YANGON, May 23 (Reuters) - A deal between the United Nations and Myanmar to allow foreign aid workers into the cyclone-hit Irrawaddy delta looks like a rare concession from the junta’s top general — if it proves to be true.
Senior General Than Shwe, who has ruled Myanmar unchallenged for more than 15 years, rarely gives ground to the outside world. But the 75-year-old agreed to the deal after meeting U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon in Naypyidaw, the model capital Than Shwe ordered built in part on the advice of astrologers.
Typically, he gave no hint of his thinking as he shook hands impassively with Ban ahead of the talks to smooth delivery of outside aid to 2.4 million people struggling to survive after the May 2 Cyclone Nargis.
The "old man" of Myanmar’s junta is said by the few who have met him to be largely cold and humourless, although he can put on a friendly face if he wants to.
Dissidents and exiles and many of the former Burma’s 53 million people like to paint him as a paranoid despot driven by a mixture of greed, fear and superstition, but he is also said to be a brilliant strategist.
Cornered by critical world opinion and already hit by modest Western sanctions, the aid deal in the wake of Nargis may be the latest sign of his strategic cunning.
Or perhaps entreaties by Asian neighbours like China have had more of an impact than many thought possible.
Than Shwe’s career started from humble beginnings and in his earlier days, he is said to have lived modestly while showering aides and troops with gifts, a side unseen by cyclone survivors during the early weeks after Nargis.
Born in February 1933, prior to Japan’s invasion of then-Burma during World War Two, he worked as a postal clerk before joining the army at the age of 20.
Apart from a focus on psychological warfare, little is known about his progress through the ranks of the secretive armed forces that seized power in 1962 and which have maintained a stranglehold on power ever since.
Shortly after the coup and under the aegis of then-dictator Ne Win, he was appointed an instructor at the Central Institute of Political Science before eventually becoming commander of the 88th Light Infantry Division in 1980.
The promotion was a springboard to becoming chairman of the regional committee of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) — the core of Ne Win’s single-party system that collapsed during a pro-democracy uprising in 1988.
After a series of internal purges — or "retirement on grounds of ill health", as the generals prefer to call it — he emerged as unchallenged military supremo in 1992, heading a regime fattened by oil, gems and logging profits.
Part of his success in winning power over two main rivals is said by some analysts to be because he proved less threatening — his understated personal style includes monotonous two-hour parade speeches to troops.
Some of his first public words as leader suggested the army would "not hold onto power for long", igniting hopes of a serious bid to reinstall civilian rule and repair the damage done by years of Ne Win’s disastrous "Burmese Road to Socialism".
As is so often the case in Myanmar, the optimists were proven wrong.
Opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has spent most of the time during Than Shwe’s rule in prison or under house arrest, and the economy, the rice bowl of Asia at independence from Britain in 1948, has slid deeper into the mire.
His personal dislike for Suu Kyi is said to be so intense he walked out of a meeting with a foreign ambassador simply because the envoy uttered her name.
Apart from annual Army parades, his one notable public appearance came in the video of his daughter’s wedding in 2006, a copy of which was smuggled out of the country.
In a 10-minute clip, the "old man" frequently rumoured to be at death’s door, walked stiffly at his daughter’s side wearing a starched white shirt and a traditional orange wrap at a ceremony whose lavishness sparked outrage among ordinary people. (Writing by Bangkok newsroom, editing by Ed Cropley and Bill Tarrant)