Two matching pairs of soft cotton slippers are laid outside the sliding glass doors. Lilies in the adjoining palm grove fill the air with a heavy perfume. This seaside villa on Burma’s west coast – made from polished hardwood, marble and mother-of-pearl – is the holiday hideaway of Senior General Than Shwe, head of the latest incarnation of a junta that has clung to Burma like bindweed for five decades.
It is hard to reconcile the quiet luxury of this villa, its infinity pool overlooking five miles of Ngwe Saung (Silver Beach), with the devastation in the Irrawaddy delta region just a few miles to the south, where cyclone Nargis struck on May 3, killing thousands and destroying a million-plus bamboo-and-wood homes. The Ngwe Saung villa is a haven for the Senior General and his family, and for his fellow generals who share a holiday camp just along the beach. Here, Than Shwe could relax after brutally crushing the uprising by the nation’s monks in Rangoon last September. His villa survived the cyclone.
Cushioned by luxury, serviced by junior officers terrified of imparting bad news, the junta rarely gets to learn of the hardships facing their battered people, Lord Malloch-Brown, foreign office minister, argued this month. He was one of many diplomats and international leaders who criticised the regime for delaying or blocking relief to victims of the cyclone.
The generals were evidently more concerned with consolidating their own power than they were with doing anything to help the victims of the cyclone. Than Shwe went to ground for eight days after Nargis, leaving his deputies to ensure the smooth running of an impending referendum on a new constitution that he has spent 16 years meticulously preparing.
Burma’s old constitution was suspended in 1989, the year after mass demonstrations for democracy, led by Burmese students, had been brutally crushed and thousands massacred. The new constitution, put to the vote on May 10, enshrines the military’s hold on government, giving it a guaranteed block of seats in any future parliament, and the right to veto any legislation parliament passes. The constitution was seen by Than Shwe as a way of transforming his junta – only ever intended as a stopgap during the interregnum. A general election is scheduled for 2010, although for his critics the constitution was never a roadmap for democracy but a sham – an old dog in new clothes, as one Burmese activist described it. The junta remains in overall control, and the referendum itself was skewed: many voters were frogmarched to the polls by the military’s vast network of thugs and compelled to vote “yes”. More than 24 million – three-quarters of the adult population – have over the years been inducted into a junta-controlled people’s militia, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), whose votes were guaranteed. In the event, the regime claimed that 92% supported the new constitution.
The only people spared were the voters in the south whose homes were destroyed by Nargis – and theirs was only a temporary reprieve. They go to the polls today. Nation before grumbling bellies, one Rangoon general grumpily told an aid agency worker.
While the cyclone illuminated the regime’s priorities, the aftermath demonstrated the west’s helplessness, unable to rid Burma of its leadership, unable even to help the Burmese people in their calamity. Western aid workers were refused visas, and the vast majority of those affected had not been reached when the junta claimed last week that the crisis was over.
We visited Burma just a few days before the cyclone and made the four-hour, backbreaking drive from Rangoon to Ngwe Saung. There we were able to take a tour of Than Shwe’s villa (he was not in residence at the time). We came as close as any outsider can to the stony-faced general who has kept the pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest off and on for more than 10 years.
It is exhilarating and frightening to be creeping through his apartments. A striking feature of the villa is the two vast and identical bedrooms. Than Shwe and Kyaing Kyaing have been married more than half a century and have had five daughters and three sons. The matching king-sized beds, made up with turquoise silk drapes, give the couple identical views over the Bay of Bengal – without having to look at each other.
The living room gives the impression of a cerebral and worldly-wise family. A crystal chess set on a table reminds us that Than Shwe served as a psychological warfare officer in the early days of his army career in the 50s. Beside the flatscreen TV with 20 satellite channels are napkins, a menu and cutlery. Given that Than Shwe is an inveterate anti-colonialist, he likes some surprising dishes: “salade Niçoise” and “British fish and chips”. The First Family, as they are known, have their every need catered for by “Mr Gilberto”, a British-Italian hotelier who once managed a lodge near Gleneagles, in Scotland.
