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A superstitious junta with a taste for secret luxury

By Andrew Buncombe

On 6 November 2005, the Burmese junta began moving its government from the historic capital Rangoon to a town called Naypidaw, deep in the jungle.

The operation began at 6.37am – a time recommended by an astrologer employed by the senior general Than Shwe.

Now word has it that the regime is relocating at least part of its operation to the one-time British colonial summer capital at Maymyo because General Shwe's wife does not like the jungle location, plagued as it is by water shortages, snakes and malaria. "No one likes it up there," said a Western diplomat based in Rangoon. "Naypidaw has malaria and snakes and it is just scrub."

This is just a snapshot of the way that the repressive regime of Burma operates: strangely, secretly and with little thought for its citizens. The current military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has ruled Burma since 1988, when it brutally crushed a widespread democracy movement, killing thousands of people.

General Than Shwe, 73, a former postal clerk, has been chairman of the SPDC and acted as head of state since 1992. He was initially considered relatively moderate, but in recent years he has become increasingly hardline – refusing any sort of negotiation with the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and reportedly acting against former prime minister Khin Nyunt, who was arrested after proposing dialogue.

The general prefers to keep a low profile. Burmese people had an insight into his family, however, when video footage from his daughter's elaborate wedding was put on the internet, outraging many with its lavishness. The gifts handed to the general's daughter and her husband reportedly were worth more than $50m.

One of General Shwe's closest allies is Lt-Gen Soe Win, who became Prime Minister in 2004. He is also said to be a hardliner and is opposed to any negotiations with the NLD. Indeed, campaigners believe he was centrally involved in the notorious Depayin massacre – an attack in May 2003 on Ms San Suu Kyi's convoy in which up to 100 of her supporters were killed. He also commanded an infantry unit involved in the 1988 slaughter of demonstrators. This year he travelled twice to Singapore, reportedly for treatment of leukaemia, and in the spring the regime announced that he had been temporarily replaced.

General Maung Aye is vice- chairman of the SPDC and said to be the second most powerful man in the country. A career soldier and reportedly a heavy drinker, with alleged links to drug-runners in the "Golden Triangle" region, General Aye joined the regime in 1993 and is also said to be in poor health. As with many things about this regime, however, that is also unconfirmed.

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