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Global Power Barometer Profile: Than Shwe, 74, Myanmar DictatorCOMMENTS:   COMMENTS:   

The Global Power Barometer continues today with our new feature, a profile of yet another of the world's more important but least known leaders. We'll provide these profiles whenever we identify a leader you probably don't know but who does or can significantly impact the global agenda. As we complete a reasonable number, we'll archive them on a special page so that whenever you need to know the person behind the news you can access a profile quickly and easily. Profile written by Betsy Isaacson.ThanShwe
Than Shwe
Credit: AFP/Getty

Name(s): Senior General Than Shwe

Political Party: National Unity Party

Religion: Buddhist

Leadership Style:
  • Enemies say: He's the worst leader of a nation since Stalin and/or Hitler; he may kill at least a third of his population, pulling another Pol Pot on an unsuspecting world.
  • Supporters say: He's a reliable and predictable dictator who looks after his own interests and is willing to negotiate his country's assets to the highest bidder.
  • We say: We're happy we don't live in Myanmar.


Ever since his successful arrest of Burmese Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in 2004, Shwe's position as leader of Myanmar's military junta (the quizzically named State Peace and Development Council) has remained unchallenged, as has his position in the National Unity Party. Internationally, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is an active member of ASEAN and has forged pragmatic alliances with China, India, Russia, Thailand, and North Korea, all of which hope to gain access to the country's natural resources and world class offshore gas fields.
Than Shwe Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images


Than Shwe's autocratic policies have met with disapproval from both the EU and US, in addition to human rights groups the world over. As of now, the EU has banned the shipment of arms to Myanmar, and the US has engaged in unilateral sanctions that have stopped virtually all US-Myanmar trade. Domestically, his disastrous economic policies and heavy-handed crackdowns on dissent have caused whatever popular support he once had to evaporate.

Why is he important? Because he controls huge amounts of oil and gas along with not insignificant amounts of other natural resources, and because, most notably he is a key player in the geostrategic maneuvering for influence over the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. In the next few years, China plans to change its shipping routes, moving its cargo-haulers away from the pirate-friendly Malacca Straits (which are easily bottlenecked and heavily policed by the US via Taiwan) to the northeast Burmese port of Bhamo (on the Irrawaddy River that flows from China and through Myanmar into the Indian Ocean). From Bhamo, the ships could cut straight through Myanmar and arrive at the Bay of Bengal. Besides saving Beijing time and money, this passage would help China establish a naval presence in the Indian Ocean. With Myanmar's permission, China has already built an intelligence gathering post on the Coco Islands, deep in the Bay of Bengal. Meanwhile, Chinese state-owned oil and gas behemoth PetroChina has quietly agreed to buy 6.5 trillion cubic feet of Burmese gas, and Shwe has agreed to build a pipeline directly into China. A railroad and seven new Myanmar-Chinese highways are also in the works.

What's his personal history? Than Shwe's career started when he joined the Burmese army in 1948, spending several years in the psychological warfare department before embarking on a fast-track career following the military coup of General Ne Win. When the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC?later to be renamed the State Peace and Development Council) seized power after the failed democratic uprising of 1988 (in which thousands of pro-democracy activists were killed), Shwe was appointed a member. After the general election of 1990, which allowed political parties to compete and in which the National League for Democracy (NLD?the party led by future Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi) won with 80% of the vote, Shwe was essential in convincing the SLORC not to cede the elections to the NLD. Shwe and the SLORC instead decided to nullify the election and suppress the protests of the Burmese people by force. This they did very successfully, quieting the Burmese political scene until 1992, when the Chairman of the SLORC unexpectedly resigned, citing ''health reasons'' (e.g., if he didn?t resign his health would deteriorate rather suddenly). Shwe and two other men briefly vied for the Chairman post. Shwe won. Since gaining his post, Mr. Shwe has made it a habit to persecute ethnic minorities and drive large numbers of Burmese citizens into poverty, all while keeping the Burmese free press in a state of suspended animation. His more harmless idiosyncrasies include a proclivity for astrology and a penchant for unexpectedly changing the location of Myanmar's capital city (Yangon, 1993; Pyinmana, 2005).


Current Tallies/ Rankings


Where's he headed?


