In a country like Burma where free speech and political opinions are so muzzled, it’s no surprise people love gossip and scandal. Dozens of popular magazines and Web sites are dedicated to the fashions, flings and romances of pop stars and actresses.
But one subject is echoing around the teashops and offices of Rangoon these days—the numerous tales of Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s favorite grandson, Nay Shwe Thway Aung, nicknamed “Pho La Pyae,” and his public tantrums and shady dealings.
The junta chief’s grandson is renowned in the former capital as a spoilt brat who aspires to be a gangster and a playboy. Aged 18 and a student of Yangon [Rangoon] Technological University, Nay Shwe Thway Aung is brash, loud and outrageously snobbish. Despite his skinny build and computer geek appearance, he has nursed ambitions of being a football player and was romantically linked to two well-known Burmese models.
Several months ago, persistent but unconfirmed rumors suggested that Nay Shwe Thway Aung, an alleged drug abuser, and his friends kidnapped Wut Hmone Shwe Yee, a famous model and actress, and held her in his house for several days. Now, rumors are circulating that a café in Rangoon named “Seven Corners” has been closed down because of a conflict between Nay Shwe Thway Aung and its owners. It is alleged that Than Shwe’s grandson and his friends smashed up the café, then he ordered a military officer to close down the business.
Speculation as to whether Nay Shwe Thway Aung’s outburst was due to a business conflict or a personal dispute has deepened because the owners of the Seven Corners Café turn out to be Capt Naing Lin Oo, who is the son of Junta Secretary 1 Gen Tin Aung Myint Oo; and Aung Soe Tha, the son of Minister of National Planning and Economic Development Soe Tha.
During the alleged assault in the café, Nay Shwe Thway Aung is alleged to have shouted at the owners: “It’s a disgrace that sons of government ministers are doing business in a state-owned building,” referring to the café’s location within university grounds.
The remark may have been made in haste or in sarcastic jest; for it is well-known to Rangoon residents that, a few months ago, Nay Shwe Thway Aung bought a plot within the compound of the University of Yangon on Inya Road, which he is presently converting into a discotheque.
According to local bloggers, Than Shwe’s grandchild’s wrath was allegedly exacerbated when Tin Aung Myint Oo refused to grant an import license to an import-export company that he is involved with.
The first of two main questions currently being asked around the teashops in the city is: “Does this grievance between Than Shwe’s grandson and the sons of two leading regime ministers represent a deeper divide within the junta hierarchy?”
It is no secret that almost every family member of Burma’s ruling generals is awarded lucrative business concessions. For example, one of Than Shwe’s sons, Tun Naing Shwe, is the director of J-Donuts, the Burmese version of US franchise Dunkin’ Donuts.
“Conflicts within the families of the ruling generals have been going on for years,” said a source close to the military elite circle. “Now, the senior-general’s grandson is in the middle of it.”
“The children of the Burmese generals are raised to believe they are VIPs,” a journalist in Rangoon said. “They consider themselves to be ‘lions,’ in that they do not want to share their cave with anyone else.”
According to sources in Rangoon, a gang of unruly teenagers calling themselves “sin zway” (“Elephant Tusk”) has recently formed in the city. Than Shwe’s grandson is alleged to be involved in the gang.
When people in Burma gossip about Than Shwe’s grandson, they are invariable drawn to comparisons with the notorious grandsons of late dictator Ne Win—Kyaw Ne Win and Zwe Ne Win—who reportedly founded an armed gang they called “Scorpion” that was allegedly involved in crime, murder, violence, drugs and other mafia-style activities during the 1990s and early 2000s.
In a famous incident, Scorpion gang members on motorbikes pulled up to junta No 2 Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye in a main street in Rangoon, and made gunfire gestures with their hands. Later, Maung Aye ordered a ban on motorcycles in the city, except for official use. That ban still stands to this day.
When Ne Win’s family were arrested for plotting a coup d’état in 2002, Ne Win’s son-in-law and three grandsons were sentenced to death for treason. They still languish in prison.
The second question being whispered around the teashops today is: “Will history repeat itself?”