On the coffee table is a glossy, 500-page compendium of Burma’s myriad hotels and resorts, with an inch-thick flight schedule for an ever-expanding grid of airports. It is a publication that would surely please Than Shwe, because it appears to show how the country has prospered against the wishes of the west. On a shelf there are directories detailing hundreds of new companies that have opened for business even as the junta has been cold-shouldered by Europe and America. These companies are run by Burma’s new entrepreneurs, who also spend their holidays in the luxury enclave at Ngwe Saung.
This is not simply the folly of a remote autocrat and his Praetorian Guard. Here is a getaway for an entire class who, unlike westerners, see the regime as resilient and prospering. On the road into Rangoon there are acres of luxury serviced apartments and airconditioned supermarkets, crammed with European goods, that have been built for the military and the business elite. All survived the cyclone. The man behind many of these projects is Tay Za, 44, who also constructed Ngwe Saung as a personal gift to the Senior General by way of a thank you for enabling him to become the richest man in town.
Kyaw Win (an alias), a veteran rebel soldier who spent more than a decade in the Burmese jungle fighting the regime, told us, “The rise of men like Tay Za, and the existence of the Ngwe Saung villa and its neighbouring holiday camp, underlines the yawning gap between what the west expects to happen here – generals toppled by people power – and the stark reality.”
Kyaw Win and many others we interviewed in Burma argue that the junta is dominant and enduring, and in the process of metamorphosing into an Asian-style authoritarian government (not unlike those in Singapore or Thailand). While Aung San Suu Kyi has virtually dropped out of the picture, they predict the generals will be involved in Burma’s future for many years to come.
After the mass demonstrations that swamped the streets of Rangoon last September, there were many in the west, Burmese exiles and their supporters, who willed protesters to rise up in defiance again during the referendum this month – an expectation that was heightened after the military’s callous response to Nargis. In the event, with the cities shattered and villagers in shock at the devastation left by the cyclone, there was not a murmur.
In Burma, those who are not with the military or the entrepreneurial sector live lives stretched paper thin. Jobs are few; teachers, writers, lawyers and civil servants are paid paltry, £20 a month salaries that lag far behind the country’s rampant inflation. And legions of country people live hand to mouth on what they can grow, or work the land for military combines that steal all the profit. Others grasp for opportunities in the mines of the north where hope is quickly replaced by malaria, slave wages, drugs and often HIV. Some are conscripted into forced labour details, or pressganged into the army.
The sense of being watched, prodded, overheard, and the threat of being enslaved or abducted, engenders a paranoia in everyone. Many, fatalistic and depressed, sit all day in street-corner tea stalls, sipping their lives away.
Those who resist the junta choose an exceptionally difficult path. The story of Kyaw Win’s family, who participated in the street protests, shows the extreme risks the Burmese take in sticking their heads above the parapet – and the stark difference between now and 1990, when the military lost a general election to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). Then, dissidents were united in opposition to their government; now they are in disarray. The army, which was divided at the time of the 1990 poll, is now all-powerful, heavily armed and shows no compunction about shooting.
Up a betel-stained stairwell, through curtains of cobwebs, we arrive at Kyaw Win’s apartment with views over downtown Rangoon. To reach here we had to ditch our cab three blocks back before calling him from a phone box, meeting on a street corner, and then accompanying him on a complicated series of double backs. These are daily measures in an anxious world. Finally, we are in the family’s living room, where a plastic thermometer reads 45C. The cyclone is still five days off, but they, like the majority, are already living in near disaster conditions.
