important VIP was inside the building. I had to turn around and go away from this place, I warned myself. But it was too late.

The guard Colonel had seen me and he called out and asked me to approach. I had no choice but to go there and once I was there he checked me out thoroughly and then asked me why I was there. So I told him the truth for why I was there.

The army Colonel didn’t say much after that. Then he surprised me by asking me if I wanted to meet the Senior General who was resting inside. It was unbelievable that I just couldn’t answer back immediately. Then I told him I hadn’t a valid reason to see the SG.

He just told me to go inside. Maybe he thought I was someone important enough for his SG. So I didn’t say a word and just went inside cool and calm. And there in the room was the Senior General himself standing near an easy chair. He was talking to the officers when I interrupted him.

He was the real Senior General. Not a double I checked him out thoroughly.

He wasn’t like what we’d seen in the newspapers or even on the TV. Nothing like when I saw him few times outside before. He was surely cool and calm. Sort of take-it-easy, no-worries relaxing style.

He wasn’t in his usual army uniform. He wore a short sleeve cotton shirt and large-chequered cotton lon-gyi (sarong). He didn’t look like the most powerful dictator of Burma at all but just an ordinary local elder. His stare at me wasn’t that strong at all. They made me at ease though.

He looked at me and then sat down into the easy chair nearby. I just stood there unable to say or do anything. He then asked me softly what I did for a living. I vaguely answered that I worked for a company.

With Shwe Mann and Min Aung Hlaing in Bejing (2010).
One thing I surely knew was that whatever true or false I said he would simply believe me as he could easily find out about me an insignificant little man for him. I was also fearful that if he wanted to I could easily disappear in this massive compound.

It shook me to the bone while thinking about the possible danger I was facing here. But I managed to keep my cool as whatever I did wouldn’t matter anymore from that point. As the SG I wasn’t anyone interesting enough for him and what he had to do was just give a nod to one of his officers and I would disappear out of his sight probably forever.

Only after a while of awkward silence a colonel standing near him sort of waved me out and I just slowly backed out from there. I didn’t dare turn my back on him. I was worrying the rest of the day of what would happen to me later. But nothing really happened except an officer from the War Office drove me back all the way to nearby Pyinmanar town that evening.

Benefits of Meeting the Old Man

From that accidental encounter I was given a permission to visit the War Office regularly   every month. But not just anytime anywhere I wanted. Only when I had a valid reason to visit the War Office and sometimes just to see the SG himself.

How and why I did get into such a difficult and dangerous situation I couldn’t even figure it out. I didn’t tell anyone about my precarious situation also as I didn’t dare telling anyone. What I figured out was if I told anyone and if that person believed me then I could be in danger. But if he or she didn’t believe me then I would be a laughing stock. So I just kept my mouth shut.

After that I’d been inside the War Office regularly once or twice every month. My trips were neither clandestine nor openly. Was it good or bad for me I didn’t really know? Maybe it was the Senior General’s cunning plan to use me when or if he needed me for their advantage, I didn’t really know? It wasn’t really a direct contact with the SG or mine wasn’t even an important job. They were just letting me easily enter and exit the very important War Office.

I didn’t really know what were their benefits in giving me a direct access to the SG from their point of view. But from my side I was so pleased that I could get some interesting news and information direct from the War Office by having an easy access.

I was even thinking that one day I would have a chance to interview SG Than Shwe if I was given an opportunity. Then I could be able to ask him whatever I would want to know from him, I dreamed.

At that time I was working as a journalist for our journal’s branch office at Naypyidaw. Even though I could not write down as the current news whatever I knew on the pages of the journal due to the difficult political situations back then I still was finding out a lot about that period, about Naypyidaw, about the government and the military in general and especially about some senior army officers and the secretive War Office in particular.

I’d learned to relate well with the army officers without fearing them like before. Only one important thing during that period was that I had to control myself not to tell others what I   did know. As a natural born journalist I am quite curious and always trying to ask people what I want to know. And I would like to tell others what I knew too. During my War Office period I had to control myself really hard to suppress that inherent character of mine.

