The release of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was a catalyst for opponents of the country’s brutal military junta. Will its thuggish general target the Nobel Peace Prize winner for assassination?
“The Lady” is free. But is her life now in grave danger?
Even as they welcome the release of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after years of house arrest, Western diplomats and human rights campaigners are convinced that the brutal, paranoid junta that has run the country for nearly 50 years is already scrambling to find justification to rearrest the 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner—or to intimidate her and her followers through violence that might intentionally turn deadly.
“I don’t think she can be fully aware of what she’s up against now,” said an American diplomat who has long been involved in monitoring U.S.-Burma affairs and shares friends with Suu Kyi, known to followers in her homeland as “The Lady.” “The generals are as paranoid—certainly as violent—as they’ve ever been.”
The diplomat told The Daily Beast that Suu Kyi, who has been detained in her family’s dilapidated home for 15 of the last 21 years and is often described as Asia’s answer to Nelson Mandela, is perceived as a threat to the junta and its dictatorial 77-year-old leader, General Than Shwe, like never before. “Than Shwe is a total thug, and it’s not hard to imagine him and his cronies thinking of ways to silence her forever.”
“Than Shwe is a total thug, and it’s not hard to imagine him and his cronies thinking of ways to silence her forever.”
Her release last weekend came in the wake of national elections this month that were seen by the United States and other nations as a sham intended to solidify the military’s hold on power; a political party that serves as the junta’s proxy claimed victory.
Diplomats and human-rights groups believe that Than Shwe tried to kill Suu Kyi at least once before—in 2003, during her last break from house arrest, when a government-recruited mob of hundreds of men descended on her small motorcade with knifes, iron bars and wooden bats studded with shards of glass and attempted to reach the car in which she was traveling to a pro-democracy rally in northern Burma, which the military junta renamed Myanmar.
Witnesses said she survived only because her supporters surrounded the car to protect her, many at the cost of their own lives; scores of people at the scene were reported to have been killed, their bodies thrown into trucks to be buried in secret.
Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burmese independence hero Aung San, who was himself assassinated by military rivals in 1947, was rearrested within days of the massacre seven years ago and has never had a chance to address publicly what happened.
Benedict Rogers, a British human-rights advocate who is the author of a biography of Than Shwe published this year, said the general almost certainly gave the order for the 2003 attack in a clear effort to kill Aung San Suu Kyi, “and there’s no reason to believe he isn’t capable of doing it again.”
The reclusive, cold-eyed Than Shwe, a formal postal clerk who is known to depend on soothsayers in deciding military policy, has held onto power since 1992 in large part because of his willingness to use brute force against his enemies, especially Suu Kyi’s followers in the democracy movement and ethnic insurgents along Burma’s borders.
Under Than Shwe, the Burma Army has been accused by United Nations observers of repeated acts of savagery, including the systematic rape of ethnic women and the kidnapping of children who are used as army porters and to clear landmines ahead of advancing troops; thousands of ethnic villages have been burned to the ground by the army in recent years, leaving hundreds of thousands of refugees along the nation’s borders.
“Than Shwe has lots of blood on his hands,” said Michael J. Green, a director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“I don’t think Than Shwe released Aung San Suu Kyi in an effort to facilitate internal reconciliation,” he said. “I think it was purely aimed at dividing the international community. She is now under constant risk of re-arrest or violence.”
Green said the risks to Suu Kyi may actually be greater now because Than Shwe and his inner circle have so much more to protect than before—their new-found mega-wealth, made possible by the construction of pipelines in recent years to export the country’s huge deposits of natural gas to neighboring Asian countries.
The pipelines bring in an estimated $2.5 billion a year, little of it used to relieve pervasive poverty in a nation where the average adult income is about $3 a day.
Instead, much of the gas money has been siphoned off to the Burma military for Than Shwe’s pet projects, including the construction of new capital city, Naypyidaw (translation: “Seat of Kings”), in malarial scrubland 200 miles north of the traditional capital of Rangoon. Diplomats stationed in Burma were told that the remote site of the new capital reflected Than Shwe’s paranoia—he thought it made a long-feared U.S. invasion less likely—and his reliance on astrologists, who helped him choose the location as especially auspicious.
Other government money clearly goes into the pockets of Than Shwe and his generals, a fact that became obvious to dissident groups when a 2006 video of the crazily opulent wedding reception for Than Shwe’s daughter leaked onto the Internet and showed the bride draped in long ropes of diamonds, rubies, and gold.
The general was seen standing stiffly at his daughter’s side as the bridal bed—reported to be made of near-solid gold—was displayed to the Champagne-sipping wedding guests.
Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based group that attempts to build support for Aung San Suu Kyi, said the leak of the wedding video might be remembered as a landmark moment in building public support, in and out of Burma, to finally oust the junta.
For many dissidents, the video was clear-cut proof that Burma has become a military kleptocracy. “There are people in Burma who have access to the Internet, and the wedding video went viral,” Quigley said. “There was tremendous anger that Than Shwe—that anyone—would flaunt his wealth like this.”
Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter and bestselling author, based in Washington D.C. Almost all of his career was spent at The New York Times, where he was a reporter from 1981 until 2008. He left the paper in May 2008, a few weeks after his first book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, hit the bestsellers lists of both The New York Times and The Washington Post. He has reported from several warzones and was one of two reporters from The Times embedded with American ground troops during the invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.