Yangon: The whereabouts of Than Shwe, leader of Myanmar’s secretive junta, remained a mystery on Thursday, but rumours he had been ousted by the army chief were dying rapidly.

The most popular explanation was that Than Shwe, 73, who appears in the media only rarely, was in a hospital in Yangon’s military zone and General Maung Aye, the army chief and number two in the junta, was acting in his stead.

“So far as we’ve heard, he was sent to the Mingaladon military hospital. We don’t know any further details,” said U Lwin, the spokesman for detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

Than Shwe’s last media appearance was on August 19 when he met special United Nations envoy Ali Alatas, the Indonesian former foreign minister.

The state-run media in the former Burma made no mention on Thursday of either Than Shwe or the rumours of his ouster which swept Myanmar and neighbouring Thailand a day earlier.

Officials, who rarely talk to journalists in a country ruled by the military in various guises since 1962, were unreachable for comment.

But Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra shrugged off the rumours as baseless.

“The information we’ve got is that they are not true,” he told a news conference. “We have checked with every source. It was not true.”

RUMOURS, HOPE, DISAPPOINTMENT

There had been no unusual military or police activity in Yangon on Wednesday, leading diplomats to disbelieve the rumours, but the prices of gold and the kyat currency moved, reflecting unease among ordinary people.

But the prices of both began to drift back to previous levels on Thursday as the intensity of the rumours dissipated.

Gold, which rose from 270,000 kyat per tical (0.525 troy ounce) on Tuesday to 276,300 kyat on Wednesday, dipped to 275,000 kyat.

The black market price of the kyat — whose official exchange rate is around 6 to the dollar — dropped from 1,120 to 1,178 on Wednesday but had recovered to 1,170 on Thursday morning, dealers said.

Rumours about what is going on in the military have been rife since General Khin Nyunt was ousted unceremoniously as prime minister and military intelligence chief last October.

That was followed by the mass release of prisoners the junta said had been jailed improperly by military intelligence and the inclusion of a few political detainees raised hopes it was serious about a seven-step road to democracy Khin Nyunt had announced.

But, as has happened so often before in Myanmar as events spawned hope, nothing appears to have changed.

Suu Kyi is still under house arrest and her NLD effectively barred from a conference writing a new constitution critics say will merely cement the military regime in place.

Nor do long-time Myanmar watchers expect things to change.

“If there were to be a change in leadership, I don’t see any indication that that would lead to a change in policies towards Aung San Suu Kyi or the pro-democracy movement,” said Robert Karniol, the Asia-Pacific editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly.

“There seems to be a very monolithic political viewpoint within the armed forces and I don’t see that being readjusted by a change of personality,” he said.

“There is competition between individuals or blocks of individuals, but I don’t see a hardline verses moderate split within the armed forces.”