Monday, April 4, 2011

Postman-turned-dictator Than Shwe Retires as Burma Military Chief

Burma strongman Than Shwe, who ruled with an iron fist for almost two decades, has retired as head of the military after handing power to a nominally civilian government, officials said on Monday.

Last week Shwe disbanded the junta, the State Peace and Development Council, following November polls marred by the absence of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and complaints of cheating and intimidation.

“Senior General Than Shwe and Vice-Senior General Maung Aye retired on March 30 after handing over power to the new government. They are staying at their homes in Naypyidaw. We cannot say their plan for the future. So far they are taking a rest,” a Burma official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The army hierarchy retains a firm grip on power in the resource-rich Southeast Asian country, and many analysts believe 78-year-old Than Shwe will have a significant role behind the scenes.

“Although they are retired, they will give some advice when the government asks for it,” a second official said.

The SPDC, previously known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, took power in 1988, but Burma has been under military authority since 1962 and the generals continue to dominate the impoverished nation.

Former prime minister Thein Sein, a key Than Shwe ally, was sworn in as president at the parliament in Naypyidaw on Wednesday of last week, but there was no official announcement at the time about Than Shwe’s role.

Portraits of Than Shwe still hang in government offices and many civil servants are apparently unsure if he has officially retired, sources said.

Thein Sein, the new president, was one of a clutch of generals who shed their army uniforms to contest the elections last year and are now civilian members of a parliament dominated by the military and its political proxies.

Than Shwe — said to be a keen Manchester United fan — had kept the world guessing about his intentions following the country’s first election in 20 years in November.

Retiring is a gamble as Than Shwe knows only too well, having put his predecessor, the late dictator Ne Win, under house arrest in 2002 after his family members were convicted of plotting to overthrow the regime.

Born in 1933 in a small town near Mandalay, Than Shwe enlisted in the army aged 20 as Burma emerged from colonial rule.

His first combat experience came as a young second lieutenant fighting separatist rebels, before being posted to a roving psychological warfare unit and rising swiftly through the ranks.

He took the helm in 1992 after previous dictator Ne Win stepped down following a failed 1988 student-led uprising.

Than Shwe’s successor as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, 54-year-old Min Aung Hlaing, is part of a younger generation of Burma generals.

He was head of the Defence Services Academy and a commander in the so-called Golden Triangle, a region near the country’s borders with Laos and Thailand notorious for drug trafficking.

The formation of a parliament, convened for the first time at the end of January, takes the country towards the final stage of the junta’s so-called “roadmap” to a “disciplined democracy”.

Suu Kyi has no voice in the new parliament. Her National League for Democracy party was disbanded for opting to boycott the vote because the rules seemed designed to bar her from participating.

The election, and Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest a few days later, have reignited a debate about economic sanctions enforced by the United States and European Union because of Burma’s human rights abuses.

Agence France-Presse

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