There has been no electricity for the past eight hours. Not a fan stirs. The food in the fridge has gone off. It is like this every day. “Even the penguins in the government’s new zoo get better treatment,” says 37-year-old Kyaw Win. When the regime moved the capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw in 2005, it took most of the animals with it, installing them in a spanking new zoo with 24-hour airconditioning. (The transfer of all government offices and ministries to a stiflingly hot inland site eight hours north of Rangoon was driven by the generals’ fear of being toppled and their wish to distance themselves from the suspected spies and saboteurs in the foreign embassies in the old capital. This was nothing new in Burma: King Sagaing Min, in 1829, forced Major Henry Burney, a British emissary, to camp on a hill outside the capital, from which he was reduced to watching through a telescope the monarch “race his white elephant up and down the street”.)
Seven months ago, when Kyaw Win’s family joined the monks on Rangoon’s streets to demonstrate against the overnight doubling of fuel prices, it was the first time there had been mass protests in Burma since 1988. Then, students were in the vanguard and thousands were massacred by the military. “This time, we felt secure behind the saffron robes,” Kyaw Win says. But three weeks into the 2007 protests, army trucks began circling Rangoon, broadcasting warnings that soldiers had been authorised to shoot at any gathering of more than five people. Two days later, on September 27, Kyaw Win’s 16-year-old daughter, Su Su (an alias), found herself trapped in a crowd of demonstrators outside Tamwe High School Number 3.
When soldiers spotted them, Su Su threw her MP3 player into a bush. She and her friend were grabbed, forced on to the gravel and searched – then, as the youngest in the crowd, they were released and ordered home. Hundreds of others were not so lucky; many were badly beaten and detained. When a friend of Su Su’s braved Tamwe again the following day, to retrieve the MP3 player, he saw the bodies of a teenage boy and girl in a storm drain outside the school, tyre tracks clearly visible across the girl’s body. He also found the tiny recording device, which had captured three hours of the crackdown.
Su Su plays it on her computer, her desk piled high with English-language books – the Narnia novels and Sophie’s World. At the start she can be heard whispering to her friend: “They are aiming at us with guns.” The soldiers were from the 77th Light Infantry Division; one can be heard shouting, “Don’t do anything. Don’t even shake.” A shot rings out. Su Su screams. Another shot. More screams. Su Su implores her friend: “Don’t run or they will kill us.” They were using live rounds and firing at people’s heads.
A closer shot cracks the air. Then the soldier spots Su Su and her friend hiding behind the car. “Stand up now. You two at the front,” he shouts, “go into the street.” This was when she flipped the recorder into a bush. The recovered MP3 player caught the rest. A soldier screams outside the housing compound where many others had fled: “Come down. I’m coming up to get you. I’m going to give you three minutes. We have orders to shoot you. I’m counting… We’re coming and we will kill everybody. Fuck you, you motherfuckers. We’re coming now.” The soldier counts: “4, 3, 2, 1…” A shot. We can hear the clanking of gunmetal on the railings and the screams as the stairwell is cleared. Fourteen shots follow, and although no one knows how many died that day, Human Rights Watch later identified eight victims, including two Tamwe schoolchildren.
The recording peters out. Su Su shrugs and Kyaw Win nods. “Now every vacant building in Rangoon is crammed with riot police and soldiers,” he says.
As the blood was hosed off the streets, the September 2007 demonstrations fizzled out. Everyone went back to work. There was no leadership to plot a future course for people power, no political structure to marshal the people’s hatred of the junta. There was no word from Aung San Suu Kyi, who had made a brief but silent appearance to pray with monks at her gate on September 22. Her NLD was inaudible, too. One of the monks, who later went into hiding in Thailand, told us: “We roamed around the city without guidance, and into the firing line. The only legacy from September are memories of a moment of defiance.”
The speed with which the September demonstrations were put down and the absence of any protests after the cyclone underscores how effectively Than Shwe has battened down Burma. In 1988, he was one of 21 generals inducted into the new State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), formed in the wake of the mass demonstrations of the month before which transformed Suu Kyi into a reluctant figurehead and gave birth to the NLD.
Having lived most of her life abroad, she had come home in March 1988 to visit her dying mother. Yet, as the daughter of General Aung San, the architect of the independence struggle that won Burma freedom from the British in 1948, her name and face had proved evocative; her inaugural speech at Rangoon’s Shwe Dagon pagoda drew a crowd of 500,000.
