Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How to do General for Senior General Than Shwe? (2)

Old Soldiers Never Die, They Just Fade Away. But  Myanmar’s old soldier General Than Shwe is fading away.

 My Distant but Close Relationship with the Old Soldier

General Than Shwe in Siri Lanka .
During some of my visits to the War Office I often had a chance to see the old man. Once in a while I even got a chance to speak to him a few words. Most of the time I didn’t get to talk to him but I was always allowed to observe him close up.

What I was to be so careful during that time was not to ask any generals or senior army officers about him. I had to pretend as if I didn’t really care. The old man also was quite calm and he rarely spoke and when he did only a few words was spoken. But he would often observe people by staring carefully at them from behind his thick glasses.

As he had a stroke a few years back he needed help whenever he tried to get up from sitting down or lying on bed. He could walk only very slowly with a visible limp. He could only speak with slow and stuttering stammer. Some people close to him told me that his speech was impaired as his tongue was severely weakened by the stroke.

One other thing I noticed was the visible bent of the middle finger on his left hand. He always wore light and airy cotton clothes which were quite ordinary and he always wore only one ring on one of his fingers.

But whenever I was near him I always felt completely overwhelmed by his presence. Maybe I knew very well that he was the almighty commander-in-chief of the most brutal army. 

And he always seemed to handle any important matter in a thoughtful and calm manner. Even to his obedient generals he never remarked in an intrusive or blunt manner and he’d never overly committed himself.

But sometimes even some of his mindless small talks could end up as massive grand projects all over Naypyidaw as his loyally-obedient generals were overly-frightened of him.

His Building the Capital and His Character

He would go around Nyapyidaw every Saturday incognito to find out the real situations and the progress of all new Capital-building projects. But townsfolk and even the children in Naypyidaw knew that as the Senior Generals’ Saturday Rounds. In his rounds of the Naypyidaw (the new Capital of Myanmar he’s been building) He wore civilian cloths and rode in a car like an ordinary old man.

Than Shwe and His Family
He was a true Buddhist as he didn’t seem to like the flashy things of this world and he was almost a pride-less man for a man of his grand position and his king-like, absolute life-or-death powers. He was the rare un-dictator-like dictator.

He doesn’t drink at all, which is a rare quality for an officer of Myanmar army which provides the heavy liquor called army-rum as an abundant ration for its soldiers and officers. He would spend most of his free time privately watching TV and reading light literature such as news journals, magazines, novels, and short stories.

He was a brainy man not a brawny one as he was basically very strong in calmly thinking out the delicate matters at hand in details like a cool chess Grand Master. He was said to be handling the political matters alone by himself. But for the army matters he always delegated to the subordinate generals in turn (so that he knew who is and who isn’t capable of handling certain military problem).

For his meals the cooks prepared varieties of dishes but he would only pick and eat just one of two dishes he particularly likes.

He would always appear to be not overly interested in his surrounds. He was reserve and he always kept to himself. And he would always listen carefully to his subordinate generals when they are reporting to him and only at the ends he would remark or reply with very few thoughtful words.

His subordinates were so frightened of him just because of his appearance and his behavior which were so reserved and always under control. That was the main outward character of our SG who could control others by just his behavior.

Leaving the Naypyidaw

General Than Shwe in Budha Gaya.
After two years and six months at the Naypyidaw Branch I was transferred to the Journal’s Mandalay Branch. But I still went back to Naypyidaw many times while I was in Mandalay as the journey was just a short drive or train ride.

Sometimes my friends teased me by saying that I went to Naypyidaw so often only to see U Than Shwe without knowing I was doing exactly that. I always replied “Yes” to them like a joke and they all had a laugh. And they all thought I was joking while only I knew that wasn’t a joke. But I still kept that secret to myself.

By 2010 the political situations became really complex and confusing. There were elections and there were real changes. But it was still obvious that majority of people in Myanmar didn’t really trust the military government and their reform process.

I myself had also faced trouble getting permission to see the old man. Since I couldn’t ask no one there I stopped getting the inside news and I had to follow whatever news or rumors available outside like everybody else. After that I didn’t visit Naypyidaw as often as before.

But it was good for me as I became used to my new surroundings. I also started thinking that I didn’t really like my previous pickle of not being able to disclose about my access to the SG and our talks and discussions. I also hated to be too careful for my life.

So I gradually distanced myself from the Naypyidaw and tried to rid my strong interest on the SG and the War Office.

The Danger Plan

General Than Shwe in Budha Gaya .
But, without expecting it, I met General Than Shwe again just recently. His health situation wasn’t good. He couldn’t speak well at all. He was always bed-ridden whenever I met him.

By then Senoior General Than Shwe has completely transferred the State power to the new Thein Sein’s government and the army’s commander-in-chief position to new General Min Aung Hlaing and almost completely relinquished his tight hold over the Myanmar Army.

Even though he still has a very strong influence over the army he doesn’t involve anymore in the day-to-day running of the army and he has officially retired.

He seemed to be really relaxed and let go himself of his deep worries for his country and his beloved Tatmadaw. There are still some serving-generals and ex-generals attending him daily but he now behaves like a retired civilian old man. Now he really is an old man not the Old Man he used to be.

Actually, even when he was the serving Senior General he never acted as a leading man in handling all the political and military matters as if he preferred to handle them from the behind. His generals often said that he likes to control people from behind as if he is moving the pieces on a chess-board.

In 2012 this year his health is gradually deteriorating further. He is now completely bed-ridden as he had another stroke just recently. His speech is completely gone and he cannot eat by himself. He seems to have given up on this life even though he was continuously attended by his underling-generals and his devoted daughters.

He also seems to have peace and security for him as he has skillfully managed to transfer the political power and the army into the loyal hands of his hand-picked generals like Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing.

His only worries are for his own life and the physical and financial security of his close family and also for his legacy as the nation-builder of Myanmar. And these are the reasons he has removed himself from the political stage and quietly retired into the relative oblivion.

Dying General and Preparations for His Eventual Funeral

General Than Shwe in Siri Lanka .
The Buddhist monk the SG and his family traditionally worshipped said to me once that General Than Shwe has meditated regularly. The said monk regularly was often invited into SG’s house and given alms. Normally only four or nine monks were invited and the ceremonies were always low-key events and always done secretly.

But the most important problem of his deteriorating health has just begun. His eventual funeral?

Between his devoted daughters (he has five daughters and three sons) and his loyal generals the friction has already surfaced about how to arrange for his funeral if he accidentally dies soon. The leaders of the government were all his loyal ex-generals and they all want to provide a lavish State Funeral for him.

But some of them have the worries that some people will rise against the government if the funeral for former dictator is too grand.

Also for the current serving generals he is the longest-serving Commander-in-Chief so they want to give him a grand military funeral not a low-key state funeral as a former political leader of the country.

So far nobody dares or is bold enough to make a decision for his eventual funeral yet.

Whether he will be buried at the new military cemetery in the Naypyidaw’s township of Oatara-Thiri OR buried as an ordinary civilian at a normal town cemetery as he has already officially retired will have to be eventually decided among his loyal generals and ex-generals.

(Direct translation of Aung Shin’s article from his Blog “A Journalist from Myanmar”.)

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