|Senior General Than Shwe, seen here during Armed Forces Day celebrations in March, has held the top post since 1992. (david longstreath/ASSOCIATED PRESS)|
Force is top weapon for Burmese junta
Mass protests are stiffest challenge in two decades
BANGKOK - Hunkered down in their war rooms hundreds of miles from mass protests, the aging, hard-line generals in Burma are known as a suspicious lot who view the West with disdain and depend on browbeaten advisers and astrologers to guide them.
Much like Burma's former kings, they see themselves as the only ones capable of ruling, and their army as the only force that can transform the country into a modern state.
Anyone questioning their 45 years of supremacy, whether a lone protester or tens of thousands on the streets of Rangoon, is simply seen as a threat and is dealt with using the same brute force.
"They are moving to put down what they consider a threat to the nation," said Mary Callahan, a Burma expert at the University of Washington. "I think these senior officers really believe they have done right by their country and the protesters are threatening the stability of the country and threatening what they consider the progress they brought."
The demonstrations are the stiffest challenge to the ruling junta in two decades, a crisis that began Aug. 19 with protests over a fuel price hike then expanded dramatically about two weeks ago when Buddhist monks joined the protests.
Since Wednesday, soldiers and riot police have clubbed, shot, and detained demonstrators in Rangoon, the largest city in Burma, which was renamed Myanmar by the junta. At least 10 people were killed, dozens injured and hundreds detained, including Buddhist monks whose monasteries were shot up and destroyed in overnight raids by security forces.
The heavy-handed response, analysts said, was not surprising given the junta's long history of snuffing out all dissent since the country's independence in 1948. For decades, they have also waged a brutal war against ethnic groups in which soldiers have razed villages, raped women, and killed innocent civilians - atrocities that continue.
Since the 1980s, they have detained and tortured thousands of political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the past 18 years.
When hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets peacefully in 1988, the military opened fire, killing as many as 3,000.
The generals' problem, said David Mathieson, a consultant with Human Rights Watch in Thailand, is that "They don't listen to their own population. They honestly think they are the only ones capable of doing this."
Senior General Than Shwe, who launched his military career fighting ethnic insurgencies, embodies the regime he heads. In the top leadership post since 1992, he is regularly on the front pages of state media in his drab military uniform.
"He commands loyalty. He seems like the archetypal soldier," said Razali Ismail, a former UN special envoy to Burma who has met Than Shwe numerous times. "He believes himself to be very much a patriot, a nationalist. He speaks often about the sacrifices that he and his generation and his soldiers have made."