Tue 28 Dec 2010
Filed under: Inside Burma
In his 18 years as head of Burma’s ruling junta, Snr-Gen Than Shwe has worked tirelessly to cement not only the regime’s hold on power, but also the status of his closest relatives as members of the country’s de facto royal family.
Now, in the latest move to ensure that his influence survives the transition to quasi-civilian rule following this year’s election, he has named his son-in-law as his point man in China, the regime’s most important and powerful ally.
According to sources in Naypyidaw, Maj Zaw Phyo Win, husband of Than Shwe’s youngest daughter, Thandar Shwe, has been appointed Burma’s ambassador to Beijing, following a stint as the Burmese consul general in Kunming, in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan.
Thandar Shwe and Zaw Phyo Win were last in the international media spotlight in 2006, when a leaked video of their wedding outraged Burmese observers with its displays of opulence, in a country where millions live in poverty due to the regime’s stranglehold on the economy.
More recently, Zaw Phyo Win appeared in Burma’s state-run media during a state visit to Kunming by Foreign Minister Nyan Win, who was in the city to attend an opening ceremony for the Burmese consulate’s new office building on Sept. 12.
Observers say that Than Shwe appears to be trying to emphasize the regime’s “pauk phaw” (brotherly) relationship with Beijing by sending close relatives to serve as his representatives to China, which recently granted a US $6 billion loan to Burma.
Like her husband and Than Shwe’s three other daughters, Thandar Shwe also works with Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). She is currently a senior diplomat to China, while her sisters—Kyi Kyi Shwe, Aye Aye Thit Shwe and Dewa Shwe—are senior officials with the Burmese embassy in Singapore.
In addition to Than Shwe’s daughters, other relatives are also posted with the Foreign Ministry, including two of Zaw Phyo Win’s sisters. According to sources in Naypyidaw, the family’s connections to the ministry are so strong that it is often jokingly referred to as the “Shwe MOFA.”
Some officials in Naypyidaw say that these foreign postings serve no other purpose than to give Than Shwe’s daughters opportunities for overseas shopping trips. “They are go abroad and they draw foreign salaries,” said one source, describing the extent of the duties involved in these postings.
Other relatives of Burma’s top general have similarly benefited from their family connections. In June 2008, Brig-Gen Thein Naing, the husband of Than Shwe’s daughter, Khin Pyoe Shwe, took over as the commander of Mingaladon Airbase in Rangoon. Soon after this, he was promoted from colonel to brigadier general. He currently serves at the office of the air force commander in chief.
Nepotism is nothing new to military-ruled Burma. The family of the late dictator Ne Win also enjoyed privileges that made them objects of scorn among ordinary Burmese, until they were finally placed under arrest for allegedly plotting to overthrow the current regime in Ne Win’s dying days.
Unlike Than Shwe, however, Ne Win did not directly involve his family in affairs of state. Than Shwe, on the other hand, routinely brings family members to official ceremonies and on state visits alongside other senior military officials.
“History repeats itself within one decade. Ten years ago, the current top two generals, Than Shwe and Maung Aye, were not comfortable with the behavior of Ne Win’s grandsons, who had nothing but contempt for the generals,” said a Burmese official close to the regime’s senior leadership, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Now the generals serving under Than Shwe are grumbling about members of his family, who in some ways are worse than Ne Win’s relatives.”
Nay Shwe Thway Aung, Than Shwe’s favorite grandson, has earned a reputation as the most notorious member of the ruling family. He has been accused of ordering military officers serving as his assistants to carry out attacks on business rivals, and even top generals are said to be wary of displeasing him.
According to business sources in Rangoon, earlier this year Nay Shwe Thway Aung took a new Mercedes Benz from a warehouse of the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holding, Ltd (UMEHL), paying just 10 million kyat (US $11,600) for a luxury vehicle valued at least 200 million kyat ($230,000) in Burma.
“It happened with the acknowledgment of [former UMEHL head] ex Lt-Gen Tin Aye. Nay Shwe Thway Aung sent one of his friends to take the Mercedes from the warehouse,” said a Rangoon-based businessman who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Even Tin Aye, who is one of the top junta members, cannot deter the grandson from this kind of act because he is Than Shwe’s favorite,” the source added.