Than Shwe could not have been more different, one of his outer circle from that period, still in Rangoon, told us. “His life was all about duty and an abhorrence of the British colonialists, while Suu Kyi’s was a fairytale.” Her mother served as a diplomat in India and Suu Kyi’s childhood had been spent riding with Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi before she went up to St Hughes College, Oxford, and married British academic Michael Aris.
“She spoke the Queen’s English,” said the officer, “while Than Shwe left school at 16.” He had spent his formative years as a foot soldier in the jungle, fighting with Burma’s newly formed Tatmadaw (army) against successive ethnic insurgencies. Even his marriage to Kyaing Kyaing was dictated by duty: her first husband fell on the frontline and his comrades drew lots to take on the widow.
In May 1990, the general and his fellow ministers were dismayed when the newcomer Suu Kyi and her NLD took 392 of the 485 seats in a general election. The SLORC regrouped. The results were suspended, and while Suu Kyi, already under house arrest, was feted abroad, winning the Nobel peace prize, her party was squeezed. When Than Shwe seized power in 1992, appointing himself chairman of the SLORC, he set about remedying the 1990 defeat. The day after his appointment, he unveiled a National Convention to draft a new constitution for Burma – a process that would culminate with the referendum on May 10 this year. He also launched the Union Solidarity and Development Association, which claimed to be an NGO, but which immediately took on the trappings of a coercive mass movement. All new recruits swore oaths of allegiance to “totally remove… destructive elements”. Supporters were recognisable by their crisp, white Burmese jackets and green or blue longyis, and inveigled their way into all levels of society, establishing branches in every village, ward, township and division. They forced their way into schools and lecturers warned university students, the mainstay of the 1988 uprising, that they would be failed if they refused to join. To make sure Rangoon’s students could never mass in the city again, the university was split into three campuses, all located a two-hour bus ride out of town, beyond heavily guarded bridges that could be cut off at short notice.
The NLD struggled for oxygen. Little more than a decade after its formation, 65% of party members and NLD MPs (who had never been able to take up their seats) had resigned, been jailed or gone into exile. A former senior NLD member in Rangoon complained, “While Suu Kyi remained inspirational, she was ineffective as a nuts and bolts leader.”
Than Shwe and those around him had all been born in the 30s and realised they needed a new generation of younger officers to ensure the work continued. A Rangoon analyst said, “The military opened three academies producing 4,000 officers a year, creating thousands of generals, major generals, brigadiers, all of them steeped in Than Shwe’s narrow mind-set.” Absorbing half of Burma’s annual GDP, the Tatmadaw grew from 150,000 in 1988 to more than 450,000 soldiers. The military leached into civil society, too. By 2008, only two of the 36 government ministries – education and health – were headed by civilians
For Than Shwe, another pressing objective was the destruction of Suu Kyi. In 2003, he formed a second militia called the Swan Arr Shin (SAS), which attacked Suu Kyi and her NLD convoy that May. The SAS goons beat 70 to death, badly injuring Suu Kyi, too.
“People power cannot defeat a united military willing to shoot,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) concluded earlier this year.
Sanctions against the regime was a policy first encouraged by Suu Kyi in 1990 when she cited their success in apartheid South Africa where Nelson Mandela had just been released from Robben Island. “The opinion of the international community cannot be ignored,” she argued. As it turns out, it can.
The US became the first country to implement formal sanctions in 1997 and the following year the EU froze the junta’s European assets. Western companies that invested in Burma were boycotted and picketed by campaigners. But, a Rangoon economist told us, “They were symbolic acts that just pushed the generals further into the arms of their Asian neighbours.” Burton, Liz Claiborne and Marks & Spencer retreated, to be replaced by Hong Kong clothiers such as Giordano and Hang Ten. Leading the way was China, which doubled its trade with Burma between 1999 and 2005, selling the country $2bn in weapons and lending it $400m in economic assistance.
