Right at the end of the recent TIME cover-story about Than Shwe I was surprised to learn that “[o]ne man controls everything that happens in Burma.”

While I appreciate the intent of this jab — and recognise the significance of TIME‘s biographical article — it strikes me as a big, almost impossible, thesis. Certainly, Than Shwe is a powerful and influential figure. But is his government so different to the government of Thailand or Bangladesh that this claim seems even half-way sensible? Could we, with a straight-face, make a similarly grand assertion about any of the world’s countless other despots? Than Shwe has, of course, sometimes cultivated an illusion of omnipotence, but couldn’t we start examining the very real limits of his “control”?

Do we know enough about top level decision-making in Burma to even start down the path of defending this thesis? The TIME article doesn’t do justice to the claim. So I think it is worth asking — is Than Shwe really that important? Or to tilt the question in a slightly different direction — if Than Shwe was removed from the equation what would change?