General Than Shwe, right, greets guests at the 64th anniversary of Union Day Saturday on Feb. 12, 2011, in Naypyitaw, Burma

General Than Shwe of Burma, the dour and taciturn leader of one of the world’s most repressive military regimes, isn’t known for his feminine side. His contempt for pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is rooted in part, most Burma analysts say, to the fact that she is a woman.

And so many Burmese were baffled earlier this month when Than Shwe and other top generals, appearing at a nationally televised ceremony, shed their dress uniforms for the Burmese equivalent of women’s dresses. “I don’t understand why the generals were wearing women’s [sarongs] but they looked very weird,” said a Rangoon mechanic, Myint Oo. Others put a more sinister spin on the generals’ sartorial selection. “It’s yadaya,” said a Rangoon-based astrologer who asked not to be named, referring to Burma’s particular brand of black magic. (See pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi.)

Burma has had three rulers during the past half-century and all have been devotees of yadaya. Gen. Ne Win, who ruled from 1962 to 1988 reportedly shot his own reflection in a mirror, on the advice of a fortune teller, to foil a foretold assassination attempt. His obsession with numerology led him to demonetize all bank notes in 1987 so new notes could be printed — all divisible by his lucky number nine. The move wiped out the savings of most Burmese and contributed to an uprising one year later. His successor, Gen. Saw Muang, was replaced after erratic behavior that included a rambling, semi-coherent nationally televised speech brimming with references to magic and astrology. The man who replaced him, Than Shwe, is reported to have seven personal astrologers, several of whom are tasked with focusing solely on Aung San Suu Kyi, according to his biographer Ben Rogers.

Astrology, superstition and black magic are common in Southeast Asia, and Burma’s rulers have rarely made any bones about their beliefs. But, in what appears to be an attempt to tamp down on all the talk over Than Shwe’s television appearance, state-controlled media outlets have now denied access to Internet pages showing him attending the Feb. 12 ceremony for the national holiday Union Day. “I suspect that the Union day web page is being blocked precisely because there is speculation over whether Than Shwe is performing yadaya,” says Ingrid Jordt, an anthropologist and specialist on Burma at the University of Wisconsin.

According to Wai Moe, a journalist with the Irrawaddy, an online magazine run by Burmese exiles, two interpretations of the the general sporting a ladies’ sarong have gained the most currency. The first is that astrologers have predicted a woman will rule Burma, and so by donning women’s clothes, Than Shwe and the other generals are attempting to fulfill the prophecy through some superstitious sleight of hand. The second, fuzzier interpretation, is that by dressing in women’s clothing, the generals are somehow trying to neutralize Suu Kyi’s power. After Than Shwe brutally suppressed an uprising led by Burmese monks in 2007, anti-regime activists launched a campaign asking people to send women’s underwear to the leader because they said the generals believe that contact with women’s underwear will sap their power. By wearing sarongs, they may believe they are cancelling out Suu Kyi’s ability to sap what they view as the virile male power that underpins their leadership. (See TIME’s top 10 elderly leaders.)

If this train of thought doesn’t appear to follow logic, it is, after all, superstition. And these stories have circulated in Burma before, particularly about former intelligence chief Gen. Khin Nyunt, who was also said to have dressed as a woman to counter the power of Suu Kyi. Though these theories appear to be widely believed in Burma, the nation’s rulers almost never give interviews, so they remain unconfirmed.

What isn’t hard to confirm is that less than four months after releasing Suu Kyi from her latest term of house arrest, the regime’s attitude towards the Nobel Peace Prize winner is once again hardening. After Suu Kyi recently reconfirmed her support for economic sanctions against the regime, a state-run newspaper ominously warned last week that she and her followers would meet a “tragic end.” She and her supporters have little reason to think they’re bluffing: In 2003, a government-organized mob attacked Suu Kyi and her followers in northern Burma, killing dozens.

Burma held elections in November 2010 to try and put a democratic face on a country controlled by its military. But Than Shwe’s notions of leadership are known to be based more on divine rule than democracy, and Jordt says his choice of dress that day may instead have to do with the fact that the patterns of some women’s sarongs are based on patterns worn by Burma’s royalty more than a century ago. “Than Shwe is simply trying to dress in the style of bygone kings. Than Shwe’s evocation of royal politics asserts a very Burmese and Buddhist idea about what the terms of political legitimacy are,” Jordt says. She added that, for some time now, Than Shwe has required that royal courtly language be used in reference to him and his wife, Kyaing Kyaing. (Read more about superstition and politics in Burma.)

If the other generals who joined their boss that day have any reservations about wearing women’s sarongs, they aren’t saying, lest they end up a victim of one of Than Shwe’s periodic purges, as happened to former intelligence chief Gen. Khin Nyunt in 2004. Whether he’s a reincarnated Burmese king, or just another old drag queen, Than Shwe’s subordinates know it’s never wise to cross Burma’s cross-dressing senior general.

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