Holding on with a fist of iron

Times Staff Writer

In the hours after Tropical Cyclone Nargis ravaged Myanmar, U.N. officials tried to call the country's top leader to offer help. For several days, they got no answer and wondered whether Senior Gen. Than Shwe had gone into hiding, or even fled the storm-battered country.

Finally, the real reason became clear: Than Shwe didn't really want their help.

A combination of superstition, intimidation and isolation has kept him and a coterie of hard-nosed generals in power here for 16 years. The 75-year-old Than Shwe has presided with an iron fist over a military regime that has been more successful at nurturing its power than its people, purging rivals and putting down uprisings.

Usually, the senior general takes counsel only from his fortunetellers, whom he talks to first thing every morning, diplomats say.

The cyclone's winds changed the landscape of Myanmar, also known as Burma, and some now wonder whether a change in the government is also in store. Few think it will come quickly or easily.

Than Shwe's shuffling, bulldog appearance belies a formidable tactician canny enough to court regional powers as a balance to the perceived threats of the West, astute enough to sign cease-fires with 17 insurgent groups to prevent a common front, and cruel enough to brutally crack down on Buddhist monks leading peaceful protests last year.

The senior general regards himself as a modern king, the rightful heir of the ancient Burmese rulers and someone who should not be questioned, said Priscilla Clapp, the U.S. chief of mission in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002.

"Whenever he left the country, foreign diplomats had to go to the airport and line up on one side of the red carpet," she said. "He expects everyone to bow down to him."

Myanmar officials seem to have as little sway over Than Shwe as outside leaders do, Clapp said. "Even people close to him, even some of the generals under his patronage, say they don't really know him," she said.

To ordinary Myanmar citizens, he is even more of a mystery. Most people under his rule have never heard his voice -- only his words read by newscasters on state TV and radio. On the rare occasions he ventures out, he rides in armored Land Cruisers with dark, mirrored windows.

A week after the cyclone swept the Irrawaddy River delta, Than Shwe made his first appearance -- not to comfort the victims of the country's worst storm in living memory, but to vote on a referendum enshrining the government's power.

Instead of reassuring people that he was in control, the TV footage of him shakily walking to the ballot box with an aide at his elbow reinforced rumors that he is seriously ill, exiled activists said.

The images also captured the core reasons behind Than Shwe's compulsive grip on power. With several top rulers in failing health and a constitutional redistribution of power underway, the regime is in a fragile generational and structural transition, which makes the leadership extremely wary about any challenge or change from outside or below.

When then-Prime Minister Khin Nyunt seemed too willing to negotiate with the opposition in 2004, Than Shwe sentenced him to 44 years in jail and removed 3,000 affiliated officials, diplomats and United Nations officials said.

Several hundred monks and protesters remain in jail after September's protests, including someone who had been spotted on a video handing water to the monks, according to an internal U.N. report.

The person who seems to ruffle the general and his compatriots the most is opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. After her National League for Democracy party won the 1990 election, the regime rejected the results and she was jailed. She has been in prison or detention for 12 of the last 18 years, and the new constitution specifically bars her from public office.

In a 2005 meeting between then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Than Shwe in Jakarta, Indonesia, Annan mentioned her name.

"The generals and staff all closed their notebooks, stood in unison and walked out the door," said Steve Stedman, the then-assistant secretary-general, who was at the meeting. "It was one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen and left me thinking that these people really are out of touch with the rest of the world."

Than Shwe does pay close attention to the stars. His astrologers predicted that a disaster would befall the city of Yangon. So in November 2005, he moved the seat of government from there. It now resides in a mountain hamlet known as Naypyidaw, "abode of kings."

Safe in the hills from the cyclone that ravaged Yangon and the southern delta region, the general may feel all the more invincible.

"Don't underestimate him," said Leon de Riedmatten, who lived in Yangon for seven years while working for the Red Cross and later as a mediator. "The people around him are all terrified."

The rule of fear means the generals are out of touch with what is happening in their own country, a phenomenon that has led to poor policymaking and a population living on the edge of crisis even before the cyclone, said Charles Petrie, former U.N. resident coordinator in Myanmar.

In an internal report, Petrie wrote that the regime ruled by "mutually strategic ignorance": Civil servants are afraid to report the truth about living conditions and the leaders don't want to hear it anyway.

That has resulted in an official picture of a thriving, productive country that is far from the reality of a faltering nation with 30% of its people living in poverty and ill-prepared for disaster.

U.S.-led sanctions against Myanmar have left Western governments groping as they try to assess the regime's state of mind. With no personal contact, the West can do little but speculate about motives.

At the same time, many diplomats and analysts accept that Myanmar's generals have cleverly played neighboring nations against one another in a competition for the country's potentially lucrative oil and natural gas resources. The regime has shrewdly tapped the eagerness of investors from India, Thailand, Singapore and China to ensure that it is not without partners, nor beholden to any one country.

But its response to the cyclone has disenchanted its outside allies as well as those within its military, who may start nudging the leaders to open up.

If the leadership's autocratic governance continues unchanged, analysts say, Myanmar may be headed for an even greater crisis among its people, if not its leaders.

Tensions are already high with ethnic insurgent groups still awaiting the economic benefits promised under a long series of cease-fires.

And in the last 10 months, army officers and soldiers have been experiencing sacrifice close to home. The cyclone struck some of the same population at the center of the protests last year: the Bamar ethnic group, which makes up most of the military.

Disgruntled officers have complained about the government to exile publications, a rare and risky step.

That means the regime has been facing a post-cyclone dilemma, analysts say: It can open up the delta to foreign aid groups and risk outside influence seeping in. Or it can risk more deaths from disease by keeping the area largely closed, which may cause many in the military to question the legitimacy of a leadership that doesn't take care of its own people.

Clapp, the former U.S. chief of mission, said Than Shwe may be an absolute ruler, but the government is not monolithic.

"I don't think the government can be toppled," she said. "I think it will morph into something over time, a negotiated transition with the military."

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maggie.farley@latimes.com

Times staff writer Bruce Wallace in Bangkok, Thailand, and a Times staff writer in Yangon contributed to this report.

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