Long-time New Mandala readers will know that I maintain a general interest in the military men who run Burma, and have, from time-to-time, focused my attention on the senior rungs of the tatmadaw. I find the common argument that any of them are “simple” to be an unpersuasive one. I have also queried assertions that “[o]ne man controls everything that happens in Burma.”

It appears to me that Senior General Than Shwe often gets too much of the credit.

I was, therefore, intrigued to hear that Scot Marciel, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, who has been very busy with Burma matters, recently said, “[t]he problem is there is only one person who makes the decisions.”

This effort to paint Senior General Than Shwe as the source of all power in Burma is curious. I am pretty sure that the (admittedly patchy) view that we have about how the Burmese regime operates contradicts this analysis. Of course, I am happy to see evidence to the contrary.

In the meantime I would like to speculate that these efforts to target the Senior General (alone) may be part of a series of smart moves. Could there be strategic or operational advantage to targeting one old man? If other senior regime figures (of, say, the Lieutenant General rank) feel that the United States and its allies are only interested in Than Shwe then could they be emboldened to disassociate themselves from his rule in the years ahead?

Most people who venture to speculate tend to assume that Burma will need strong military leadership even after the current configuration of junta control crumbles. Is all this talk of Than Shwe as controller and decision-maker supposed to precipitate an end game where other senior regime figures can make some radical moves? Are we seeing a concerted effort to open up space between the Senior General and his subordinates? Is the United States sending a word of encouragement to those who might want to dispense with Than Shwe?

Speculation, insight or commentary from New Mandala readers is very welcome. And thanks to a regular reader for pointing out Marciel’s thought-provoking comment.

Update: Readers looking for more on Senior General Than Shwe may find this recent report intriguing. It raises the prospect that he has formed a highly-trained, private army drawn, in part, from the ranks of ethnic minority orphans…