My Distant but Close Relationship with the Old Man

General Than Shwe in Siri Lanka (2009).
During some of my visits to the War Office I often had a chance to see the old man. Once in a while I even got a chance to speak to him a few words. Most of the time I didn’t get to talk to him but I was always allowed to observe him close up.

What I was to be so careful during that time was not to ask any generals or senior army officers about him. I had to pretend as if I didn’t really care. The old man also was quite calm and he rarely spoke and when he did only a few words was spoken. But he would often observe people by staring carefully at them from behind his thick glasses.

As he had a stroke a few years back he needed help whenever he tried to get up from sitting down or lying on bed. He could walk only very slowly with a visible limp. He could only speak with slow and stuttering stammer. Some people close to him told me that his speech was impaired as his tongue was severely weakened by the stroke.

One other thing I noticed was the visible bent of the middle finger on his left hand. He always wore light and airy cotton clothes which were quite ordinary and he always wore only one ring on one of his fingers.

But whenever I was near him I always felt completely overwhelmed by his presence. Maybe I knew very well that he was the almighty commander-in-chief of the most brutal army. 

And he always seemed to handle any important matter in a thoughtful and calm manner. Even to his obedient generals he never remarked in an intrusive or blunt manner and he’d never overly committed himself.

But sometimes even some of his mindless small talks could end up as massive grand projects all over Naypyidaw as his loyally-obedient generals were overly-frightened of him.

His Building the Capital and His Character

He would go around Nyapyidaw every Saturday incognito to find out the real situations and the progress of all new Capital-building projects. But townsfolk and even the children in Naypyidaw knew that as the Senior Generals’ Saturday Rounds. In his rounds of the Naypyidaw (the new Capital of Burma he’s been building) he wore civilian cloths and rode in a car like an ordinary old man.

He was a true Buddhist as he didn’t seem to like the flashy things of this world and he was almost a pride-less man for a man of his grand position and his king-like, absolute life-or-death powers. He was the rare un-dictator-like dictator.

He doesn’t drink at all, which is a rare quality for an officer of Burmese army which provides the heavy liquor called army-rum as an abundant ration for its soldiers and officers. He would spend most of his free time privately watching TV and reading light literature such as news journals, magazines, novels, and short stories.

He was a brainy man not a brawny one as he was basically very strong in calmly thinking out the delicate matters at hand in details like a cool chess Grand Master. He was said to be handling the political matters alone by himself. But for the army matters he always delegated to the subordinate generals in turn (so that he knew who is and who isn’t capable of handling certain military problem).

For his meals the cooks prepared varieties of dishes but he would only pick and eat just one of two dishes he particularly likes.

He would always appear to be not overly interested in his surrounds. He was reserve and he always kept to himself. And he would always listen carefully to his subordinate generals when they are reporting to him and only at the ends he would remark or reply with very few thoughtful words.

His subordinates were so frightened of him just because of his appearance and his behavior which were so reserved and always under control. That was the main outward character of our SG who could control others by just his behavior.

Leaving the Naypyidaw

General Than Shwe in Budha Gaya (2010).
After two years and six months at the Naypyidaw Branch I was transferred to the Journal’s Mandalay Branch. But I still went back to Naypyidaw many times while I was in Mandalay as the journey was just a short drive or train ride.

Sometimes my friends teased me by saying that I went to Naypyidaw so often only to see U Than Shwe without knowing I was doing exactly that. I always replied “Yes” to them like a joke and they all had a laugh. And they all thought I was joking while only I knew that wasn’t a joke. But I still kept that secret to myself.

By 2010 the political situations became really complex and confusing. There were elections and there were real changes. But it was still obvious that majority of people in Burma didn’t really trust the military government and their reform process.

