Than Shwe, the Trembling Dictator

Interested story from Irrawaddy news published on 5 March 2011,

Why did Snr-Gen Than Shwe insert a self-amnesty clause into Burma’s 2008 Constitution that was never discussed by the regime-sponsored National Convention, the body that drafted the charter? Why did he compel retired director-general Thaung Nyunt, his legal adviser, to write this section alone in his office without consulting others?
According to my sources in Naypyidaw, Thaung Nyunt, a devout religious person, felt ashamed of his involvement in Than Shwe’s dirty work.

Chapter 14, Section 445 of the Constitution, entitled “Transitory Provisions,” states: “All policy guidelines, laws, rules, regulations, notifications, and declarations of the State Law and Order Restoration Council and the State Peace and Development Council or actions, rights and responsibilities of the State Law and Order Restoration Council and the State Peace and Development Council shall devolve on the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. No proceeding shall be instituted against the said Councils or any member thereof or any member of the Government, in respect of any act done in the execution of their respective duties.”

I can recall one occasion when I was serving at the Burmese Embassy in Washington, D.C. A new staff member who had been transferred to the embassy in 2001 told me that he had brought urgent orders to carry out an inquiry into an important matter.

The orders were to find out if the US government had any intention of bringing the Burmese generals before an international criminal tribunal. We were to report our findings as soon as possible.
I smiled to myself at the thought of Than Shwe, who was always so merciless towards others, expressing such cowardly concern about his own fate.

“Eliminate them! Don’t even leave an infant alive! They are just kala [a degrading term for people of Indian descent], not humans! Sentence them to the maximum imprisonment!” That was the Than Shwe I knew.
Slobodan Miloševic of Yugoslavia, Charles Taylor of Liberia, Pol Pot of Cambodia and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan were all facing justice in different internationally sponsored tribunals at that time. So I could easily understand the cause of Than Shwe’s concern.

I reported back to them perfunctorily, informing them that the US government was busy with its own business—this was soon after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001—and had no time think about Burma.
Than Shwe was delighted by the Sept. 11 attacks. He didn’t even send a state condolence letter to the US government like most other heads of state until the Burma Desk of the US State Department asked us about it.
The reason he stuck the self-amnesty clause into the Constitution is simple: He doesn’t have the courage to take responsibility for what he has done to his own people.

Here are some examples of actions for which he is directly or indirectly accountable:
In April 1993, Than Shwe, who is also the commander in chief of the Burmese army, ordered Gen Win Myint, the commander of the Western Regional Command (and later the regime’s Secretary 3 and adjutant general) to kill over 400 ethnic Rohingyas in Arakan State’s Buthidaung Maungdaw Township in retaliation for attacks by Rohingya rebels who detonated 18 mines in one day in an assault on the Burmese army. The army rounded up more than 400 people, including civilians, and as soon as they received their orders from the GHQ office, they killed them all.
when tIn 1996, he National League for Democracy (NLD) decided to walk out of the National Convention, Than Shwe was furious and ordered the intelligence apparatus to intimidate members of the party and their families by any means necessary.

In the same year, Than Shwe ordered his commanders in Shan State, Karrenni State, Pegu Division, Karen State, Mon State and Tenasserim Division to relocate villages and kill entire families, including infants, of anyone who defied the orders.
I have personally witnessed the Christie Island massacre, in which Than Shwe ordered Gen Kyi Min (the former navy commander), Gen Myint Swe (the former air force commander), Gen Thura Myint Aung (the former adjutant general) and Col Zaw Min (the minister of electricity 1) to kill 81 civilians who were found on the island.

Than Shwe also ordered Gen Soe Win (the former prime minister) and Aung Thaung (minister of industry 1) to assassinate NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. I can safely say that there are many former intelligence officers, former army officers and police officers who can verify this account. There are also many other events and incidents that I am not aware of.
The regime’s killing of monks during the September 2007 protests is just one incident that the international community is aware of. The regime is afraid that it may one day face an international tribunal because of its misdeeds.

If the Commission of Inquiry proposed by Tomás Ojea Quintana, the special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, were allowed to work inside the country, more stories would surely come out.
That’s why Snr-General Than Shwe quietly included the self-amnesty law in the 2008 Constitution to secure his future.
However, I want to warn Than Shwe that as the leader of the army, he will be held accountable for violations that the army has perpetrated.

Looking at other authoritarian regimes around the world, we can compare Than Shwe to the utterly despicable Muammar Al-Gaddafi of Libya. The Burmese army should not take orders from such a person, but rather follow the example of the Egyptian army, which refused to fire on unarmed civilians.

It is time for Burmese army personnel to side with the people and strive together to bring Than Shwe and his family to justice. Under no circumstances should they be pardoned under an amnesty.

Aung Linn Htut is a former intelligence officer who served as a senior diplomat at the Burmese Embassy in Washington, DC. He took political asylum in the United States in 2005.

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