Burma: End of an Era or a Dynasty's Beginning ?

When Burma's new Parliament convenes in Naypyidaw at the end of this month, some say it will be a political transition marking the end of decades of military rule—at least symbolically.

However, the majority of Burmese people view the event as nothing more than an attempt by junta chief Than Shwe to maintain his hold on power and secure the wealth and influence of his close family members and loyalists in the name of "disciplined democracy."

Speculation has been rife that the new government will be headed by Than Shwe himself or one of his core loyalists, including Thura Shwe Mann, Tin Aung Myint Oo and Prime Minister Thein Sein.

Whoever becomes either president or vice-president, however, he will be required to declare all of his family assets, including land, houses, businesses, savings and other valuables, to the Parliament, according to the Constitution.

It is doubtful, however, that Than Shwe or his loyalists will ever disclose the full extent of the wealth they have acquired over the past two decades. But as Parliament prepares to convene on Jan. 31, it may be worthwhile to examine some of the evidence of their ill-gotten gains.

In this first in a series of reports, we look at the fortunes of the first family of military-ruled Burma, the Than Shwe clan.

Burma's Ali Baba and his Family

It is said that Than Shwe believes himself to be a reincarnation of an ancient Burmese monarch. Whether this rumor is true or not, the junta chief has certainly styled himself in that way, for example by having his wife, children and his favorite grandchild take the most important seats at official ceremonies.

In keeping with this status, Than Shwe and his family have amassed enormous wealth. In part he has done this by treating Burma's revenues from the sale of oil and natural gas as his own personal fortune. By recording these revenues at the official exchange rate (six kyat to the US dollar, in contrast to the real rate of 815 kyat to the dollar), he and his closest loyalists have been able to keep most of the money earned from the sale of Burma's resources for themselves.

Most of this money has ended up in overseas bank accounts. Than Shwe has even assigned former Lt-Gen Tin Aye, one of his closest military loyalists, to manage these bank accounts. He has also reportedly bought several houses in Beijing and Shanghai with these secret funds.

But the Than Shwe clan's pilfering of wealth is not limited to stealing from the country. Sources in the Ministry of Defense said that when Than Shwe's wife, Kyaing Kyaing, and daughters make trips to other parts of the country unaccompanied by the senior general, the wives of regional military commanders have to present them with "diamonds, gold and valuable jewelery" on a tray.

"They take what they like most from the trays and leave the rest. But they never walk away without taking at least 200,000,000 kyat (US$ 245,000) worth of the precious stones and other items," said a source.

The first family's appetite for the finer things in life was already in evidence five years ago, when Than Shwe's youngest daughter, Thandar Shwe, was showered with diamonds and other expensive gifts at her wedding.

These days, they are more likely to be seen plundering shopping malls. "They just point at any item they desire and the wives of the regional military commanders have to pick up the tab," said the source.

Following in the tradition of Burmese monarchs, Than Shwe's family controls the ownership of lucrative hand-dug oil wells in Magwe and Monywa divisions and also gold mines in Kawlin and Wuntho townships in Sagaing Division.

The licenses for operating those oil wells and gold mines have to be obtained from regional commanders. Since the average license fee for an acre of these gold mines or oil wells is 3,000,000 kyat (US$3,680), those working on those sites have to pay nearly one billion kyat ($1.2 million) annually. It was Honda Tin Maung in Mandalay, a man often associated with the Chinese business group Great Wall in Burma, who bought licenses for those mines and oil wells.

Unsatisfied with ownership of several of the finest houses in Naypyidaw and Maymyo, Than Shwe's family has also controlled state-owned houses and lands in the vicinity of Rangoon's Inya Lake, alongside which opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi lives.

A few years ago, a residential compound on Pyay Road and near Inya Lake, whose ownership had been disputed in a legal family feud, was given to Khin Than Nwet, the wife of former Lt-Gen Tin Oo, who was killed in a mysterious helicopter crash in 2001. When Khin Than Nwet refused to accept it, Kyaing Kyaing, Than Shwe's wife, asked Tay Za, Burma's best-known business tycoon, to grab the estate for her.

In Burma's business circle, Tay Za is well known as an agent for the business affairs of Than Shwe's family. Than Shwe's daughters have shares in Tay Za's hotels in the popular beach resort towns of Chaung Tha and Ngwe Saung in Lower Burma. They are also shareholders in a hospital near Inya Lake named Kantharyar, which was sold off to Tay Za as part of the government's recent privatization process.

