Next in our series of "Public Officials Who Seemingly Don't Mind Acting Like Loons," the news comes in that General Than Shwe of Myanmar has been appearing at official functions dressed in women's clothes.
Shwe, who is the leader of the military junta that runs Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was shown on a nationally-televised film of a ceremony, dressed in a sarong. So were a few of his other generals. This last bit doesn't surprise me. Than Shwe is not someone to trifle with. He is only slightly less of a homicidal maniac than the Roman emperor Caligula, who had his horse elected to the Senate and who once burst out laughing at a dinner, stating that it had just occurred to him that he could have all of the dinner guests killed and no one could do anything about it. Than Shwe is one of those people who, if they tell you that it's now the fashion to walk around wearing nothing but glow-in-the-dark body paint, you should respond by asking him, "Which color paint do you think would be most flattering to my eyes, sir?"
But as for Shwe himself, it's a little peculiar. Note that I have nothing intrinsically against dressing like a woman, if that's what floats your boat. Me, I'm perfectly happy with a shirt and trousers, but if you're a male and prefer a skirt and blouse, knock yourself out. Shwe, on the other hand, is known to place a high value on masculinity and virility. The fact that he has appeared in public in female clothing is certainly pretty weird.
The story, however, gets weirder.
In Myanmar, many people, including the leaders and the well-educated, are highly superstitious. There is a widespread belief in yadaya, which is their version of astrology and fortunetelling. A former leader, General Ne Win, once shot his own reflection in a mirror because he thought it would foil an assassination attempt. (As he died in 2002 of natural causes in the age of 91, I think we have a complete vindication of the validity of yadaya, don't you?) There is now a rumor going around that Than Shwe hasn't suddenly gotten in touch with his feminine side -- many think he's practicing yadaya.
Evidently, several years ago an astrologer predicted that one day, a woman would rule Myanmar. Most think the astrologer was referring to Aung San Suu Kyi, who was only recently released after 21 years of being under house arrest. Suu Kyi, who is an outspoken advocate of democracy and whose activities won her the Nobel Peace Prize, is Than Shwe's worst nightmare. His hatred of her is universally known, and the international pressure to release her cast his regime in the worst possible light. So the last thing Than Shwe and his cronies want is everyone going around believing that an astrological prediction is going to ultimately bring down his government, and put Suu Kyi in his place.
A lot of Burmese think that Than Shwe's donning of fabulous fashion isn't because he's a closet transvestite -- it's because he thinks that by dressing like a woman, he'll foil the prophecy and stay in power. So he's not simply a loon; his actions have their own strange, byzantine logic.
It's always a little risky to make fun of strange beliefs in other countries. Americans so often come across as boors, going elsewhere in the world and demanding to have properly cooked hamburgers and beer that's served cold and cars that drive on the right side of the road. (And that's just when we've gone to England.) So it's all too easy to come across sounding like the American way of doing things, and American beliefs and customs, are the only right way.
But here, I hope I can state "Than Shwe is a superstitious nutjob" and not fear contradiction, nor accusations of racism or Americo-centrism. And as Aung San Suu Kyi is one of my heroes, I can't help but hope that some day very soon, he will find out that it takes more than wearing women's clothes to stop rationality and virtue from winning in the end.