Colourless, uncharismatic and relatively uneducated Than Shwe rose through the ranks by simply obeying orders and showing loyalty. Indeed, his apparent lack of flair, initiative and intellect were precisely the qualities the army rewarded. He was not perceived by his superiors as a threat – and was rewarded accordingly. Far from showing courage or prowess on the battlefield, he led his troops into numerous defeats at the hands of the Communists – but that did not appear to have been a barrier to promotion.

– Extracted from Benedict Rogers, “Burma’s ruler: brutal, reclusive – and a skilled manipulator”, The Independent, 3 August 2009.

Rogers is currently writing a much more substantial study of Than Shwe, his life and times. It promises to be a very interesting read. The one word in this extract that particularly sounds an alarm for me is “simply”: right there in the first sentence.

I wonder if, in fact, there was nothing simple about Than Shwe’s capacity to obey orders and show loyalty? I am very happy to be proven wrong. Surely he was manipulating his allies and enemies from very early on…in the 1970s, the 1960s, the 1950s?

No doubt Rogers’ full biography will include details on all of this, and much, much more. If somebody could do a Paul Handley on Than Shwe then that would be very special indeed.