It is not uncommon to hear confident assertions that the military leadership of Burma are unsophisticated, poorly educated and, here is the real rub, more than a bit thick. As a batch of assertions I have often thought that these seemed flimsy. The evidence of successful strategising, if not intellectual accomplishment, is plain to see.

In a recent article, Carnegie Endowment visiting scholar Joshua Kurlantzick (best known for his recent book Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World) questions some of the prevailing understandings of the “thuggish, unworldly and slow-speaking” Senior General and those he commands. Kurlantzick outlines the approach of the military leadership and concludes that “the ‘unsophisticated’ generals’ diplomatic success has gone on for far too long”. From where he sits, the generals have “clearly mastered a survival strategy with regard to the outside world”. Kurlantzick’s analysis contradicts many of the prevailing ideas about what could be called Burma’s despotic anti-intellectualism.

I wonder if there is, however, more to this than meets the eye — is an underwhelming public image actually part of the generals’ survival strategy? Does the common stereotype of Than Shwe as a lumbering and unlettered oaf obscure something deeper, smarter? Is his “lack of education — he reputedly never made it out of primary school” just part of the game?

Like many New Mandala readers, in my time I have known many very clever people who only completed a few years of basic education. Some of them went on to be very successful. And as anyone who has spent a few years around a University will know — formal education does not always equal smarts. Boorishness or difficulties communicating are also not necessarily signs of intellectual weakness.

So how ignorant are the top couple of dozen generals? Have they learned more than a few things in their decades in power? Is the prevailing cliché of battle-hardened but unworldly commanders now overdue for revision?

Moreover, as the dynamics of military rule have changed over the years has there been a transformation in the types of people who have risen through the ranks? Are today’s regional commanders, and even some of the new names on the State Peace and Development Council, different (in temperament, “sophistication”, outlook, etc) to their predecessors?

Or are they, in fact, more like Khin Nyunt (who, for all the stories I have heard about him, I have never heard called “unworldly”)? Is a revised collective understanding of the generals and their capacities needed? Have they, for far too long, been simply under-estimated?