Even Than Shwe's favorite grandson, Nay Shwe Thwe Aung (nicknamed Pho La Pyae), has recently become a commercial broker. One of his money-making activities is helping companies to clear customs at the country's ports, enabling them to illegally import goods upon receipt of a "tax" payable directly to him.

He is also known as a middleman between government ministers and business owners who wish to open new businesses on Rangoon estates. In one notable case, he helped a group of Indian businessmen, called Naing Group, to win permission to work on a large estate next to the Thai embassy in Rangoon, after they were earlier denied a permit by Rangoon's mayor, Aung Thein Lin. In exchange for Nay Shwe Thwe Aung's assistance, the Indian businessmen paid him 500 million kyat ($610,000).

The children and grandchildren of other members of the military elite are also involved in such shady deals, but Nay Shwe Thwe Aung always makes sure that he remains dominant among them. For example, in 2009, he ordered the closure of a coffee shop in Rangoon called "Seven Lekkers," which was owned by Tay Za Saw Oo, the son of the junta's fourth-ranking official, Tin Aung Myint Oo.

It is also known that he ordered his followers to physically beat Win Hlaing Htwe, the son of Gen Win Hlaing, a former director general in the Ministry of Defense, over a a tussle involving an estate in People's Park near Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.

On another occasion, he ordered police to arrest one of his former friends for writing something bad about him on Facebook while the latter was studying in a foreign country. In a similar incident in 2009, he was unable to order the arrest of another former friend for writing something negative about him on the Internet because he was studying in Singapore, so he had his ex-friend's parents arrested.

"Before those arrests were made, a group of men went and threw stones at his friend's house in Rangoon under orders from Pho La Pyae," said a source.

When the parents of his friend were brought before him, Nay Shwe Thwe Aung ordered them to kneel down and pay respects to him and ask for his pardon for their son's wrongdoing to him. Out of fear for their son's personal safety, the parents did as they were told, sources said.

In another incident last November, a military captain working as the personal assistant of Foreign Minister Nyan Win incurred Nay Shwe Thwe Aung's wrath by inadvertently blocking his car in front of the office of the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd, a business conglomerate controlled by the military. Than Shwe's grandchild reportedly responded by ordering the officer to stand at attention while he lectured him about the code of conduct for civil officers.

More recently, Aung Thet Mann, the son of the junta's third-ranking official, Thura Shwe Mann, had to give up an already booked VIP seat on a local Air Bagan flight to Naypyidaw when Nay Shwe Thwe Aung and his followers suddenly appeared on the same plane.

While Than Shwe's daughters hold senior positions in foreign embassies (where they reportedly do little more than collect bags of money at the end of the day), his sons, Kyaing San Shwe and Tun Naing Shwe, own hotel businesses in Naypyidaw and control gas stations which have mushroomed across the country.

Tun Naing Shwe is also the owner the J-Donuts, a popular chain of donut shops, and a business partner of Myanmar VES Joint Venture Co, Ltd, a leading gems company.

"What's really bizarre is that Than Shwe's family believe that they're entitled to everything they've got because of their good karma in the past," said a military source.

Notwithstanding their belief that they are merely enjoying the fruits of their own merit, Than Shwe's family members have also been careful to guard the real source of their privileges. That is why Kyaing Kyaing urged her husband last year not to retire from the military, and even asked Burmese Buddhist monks in India to talk him into staying in power when the couple made a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya last July.

Military sources said that Than Shwe is also wary of stepping aside to make way for a new generation of leaders. They say he doesn't trust top-ranking officials like Tin Aung Myint Oo, and his greatest fear is a fate similar to that of his predecessor, Ne Win, who died under house arrest after his son-in-law and grandsons were accused of plotting against the current regime.

As the author of Ne Win's eventual downfall, Than Shwe knows only too well how quickly trust can turn to treachery once a dictator begins to lose his grip.

The Burmese people will soon know what role Than Shwe intends to play in the future government, which is expected to be formed by the end of next month. Whatever the outcome, there is no doubt that Than Shwe will always go to great lengths to ensure his own safety and that of his family.

One sign that he is preparing for the worst is a recent report that he has established his own private security company to protect himself and his family. The company, Eagle Security, is headed by Thein Han, a retired colonel who was one of the military officers involved in the junta-orchestrated deadly ambush on Aung San Suu Kyi and her convoy in Depayin, Sagaing Division, in 2003.

In a forthcoming article, The Irrawaddy will reveal the personal secrets of the junta's third-ranking official, Thura Shwe Mann, and the extent of the wealth owned by his family.