Than Shwe of Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar's Top Leader Than Shwe Visits China
Feng Li / Getty Images

General Than Shwe, the former leader of Burma (also known as Myanmar) is a secretive, vindictive man. He showed no qualms about having dissidents, journalists, and even Buddhist monks beaten, jailed, tortured, or executed. Highly superstitious, in 2005 he moved the national capital essentially overnight, on the advice of an astrologer.

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 5 Worst Dictators in 2008.

Early Life

Very little is known about the secretive general's early life. 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 considered 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 school was as a mail delivery clerk.

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 a 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.

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. Ne Win was ousted after the insurrection. Saw Muang took control, and Than Shwe moved into a high Cabinet position due to "his ability to bore everyone else into submission."

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

Policies as 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 democracy-movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in the late 1990s. (She won the 1990 presidential election despite being in prison.)

Shwe also oversaw Burma's 1997 entry into ASEAN and cracked down on official corruption. However, he became more hard-line with 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.

Free press and free speech were non-existent in Burma under his reign. The journalist Win Tin, an associate of Aung San Suu Kyi's, has been in prison since 1989. (Aung San herself was also re-arrested in 2003, and was under house arrest until late in 2010.)

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

Personal Life and Spending Habits

Meanwhile, Than Shwe and other top leaders enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle (apart from worries about being deposed).

The opulence with which the junta surrounds themselves was put on display in a leaked video of the wedding reception of 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 may also be suffering from intestinal cancer. He has spent time in hospitals in Singapore and Thailand.

On March 30, 2011, Than Shwe stepped down as 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.