A new generation of Burmese innovators grew up, too. Rather than Dunkin’ Donuts, they opened J-Donuts. Instead of Tesco, they created City Mart and Asia Light. When Starbucks failed to materialise, 21 branches of Cafe Aroma appeared. Leading the way was Tay Za, the son of an army colonel, who flunked out of military school and honed in on Burma’s cash-rich trade, immune to western sanctions, which included gems and teak logging.
Tay Za and Htoo Trading Group had a hand in building Than Shwe’s new capital at Naypyidaw and became the fifth largest exporter in Burma, shipping £33m of goods. The rewards are on his Rangoon driveway, a stone’s throw from Suu Kyi’s home: several Hummers, a red Ferrari, a yellow Lamborghini and a Daimler. He is just one of 4,000 entrepreneurs in Burma’s new elite class who can thumb their noses at the west.
We call Tay Za in Rangoon, claiming we work for a private equity fund with tens of millions to invest. “He’s not in town,” an assistant says. Over the course of a day we are passed up the ladder, until we reach Mr Htoo. He says, “To be frank, U Tay Za’s so busy these days. He’s going to Naypyidaw for a heads of state meeting. Perhaps next month he’ll come back to Rangoon.” We represent deep pockets in Europe, we say. “U Tay Za’s sitting next to me,” Mr Htoo reveals. We hear him shout over: “British guys with lots of dosh.” Tay Za can be heard replying, “Tell them to get lost.” Mr Htoo comes back on the line: “To be honest he has all the investment he needs.”
Last October, shortly after the US government targeted Tay Za by issuing sanctions against his business empire, a message from someone claiming to be Htet Tay Za – Tay Za’s 19-year-old son – appeared on a Burmese bulletin board. “US bans us? We’re still fucking cool,” it said. “We’re sitting on the whole Burmese GDP. We’ve got timber, gems and gas to be sold to countries like Singapore, China, India and Russia.”
Burma is shrugging off sanctions. Short of an invasion, which would bring the west into an unthinkable conflict with China, regime change is unlikely. Getting the government to see sense, rather than trying to oust it, is a strategy proposed by a core group of Asian diplomats surrounding UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. The ICG, too, has called for the west to make “unsatisfactory compromises” and “settle for less so the country can have more”. Less, according to the ICG, means recognising the generals’ desire to have a say in the country’s future and seats in any future parliament, securing their wealth and reputation, and immunising them from prosecutions, despite their heinous human rights record.
Such protests as have survived are virtual. During the September demonstrations, Burma’s bloggers were the only vociferous supporters of the crowds. They were key to getting information out, providing running commentaries along with photos and tallies of the dead, injured and missing. At the height of the crackdown, 600 bloggers crammed into an airless, third-floor apartment to debate strategy. The meeting was hosted by a former academic from Rangoon University who risked everything to gather like minds together. The group trebled as May approached, swapping tips on how to evade government censors. They also exchanged digitised samizdat literature opposing the referendum, the most popular poster showing Suu Kyi putting a “no” vote into a ballot box (although in reality she was prevented from voting).
The academic emailed us after the cyclone as the military dallied in aiding survivors. Will there be a backlash, we had asked. “Riots and demonstrations? No way,” he wrote back. “They’ll just take out their guns and start shooting. People are trying to take care of themselves. Everybody with a brain and a heart is doing his or her utmost to help the Nargis victims.”
Another mail popped into our inbox a few days ago. What will happen when Burma is no longer in the news, we had asked. “I’m not a fortune teller,” he wrote, “but for sure I can say that there’s gonna be another crisis in the middle of monsoon when the rice price reaches its highest point and the country, after mismanagement, greed and the cyclone, runs out of stock. Did you know the generals have just trebled rice exports, even though our paddy fields in the southern delta are flooded? There will be no food for us. Let’s wait and see how these stupid generals are going to overcome this.”