Biography of Than Shwe, Burmese Dictator

Than Shwe

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Than Shwe (born February 2, 1933) is a Burmese politician who ruled the country as a military dictator from 1992 to 2011. He was known for being a secretive, vindictive commander who showed no qualms about having dissidents, journalists, and even Buddhist monks beaten, jailed, tortured, and executed. Despite his absolute power, Than Shwe was so reclusive that most Burmese people never even heard his voice. Smuggled video footage of the sumptuous wedding thrown for the general's daughter sparked outrage across the country, as it provided a glimpse of the lifestyle of the very rich. Than Shwe's regime was so brutal and corrupt that he is considered one of Asia's worst dictators.

Fast Facts: Than Shwe

  • Known For: Than Shwe was the military dictator of Burma from 1992 to 2011.
  • Born: February 2, 1933 in Kyaukse, British Burma
  • Spouse: Kyaing Kyaing
  • Children: 8

Early Life

Very little is known about the early life of secretive general Than Shwe. He was born on February 2, 1933, in Kyuakse, in the Mandalay Division of Burma. At the time of Than Shwe's birth, Burma was still a British colony.

Few details of Than Shwe's education have emerged, though some sources report that he attended public elementary school before dropping out of high school.

Early Career

Than Shwe's first government job after leaving school was as a mail delivery clerk. He worked for the post office in Meiktila, a city in central Burma.

Sometime between 1948 and 1953, the young Than Shwe enlisted in the Burmese colonial army, where he was assigned to the "psychological warfare" unit. He participated in the government's ruthless counterinsurgency campaign against ethnic-Karen guerrillas in eastern Burma. This experience resulted in Shwe's several-year-long commitment to a psychiatric hospital for post-traumatic stress disorder. Nonetheless, Shwe was known as a merciless fighter; his no-holds-barred style brought a promotion to the rank of captain in 1960. He was promoted to major in 1969, and in 1971 he graduated from a military training program at the Frunze Academy in the Soviet Union.

Entry into National Politics

Captain Than Shwe helped General Ne Win seize power in the 1962 coup that ended Burma's brief post-independence experience with democracy. He was rewarded with a steady series of promotions, rising to the rank of colonel by 1978.

In 1983, Shwe took military command of the Southwest Region/Irrawaddy Delta near Rangoon. This posting close to the capital was to aid him enormously in his quest for higher office.

Ascent to Power

In 1985, Shwe was promoted to brigadier general and given the twin posts of Vice Chief of Army Staff and Deputy Minister of Defense. The following year, he was promoted again to major general and given a seat on the Burma Socialist Party's Central Executive Committee.

The junta crushed a pro-democracy movement in 1988, leaving 3,000 protestors dead. Burmese ruler Ne Win was ousted after the insurrection. Saw Muang took control, and Than Shwe moved into a high cabinet position—according to one writer, because of "his ability to bore everyone else into submission."

Following the abortive elections of 1990, Than Shwe replaced Saw Maung as head of state in 1992.

Supreme Leader

Initially, Than Shwe was seen as a more moderate-style military dictator than some of his predecessors. He freed some political prisoners and released pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in the late 1990s. (She won the 1990 presidential election despite being in prison.)

Than Shwe also oversaw Burma's 1997 entry into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), signaling an openness to trade and increased market freedom. He also cracked down on some official corruption. However, Than Shwe became a stricter ruler over time. His former mentor, General Ne Win, died under house arrest in 2002. In addition, Than Shwe's disastrous economic policies kept Burma one of the poorest countries in the world.

Human Rights Abuses

Given his early association with the brutal put-downs of the Karen independence and pro-democracy movements, it's not surprising that Than Shwe showed little regard for human rights during his tenure as Burma's supreme ruler.

Freedom of the press and free speech were nonexistent in Burma under his leadership. The journalist Win Tin, an associate of Aung San Suu Kyi's, was imprisoned in 1989. (Aung San herself was also rearrested in 2003, and was under house arrest until late in 2010.)

The Burmese junta used systematic rape, torture, executions, and disappearances to control the people and quell dissent. Monk-led protests in September 2007 resulted in a violent crackdown, which left hundreds dead.

Personal Life

While the Burmese people suffered under Than Shwe's rule, Than Shwe and other top leaders enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle (apart from worries about being deposed).

The opulence with which the junta surrounded themselves was seen in a leaked video of the wedding reception of Than Shwe's daughter, Thandar, and an army major. The video, showing ropes of diamonds, a solid-gold bridal bed, and huge amounts of champagne, outraged people inside Burma and around the world.

It was not all jewels and BMWs for Shwe, though. The general is diabetic, and some experts believe he may be suffering from intestinal cancer. He has spent time in hospitals in Singapore and Thailand. Than Shwe is something of a recluse, however, so this information has not been verified.

On March 30, 2011, Than Shwe stepped down as the ruler of Myanmar and retreated further from the public eye. His hand-picked successor, President Thein Sein, has initiated a series of reforms and has opened Myanmar to the international community to a surprising extent since he took office. Dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi was even allowed to run for a seat in the Congress, which she won on April 1, 2012.


  • Myint-U, Thant. "Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia." Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
  • Rogers, Benedict. "Burma: a Nation at the Crossroads." Rider Books, 2015.
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Biography of Than Shwe, Burmese Dictator." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, February 16). Biography of Than Shwe, Burmese Dictator. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Biography of Than Shwe, Burmese Dictator." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).

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