I myself had also faced trouble getting permission to see the old man. Since I couldn’t ask no one there I stopped getting the inside news and I had to follow whatever news or rumors available outside like everybody else. After that I didn’t visit Naypyidaw as often as before.

But it was good for me as I became used to my new surroundings. I also started thinking that I didn’t really like my previous pickle of not being able to disclose about my access to the SG and our talks and discussions. I also hated to be too careful for my life.

So I gradually distanced myself from the Naypyidaw and tried to rid my strong interest on the SG and the War Office.

Nearly at the End of His Long Nation-building Journey

General Than Shwe in Budha Gaya (2010).
But, without expecting it, I met General Than Shwe again just recently. His health situation wasn’t good. He couldn’t speak well at all. He was always bed-ridden whenever I met him.

By then Senoior General Than Shwe has completely transferred the State power to the new Thein Sein’s government and the army’s commander-in-chief position to new General Min Aung Hlaing and almost completely relinquished his tight hold over the Burmese Army.

Even though he still has a very strong influence over the army he doesn’t involve anymore in the day-to-day running of the army and he has officially retired.

He seemed to be really relaxed and let go himself of his deep worries for his country and his beloved Tatmadaw. There are still some serving-generals and ex-generals attending him daily but he now behaves like a retired civilian old man. Now he really is an old man not the Old Man he used to be.

Actually, even when he was the serving Senior General he never acted as a leading man in handling all the political and military matters as if he preferred to handle them from the behind. His generals often said that he likes to control people from behind as if he is moving the pieces on a chess-board.

In 2012 this year his health is gradually deteriorating further. He is now completely bed-ridden as he had another stroke just recently. His speech is completely gone and he cannot eat by himself. He seems to have given up on this life even though he was continuously attended by his underling-generals and his devoted daughters.

He also seems to have peace and security for him as he has skillfully managed to transfer the political power and the army into the loyal hands of his hand-picked generals like Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing.

His only worries are for his own life and the physical and financial security of his close family and also for his legacy as the nation-builder of Burma. And these are the reasons he has removed himself from the political stage and quietly retired into the relative oblivion.

Dying General and Preparations for His Eventual Funeral

General Than Shwe in Siri Lanka (2009).
The Buddhist monk the SG and his family traditionally worshipped said to me once that General Than Shwe has meditated regularly. The said monk regularly was often invited into SG’s house and given alms. Normally only four or nine monks were invited and the ceremonies were always low-key events and always done secretly.

But the most important problem of his deteriorating health has just begun. His eventual funeral?

Between his devoted daughters (he has five daughters and three sons) and his loyal generals the friction has already surfaced about how to arrange for his funeral if he accidentally dies soon. The leaders of the government were all his loyal ex-generals and they all want to provide a lavish State Funeral for him.

But some of them have the worries that some people will rise against the government if the funeral for former dictator is too grand.

Also for the current serving generals he is the longest-serving Commander-in-Chief so they want to give him a grand military funeral not a low-key state funeral as a former political leader of the country.

So far nobody dares or is bold enough to make a decision for his eventual funeral yet.

WHETHER he will be buried at the new military cemetery in the Naypyidaw’s township of Oatara-Thiri OR buried as an ordinary civilian at a normal town cemetery as he has already officially retired WILL have to be eventually decided among his loyal generals and ex-generals.

General Than Shwe (1933-20??).
(Now even the normally Burma-negative international media is talking about President Thein Sein deserving a Nobel Peace Prize for his initiatives and achievements for the ongoing reform process happening in Burma.

But in my humble opinion if the Norwegian or Swedish Committee awarding the Nobel Peace Prize really wants to give the prize to a second Burmese the most deserving Burmese is the presently-dying ex-Senior General Than Shwe for his skillful and genuine efforts in laying down a solid foundation for a successful reform process in his beloved Burma.

General Douglas MacArthur once famously said that Old Soldiers Never Die, They Just Fade Away. Now Burma’s old soldier General Than Shwe is fading away.

May his soul rest in peace and may he go to heaven when he eventually dies!)