So Burma was a British colony, right? Then in the 1960's, shortly after becoming independent the new government was overthrown by this Marxist lunatic named General Ne Win. He was the sort of Robert Mugabe of his time, destroying one of the richest economies of the region with poorly conceived Communist-style reforms. He was also famously eccentric and believed in magic spells and UFOs and that lot. But I'm sure you've never heard of him because he wasn't "US-backed" and for some reason those dictators have sort of fallen through the cracks of the popular imagination, as I noted when Mengistu Haile Mariam was found guilty of genocide earlier this year.
But yeah, General Ne stepped down in 1981 and his military junta reshuffled itself, bringing to power the generation of generals who are in charge today. General Than Shwe became the head of state, or as they call the office in Burma, "Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council." His new government undid a lot of Ne's Marxist reforms, and renamed the country from "the Socialist Republic of Burma" to "the Union of Myanmar," but kept oppression levels just as high.
In 1990, under heavy international pressure, his junta held its first-ever democratic election, to chose a new parliament and prime minister. Aung San Suu Kyi, the elegant daughter of Burma's somewhat overrated independence hero, was elected along with her National League for Democracy party. But of course the junta was having none of this; they had only done the stupid election in the first place because they naturally assumed that their party, which I assume was called the National League for Killing You Bastards While We Take Your Money, would win a landslide. So the election was invalidated and Ms. San Suu Kyi became the big international superstar she is today.
The guy who died was named Soe Win, a longtime member of the junta who was promoted to the office of Prime Minister in 2004, after the old PM was fired and jailed for being too moderate. The key sticking point was the matter of negotiation with Ms. San Suu Kyi. The moderate faction of the junta favors talks while the hardline faction, which includes General Shwe, does not.
Prime Minister Win suffered from some mysterious disease that was probably leukemia, and was hospitalized a few months ago. So he basically missed his chance to be part of the big crackdown-on-protesting-monks fiesta that has dominated international headlines.
His death in a Singapore hospital this week was not unexpected. It's interesting though, because his absence probably has made it a bit easier for the junta to compromise. General Shwe now says he will in fact meet with Ms. San Suu Kyi. He probably hopes to just shut her up for a few years, but that's still something.