If you want to see the most brutal dictator in the world at present, go to Rajghat in Delhi, the site where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was cremated on 31 January 1948. It is a special sight indeed.
The timing is early morning on 25 October 2004. Senior General Than Shwe, the supreme head of the Burmese military dictatorship, along with his entourage, comes in through the main entrance. The grass is well manicured, the flowers placed by the Horticulture Department are immaculate, and a sickly-sweet smell reminds you that someone has placed incense sticks in all the right places. Hidden speakers gently release Gandhi’s favourite hymn into the calm morning air, Vaishnav jan to taynay kahyeeye. Translated, the softly intoned words say:
A godlike man is one,
Who feels another’s pain
Who shares another’s sorrow,
And pride does disdain.
Who regards himself as the lowliest of the low,
Speaks not a word of evil against any one
One who keeps himself steadfast in words, body and mind,
Blessed is the mother who gives birth to such a son.
Appropriately, Than Shwe’s wreath is made up of white flowers. Two bodyguards are carrying the wreath, and walk a step ahead of the Supreme Dictator. The bodyguards are in dark suits and ties, clean shaven, smart and tough. They are all wearing new white sneakers. The Supreme Dictator himself is impeccably dressed in a dark suit and tie, but he wears black leather shoes. The entourage moves slowly. General Shwe’s aide instinctively flicks a speck of dust off of the back of the bodyguard carrying the wreath – just in case the general sees it and disapproves. Almost everybody looks pleasant, although Shwe has no expression on his face, and the gathered Indian dignitaries seem a little apprehensive.
The Supreme Dictator eventually reaches the all-important spot, where Gandhi’s feet would have been when he lay on the funeral pyre. The wreath is placed. It is time for the parikrama. The entourage must now respectfully walk around the funeral site, and the general comes back to the spot again. He is still stone-faced at the end of the circumambulation. As he encircles the sacred spot, the volume from the speakers inexplicably rises. A basket of rose petals appears from nowhere.
The photographers ready their cameras. The Supreme Dictator is very particular about his image – he does not like to be seen too often. In person, he seems to be the silent, standing-in-the-background, grim-faced tough sort of character. He is very superstitious, and perhaps also a nervous kind of dictator; he does not kill simply, but likes to watch his country’s resistance leaders bleed to death. He is very aware of the blood on his hands. As chairman of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Than Shwe is the seniormost leader of the military regime, which he has led since 23 April 1992.
Born in 1933 near the town of Mandalay, Than Shwe is said to be an introvert, who often makes decisions after consultation with his personal astrologers. He worked in the postal service before joining the army’s Officer Training School at age 20, where he became an expert in psychological warfare. An army captain in 1960, by 1985 he was promoted to Major General and named Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army. After the bloody crackdown on Burma’s pro-democracy student demonstrations in 1988, Shwe became vice-chairman of the then-ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), Deputy Minister of Defence, and the Army Chief of Staff. In 1990, he was promoted to general.
Those who have spent significant time around Than Shwe say that he thinks and acts as though he is a king, and is rumoured to seat visitors at his home in chairs lower than his own – just as did his predecessor, the longtime dictator Ne Win. Than Shwe’s family members reportedly prefer to address each other with royal titles.
The moment finally arrives. Than Shwe has come back to the place where Gandhi’s feet laid at his final resting place. It is the 21st century. Aung San Suu Kyi is still imprisoned. Thousands of political activists, artists, poets, journalists across three generations have been killed, lie in prisons or are scattered in exile across the globe. Blithely, the Supreme Dictator picks up a handful of soft rose petals and tosses them gently into the air. They fall silently on Gandhi. The Supreme Dictator reaches out again towards the basket. There is no still no change in his expression.
Suddenly, a panicky photographer shouts, evidently having missed the choice moment: “Excuse me, sir, excuse me! Once more! Once more, please!” The general pauses for a moment – Vaishnav jan to taynay kahyeeye swells on the speakers and Than Shwe shoots the photographer a quick, loaded glance from the corner of his eye. An aide whispers into the general’s ear. The mask remains expressionless. Nonetheless, he obliges the lensman and tosses the rose petals yet again. The aides smile, obviously in relief. The photographer clicks repeatedly.
The hymn is now very loud, shrieking in frenzy. The general picks up the rose petals again and tosses them, again and again and again. Miraculously, the basket of petals never seems to empty; our supply of rose petals is endless, and the general keeps throwing and throwing. He is still throwing them there today. If you want to see the most brutal dictator in the world at present, go to the Rajghat. It is a special sight indeed. The posture is awkward, the face a little strained, but he is still throwing, the petals falling on the Samadhi sthal in a quiet flurry.
