The rulers of the world's pariah states are usually recognizable personalities. Kim Jong Il with his electrified hairdo, Muammar Gaddafi with his aviator sunglasses, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with his penchant for windbreakers. But Burma? No one dictator comes to mind, only a coterie of faceless generals 12, if one wants to be exact. Last week, in the junta's latest wave of repression, soldiers fired on thousands of peaceful protesters who had dared challenge its iron-fisted rule, killing dozens, according to initial U.N. estimates. But the question remains: Who exactly are the brutal generals behind one of the world's most isolated regimes?
For starters, Burma is ruled by one of the world's longest-standing military dictatorships. An army-led coup in 1962 against a democratically elected government brought men in uniform to power, first the charismatic and superstitious Ne Win, now his rather less magnetic successor Than Shwe. A high-school dropout who later trained in psychological warfare, Than Shwe, 74, helms a secretive group of generals that calls itself the State Peace and Development Council. True to its grand name, the junta controls not only the armed forces but all aspects of politics and the economy as well. Indeed, constitutional guidelines passed last month bar anyone without army experience from holding high office. "The military believes they are the only ones who can run Burma," says Khin Maung Nyunt, an exiled former military officer who was among the first batch of cadets at Burma's Defense Services Academy when it opened its doors in 1955. "They have no confidence in civilians leading the country, and they are very arrogant about their superior power."
In the past two decades, Burma's generals have doubled the army's size to 450,000 soldiers, making it one of the largest military forces in the world. More than one-third of the nation's budget is spent on this massive establishment. The military also runs kindergartens, medical schools and technical colleges, open only to its own personnel thus creating a state within a state whose primary purpose is to train Burma's future ruling class. Signs of internal dissent are quickly suppressed. Khin Nyunt, the former head of military intelligence who was once hailed as a potential reformer for suggesting dialogue with long-imprisoned democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, now languishes under house arrest himself. Despite scattered reports of soldiers refusing to shoot against Buddhist monkled demonstrators last week, most of the wide-eyed recruits obeyed orders. "Burma's military is a breed apart, and its biggest accomplishment is the sense of loyalty that it has bred," says Josef Silverstein, a Burma expert and professor emeritus at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Few forces appear so unified."
True, during the lead-up to last month's brutal suppression of the protests, exile groups buzzed with speculation that the junta's No. 2, General Maung Aye, opposed any violence. Rumors of tensions between Than Shwe and his deputy have circulated for years. Yet any hope of a moderating influence died when troops began opening fire on Sept. 26, killing at least 10 people in Rangoon, according to the junta's own likely lowball death count. (Hundreds of others are still reported missing, including many monks, whom exile groups fear have been rounded up and imprisoned across the nation.)
Burma's top brass wasn't always so universally despised. Formerly a ragtag band of freedom fighters, the military helped the country free itself from British colonialism. Aung San, the father of democracy activist Suu Kyi, is revered both as an independence hero and as the founder of Burma's army. After independence in 1948, this group of beleaguered soldiers transformed itself into a professional force, opening the West Pointinspired Defense Services Academy. The military also burnished its legitimacy in another way, claiming to be the only force that could keep the country together. Burma is composed of more than 100 ethnic groups, many of which waged wars and insurgencies against the central government for decades. Politicians, the generals asserted, represented feuding ethnic interests. In Burma's last election back in 1990 as many as 20 ethnically based political parties contested the polls. Who better, the military argued, to keep peace among all these fractious tribal groups?
But Burma's generals have led their nation astray. Obsessed with maintaining power above all else, the army has repeatedly turned its guns against its own people, most tragically in 1988 when a student-led protest movement was crushed, leaving some 3,000 dead. Nor do army leaders perceive threats to their authority coming only from inside the country. "Than Shwe grew up under colonial occupation by the British and the Japanese," says Thailand-based Burmese military analyst Win Min, "so he is a nationalist to the point of xenophobia [who] believes military rule is the only way to keep the country independent." Indeed, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Oct. 1, Burma's Foreign Minister Nyan Win blamed the protests on elements "outside the country who wish to ... take advantage of the chaos that would follow."
The military's stranglehold on the economy is what has most alienated the Burmese populace. Coup leader Ne Win quickly ruined one of Southeast Asia's most promising economies by unveiling the "Burmese Way to Socialism." The army took over colonial-era business concerns like shipping and banking. Even as civilians have grown poorer, the military continues to enrich itself through timber, mineral and natural-gas deals with Burma's neighbors. In 2005, the junta mysteriously moved the nation's capital from Rangoon to a new city called Naypyidaw, carved out of the jungle at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. A lavish military retreat complete with a man-made beach is also being built near Maymyo, where the Defense Services Academy is located. While the military élite bunkers itself in rarefied surroundings, ordinary Burmese are suffering. Educational funding has dried up, and the World Health Organization estimates that the junta annually spends a maximum of $10 per person on health care. As a result, killer diseases like malaria and tuberculosis run rampant, and roughly half a million people are infected with HIV. Nearly one-third of children under five years of age are malnourished; of those who are healthy, some rural youngsters are forced to toil as child labor. The urban middle class doesn't fare too much better. Although Burma's main export is natural gas, most Rangoon residents can only rely on a few hours of electricity a day.
During his Sept. 29 to Oct. 2 visit to Burma, U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari met both Than Shwe and Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won elections in 1990 that the junta ignored. Exile groups speculated these rare meetings might signal at least a token effort by the generals to address widespread international condemnation of last week's crackdown. Rumors that Than Shwe, who has been ill for years, has picked junta No. 3 Shwe Mann a purported economic pragmatist as his favored successor have also raised hopes. But a change of guard may not mean much. The Burmese military has ruled with an iron grip for 45 years, and predicting its demise or even nascent reform within its ranks is a dangerous bet. Burma's generals may be faceless, but they have outlasted most of the world's better-known dictators.