Clearly China has grand plans for Myanmar and if things go as planned, Shwe will likely become one of the richest rulers in Asia. (Un)fortunately, Shwe’s talent for alienating everyone but China may cause the newfound allies some problems. India, for one, is still wincing from last January’s snub by the Burmese government…after thinking they had secured exclusive rights to 5.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas they were told, rather late in the day, that the Burmese government had reengaged on the deal and decided to sell the gas to China instead. But India’s hurt feelings may not be near as much of a threat as the reaction of a very unhappy United States. The US has historically refused to ignore Shwe’s human rights abuses and, since 1993, has kept unilateral sanctions on the country. With the eyes of the world turning to East Asia in advance of the 2008 Olympics, the US has begun to increase pressure on China and other nations to impose similar sanctions. As 2008 approaches, Beijing will look to eliminate sources of bad PR, and Shwe may have to do some high stepping to stay in its benefactor’s good graces. Recent events and unprecedented civil unrest generated by fuel price hikes (blamed however on jailed Nobel Prize winning dissident Aung San Suu Ky) has raised the possibility (however unlikely) of a popular uprising. Finally, Russia has interesting plans to get its own slice of the Myanmar pie, announcing its intentions to build a nuclear power plant for the Burmese government. While this project remains a remote possibility, it nevertheless illustrates Myanmar’s and Than Shwe’s growing importance on the world stage.


9/16/2007 11:39:32 PM

GPB Staff



Please keep up the excellent reporting on Burma - a country close to my heart but so far out of the public eye.


Kudos for one of the most comprehensive profiles/analysis pieces I have seen recently online. Growing up, I lived in Burma for five years in the 1980s and the country grabbed ahold of my heart. We left in 1987 a year before 8-8-88. I haven't been back to Burma proper since (I'm opposed to giving my travel dollars to the current regime) though I've traveled some on the Thai-Burmese border. I hope the world pays more attention this time.


9/26/2007 3:32:34 PM

Monica, Florida



Today's Protest in Myanmar


Al Jazeera has video film and a lead article today of a protest today led by Myanmar monks ...the entire article and video is very enlightening. In regard to leaders profile I would add the Emir of Qatar and if you do him you MUST profile his wife also...I have read she was the passion and push that led to al Jazeera... "Tear gas fired at Myanmar monks Authorities prevented hundreds of monks from entering Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda [AFP] Myanmar's security forces have fired tear gas to break up a protest by about 1,000 Buddhist monks and civilians in a northwestern city, according to witnesses. The demonstration in Sittwe was one of several marches led by Buddhist monks across the country on Tuesday in response to calls for a religious boycott of the military government." AlJazeera Sept 18


9/18/2007 1:40:41 PM

Lisa, California



My Picks


I would love to see the leaders of Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, and Suriname profiled...


9/17/2007 3:59:54 PM

Lisa, california



Question for Robert and Lisa...


As two of our greatest commenters...with very good comments today about Than Shwe...let us ask you a question. What four leaders would you both like to see profiled over the coming weeks? As you know, we want to profile leaders of strategically important but less well known countries. It's people like Berdimuhammedov (Turkmenistan), Zenawi (Ethiopia), and Shwe (Myanmar). What do you think? Thanks!


9/17/2007 1:11:08 PM

GPB Staff



Iraq-Shraq, Lisa, that's irrelevant - this sounds like a job for our friends


Really, without national interests or international terrorism directly involved, America should be a strong voice for change and freedom, but should leave its implementation to allies in the region with closer interests and trade possibilities. Lisa, you point out that Russia and China would not be so forthcoming to push on human rights. That's putting it mildly as China is part of the problem not part of the solution, and has been for quite some time. It gives military equipment at "friendship prices" which considering that Myanmar probably has little convertible currency may be quite a discount. Even China's "anti-narcotics" efforts have caused a dispossession of a significant number of Myanmar farmers - enriching only China and Myanmar govt. Anyhow, I would agree a strong and outgoing Australia leadership is important, so a deprioritizing of their support in Central Asia in favor of matters closer to hand might be a good thing. Japan, Taiwan and especially India make good proxies for promoting American ideals of free trade and freedom of travel and information.


9/17/2007 11:11:22 AM

Robert of Los Angeles





We appear to have no leverage here with this guy and a loss of leverage with China is noticeable. So he goes UP unless he irritates China. His pragmatic deal making friends China, N Korea, Venezuela, Russia are not going to be concerned about human rights issues. EU stance on arms is symbolic not substantive as he has plenty of places to go to for arms. China appeared to be in a more cooperative mood in regard to US policy and interests, at least not interested in picking a public fight last year...this year we have seen a significant change...both in Iran and Africa, China is going its own way...the SCO meetings showed that it intends for the time being to be cooperative in some economic areas and security issues with Russia...a new government in Australia and the energy deals with China could make Australia more pragmatic about its relationship with both China and US....while we remain pre-occupied with Iraq, the rest of the world is emerging and positioning into various geopolitical camps relating to their positions in the coming energy wars...which have more or less already started already in Central Asia. In these wars really need to look at where energy resources are and who runs the's not a pretty picture if you define beauty as liberal democracy, and that is not going to change soon...and we need to calculate that into Defense and Foreign Affairs strategy.


9/17/2007 10:48:39 AM

Lisa, California


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