~ Amar Kanwar is an independent documentary filmmaker based in Delhi.
Thura Shwe also toured the National Defence Academy in Khadakvasla, India’s premier officer-training school, and visited the headquarters of the Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, as well as the Tata Motors plant in Pune, which manufactures vehicles for the Indian military. The Burmese delegation reportedly discussed issues including border security and military cooperation. An Indian Ministry of Defence spokesman dubbed Thura Shwe’s visit a major confidence-building manoeuvre between the two capitals.
The journey was really just the latest in a string of increased military cooperation and discussions between New Delhi and Rangoon. Just a month earlier, Indian Air Force chief S P Tyagi had offered a multimillion-dollar aid package to Burma’s military. Defence Secretary Shekhar Dutt quietly visited Rangoon in September 2006, a trip that J J Singh himself had made the previous November. On 21 January 2007, Pranab Mukherjee, the new Foreign Minister, held confabulations with Vice-Senior General Maung Aye at Burma’s new administrative capital of Naypyidaw, increasing India’s military aid to the junta.
Despite New Delhi’s strengthening of ties with the Burmese junta, Rangoon’s crackdown on resistance continues unabated. On 16 October 2006, Thet Win Aung, then aged 34, died in a Mandalay prison. He was serving a 59-year prison sentence for having taken part in organising student protests since 1988, when he was a high-school student. Although students are not officially allowed to form unions, in 1989 Thet Win became Vice-General Secretary of the Basic Education Student Union (BESU), an organisation set up in 1988 without official approval. Two years later, he was dismissed from school and imprisoned for nine months. During much of his time in prison, Thet Win was reportedly severely tortured.
Following Thet Win’s initial release, he became a leading member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, the unauthorised umbrella organisation for student unions in Burma. He again became involved in publishing leaflets and organising demonstrations, and was forced to go into hiding after the authorities tried to arrest him in 1994. He nevertheless took part in student demonstrations in December 1996 and, in 1998, helped to rally students against the poor quality of education and denial of human rights. Thet Win Aung was finally arrested in October 1998. The following January he was sentenced to 52 years in prison, which was increased to 59 years after further interrogation. Eight years after he was arrested, police informed his parents that their son had died in prison. The authorities subsequently rejected the request of Thet Win’s father to postpone the funeral service by one day and to allow his son’s body to be brought back to Rangoon, telling the bereaved that “everything has been arranged”.
“We believe that physical and psychological torture inflicted on [Thet Win] by his captors was the main reason for his untimely death,” said Aung Din of the US-based Campaign for Burma. The pressure group estimates that there are currently 1600 political prisoners in Burma.
On 19 September 2006, Burmese activists in Rangoon marked the 18th anniversary of the death of Win Maw Oo, a high-school student who was shot dead by Burmese soldiers during the 1988 student protests. Win Maw Oo was one of the hundreds of protestors killed in Rangoon after the military coup of 18 September 1988.
“I got a phone call from the hospital. She was still conscious at the time,” Win Maw Oo’s father, Win Kyu, recounted about learning of his daughter’s fate. “She gave them the names of her father, mother, home address, telephone number. At the hospital, after the operations, she was put in the intensive-care room. She was unconscious. I had to retrieve her body from a doctor. When I asked the cause of her death, the doctor told me it was due to shrapnel wounds. Only then was I able to retrieve her body. Then, I was told to bury her within 24 hours I also had to sign a pledge saying that she was not involved in [political] activities. Her younger sisters and brothers weren’t able to see her when we buried her. At the funeral, there were only 25 people at most. We had to do it behind locked doors.”
“I still miss my daughter every day,” says Win Maw Oo’s mother, Khin Htay Htay Win. “Today, I want to cry the way my daughter cried. They said that they opened fire in the sky. But they aimed at her straight. That’s why she died straight away. In my heart, my daughter did it for her country; she gave up her life for the country.”
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
From our archive:
Mehreen Zahra-Malik discusses novel means of holding corrupt officials to account in 'A coup by other means?' (July 2012)
Shamshad Ahmad on praetorian irony, Machiavelli's prince, and Pakistan's fight for constitutional primacy. (January 2008)
Zia Mian and A H Nayyar write about Pakistan's coup culture and Nawaz Sharif's 'absolutist sense of power.' (November 1999)