In disgust for the junta, Burmese are united

30 October 2007

Oct 29 2007

Yangon, Myanmar : By Burmese standards, life has been good for the three friends, buddies from the Defense Services Academy, the alma mater of many of the generals who ordered the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Myanmar last month. Two of them own factories; the third works for an airline, a coveted job in this country.

Still, when their late-afternoon chat in a Yangon office turned to Senior General Than Shwe, these veterans in their 50s could hardly conceal their loathing.

"When I was an army officer, my soldiers and I went out every day to fight Communists," said one of the men, who runs a factory in southern Myanmar. "What do they do now? They bring soldiers from the border, feed them with food, drugs and rum, and they run them like dogs, fighting their own people."

During a recent trip to Myanmar, it was hard to find anyone who liked the junta. Burmese journalists detested the government censors, who read their articles days or even weeks before they were allowed to be published. Farmers and taxi drivers alike commonly volunteered: "Our government no good!" Or, when asked their opinions, said with an uneasy face: "Better not to say."

But some of the harshest criticism came from relatively affluent people like the three veterans - an indication of how the junta has alienated not only the people its policies have condemned to poverty, but also some of Myanmar's better-off.

"My friends, their relatives, their sons and daughters - they all don't like the government," said the owner of the factory in the south.

"Because of our background, we know how the generals' minds work. They seize power and crush anyone who comes in their way. They don't care about the economy. They don't care about the people. They only know their military ways."

The three veterans left active service around 1988, when disillusion with the government's "Burmese way to socialism" culminated in a mass uprising that the government suppressed with bloodshed.

Since then, working in the private sector, they say they have seen how what some have called the "Burmese way to capitalism," led by Than Shwe's junta, has merely stuffed the pockets of ruling generals and businessmen close to them, who monopolize lucrative gas and timber deals while leaving most of the rest of the population mired in poverty.

"The junta will never change unless the generals and their families are hurt," said one of the veterans, who owns a factory in Yangon.

None of the three saw a solution. One said he would "wait out" the geriatric junta. Another, like many people in Yangon, hoped for an unlikely U.S. invasion.

"When American troops attacked Saddam Hussein in 2003, a lot of Burmese wished that American military planes would attack their country too," said another relatively well-off resident, the owner of a machine tool shop.

"This time, too, a lot of Burmese wish that the United States would launch a surgical strike at Naypyidaw," he said, referring to the isolated jungle capital the junta built in 2005, whose name means "abode of kings."

"This shows how desperate people are," said the shop owner, who said he himself would oppose such an attack. "They will welcome any change."

"Our country is turning into a crazy kingdom," said a young woman living in Yangon, a relative of a former government minister. "The generals think they are kings. I have relatives who are one-star or two-star generals. Even they don't like the senior generals."

Like an unpopular monarch, Than Shwe has become the subject of many unconfirmed rumors in Yangon. According to one such story, the senior general banned motorbikes in the city - where people who can afford the fare are packed into overcrowded buses - because he feared drive-by assassins.

The pervasive fear and hatred of the junta are evident to outsiders. "My driver once had a traffic accident with a general's car. It was clearly the general's driver's fault," said a foreign businessman in Yangon. "But my driver was so scared he pleaded to me to pay for the damage to the general's car and let him reimburse me from his salaries - even if it would cost years of his wages."

Decades of rule have left the military as Myanmar's only real elite. The Defense Services Academy, nestled in a remote alpine resort town called Pyin U Lwin, is the largest and best-funded institution of higher education in Myanmar, accepting thousands of cadets a year. With no strong alternative political force, the only viable chance for reform may come from young officers, said a foreign diplomat.

Indeed, in Yangon and other cities, there are signs of a new generation of affluent people enjoying contact with the outside world, and some people hope that young officers will share that outlook. These younger urbanites use Yahoo and Google e-mail accounts, despite the government's ban on access to those Web sites. They watch CNN and BBC on $40-a-month satellite TV service, despite the junta's frequent warnings to the population not to let foreign news "poison" their minds.

For the time being, however, the three veterans see little chance of a schism developing within the military.

Than Shwe, they said, buys his generals' allegiance but also breeds suspicion among them, sometimes playing generals from Defense Services Academy against those from the rival Office Training School when allocating posts.

Such factionalism was demonstrated in 2004, when Than Shwe and his cohorts ousted Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, then the regime's No. 3 figure, and disbanded entire military intelligence squads they suspected were loyal to him. (One consequence is that the regime is still rebuilding its secret police network, and people in Myanmar are actually less fearful of spies than they once were.)

But ultimately, the veterans and others say, the military is bound together by the fear of bloody retaliation should the regime be toppled.

"Than Shwe keeps not only the people but also the military in fear," one of the veterans said.