U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused the military leaders of Burma of “criminal neglect” on Sunday for their reluctance to accept international aid after Cyclone Nargis. Reports on the comments by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, and Reuters all mentioned the “junta” without actually naming its members. Who is in the Burmese military junta, anyway?
To the best of our knowledge, 11 generals. The inner workings of the junta, or ruling military council, are largely unknown, even among experts. But we do know that in a country with well over 100 different ethnic groups, the junta—officially known as the State Peace and Development Council—is made up entirely of Burman Buddhists serving as generals in the Tatmadaw, or armed forces. A roster of generals recently compiled by exile magazine Irrawaddy lists 11 senior members, although as recently as last year, the council numbered 12, and it had 19 members when it changed its name from the State Law and Order Restoration Council in 1997.
Not all junta members are equal, however: The three top figures in the SPDC are its chairman Than Shwe; his deputy, Maung Aye; and joint chief of staff Thura Shwe Mann. Than Shwe has been the top figure in the junta since 1992, when he replaced Saw Maung—the leader of a military coup four years earlier, who had begun describing himself as the reincarnation of an 11th-century king. But as the chairman reaches his mid-70s and has fallen into ill-health, his behavior has also been depicted as increasingly bizarre. In 2006, he abruptly moved the country’s capital from Burma’s largest city, Rangoon, to the remote town of Naypyidaw—reportedly on the advice of his astrologer.
Little is known about internal SPDC politics, but veteran Burma-watchers say that one of the more important dividing lines within the junta separates generals who were educated in the nation’s top military schools and those who rose through the ranks. Than Shwe falls into the latter category—he began his career as a postal worker before embarking on a military career that eventually took him to the top of the army’s psychological warfare unit. Vice-chair Maung Aye, on the other hand, was in the first class of the elite Defense Services Academy. Tensions between the two leaders reportedly came to a head last fall, when the so-called “Saffron Revolution” led by thousands of Buddhist monks called the junta’s legitimacy into question. As in earlier crackdowns of Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy supporters, Than Shwe is thought to have favored of a more hard-line approach than his deputy, who allegedly opposed the decision to shoot at the monks. The rift was so deep that some dispatches out of Burma suggested a coup against Than Shwe was imminent.
Part of the reason so much mystery surrounds the junta is that its members largely stay out of the public eye. Burma’s interactions with the outside world—like its controversial membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—are mostly carried out by lower-ranking Cabinet ministers who serve at the pleasure of the junta. (Than Shwe’s meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon a couple of weeks ago was an exception.) Even within the country, SPDC members often keep a low profile, and their isolation has been blamed for the slow response to Cyclone Nargis. In fact, among the best glimpses of the junta is a leaked YouTube video of the wedding of Than Shwe’s daughter to an army major—an event at which the couple reportedly received more than $50 million in gifts.
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Explainer thanks Mary Callahan of the University of Washington, Josef Silverstein, and David Steinberg of Georgetown University.