Dictator in drag


Myanmar leader senior general Than Shwe (center) offers prayers in India on July 25, 2010.



Burma's junta commanders are dressing in women's clothing at state functions, according to The Irrawaddy, a newsmagazine run by Burmese exiles.

Since leaders of one of the most isolated and oppressive regimes don't exactly hold public Q&A sessions, the people of Burma are left to speculate why.

On Feb. 12, the Irrawaddy reports, Senior Gen. Than Shwe and four other top leaders showed up a state function in "colorful sarongs worn by women at weddings and formal occasions." (Men wear wrap-around sarongs also, but the Burmese can easily spot which styles are meant for men or women.)

Is the junta exploring its tender side? Probably not. Burma watchers have grown to associate any off-kilter behavior with the generals' obsession with superstition. A Burmese journalist quoted by the Irrawaddy notes that many soothsayers predict a woman will someday lead Burma.

That almost happened 21 years ago when democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's party swept a general election. The junta voided the vote and locked up Suu Kyi (though she was recently freed).

The junta's reliance on superstition is absurd, but it's occasionally cruel as well. A former dictator famously insisted on switching Burma's currency to bills divisible by nine. Families who'd stockpiled the old bills lost their fortunes overnight.

That's the best-known example. Fewer people are aware that major decisions are often vetted by a disabled female fortune teller who looks like E.T.

This isn't the first time senior Burmese leaders have slipped into female sarongs. Cabinet members, the Irrawaddy reports, recently wore women's sarongs to meet the premier of Laos recently.

What I don't get is this: if the spirits are powerful enough to proclaim that a woman shall lead Burma, wouldn't they be prescient enough to see that these leaders are just old men in pastel skirts?