Junta's firm grip gives democracy no chance

26 April 2008

By Kyaw Zwa Moe
[Source - Bangkok Post]

After nearly two decades in power, Burma's ruling junta should be showing signs of wear and tear. Indeed, observers are constantly on the lookout for evidence of a split within the ranks of the regime's top leadership.

Not surprisingly, they often find what they are looking for. But rarely, if ever, do these internal strains signal the sort of real weakness that could undermine the junta's hold on power.

Since it seized power in 1988, the current regime has carried out four significant purges, each time emerging stronger and more united.

In each case, the motive for removing certain high-ranking figures from their positions was personal rather than political. At no point has there ever been any major disagreement among the top generals about what direction the country should take.

The first change to take place in the regime's leadership came in April 1992 when ruling military council head Saw Maung was forced to step down, opening the way for current leader Than Shwe to assume the position of head of state.

Senior General Saw Maung wasn't dismissed because he had shown a willingness to hand over power to the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy. Actually, he refused to recognise the results of the 1990 national elections, which had handed the NLD an overwhelming victory.

The real problem was Gen Saw Maung's health. "He was becoming increasingly erratic and his public speeches were incoherent and rambling, covering subjects such as dying tomorrow and sightings of Jesus in Tibet," wrote journalist Bertil Lintner in his book Burma in Revolt. Finally, he had a nervous breakdown and his tenure as Burma's supreme leader came to an abrupt end.

In 1997, several junta members and senior ministers, including Trade and Commerce Minister Lt-Gen Tun Kyi, Hotels and Tourism Minister Lt-Gen Kyaw Ba and Agriculture Minister Lt-Gen Myint Aung were purged. All three had previously been regional commanders notorious for abuse of power in their respective regions of Mandalay Division, Kachin State and Irrawaddy Division. They were removed from their ministerial posts on charges of corruption.

In 2002, Secretary 3 Lt-Gen Win Myint and Minister for Military Affairs Lt-Gen Tin Hla were sacked because "they violated state policy". There was no evidence that political rivalry had played any part in their ouster.

The most interesting and controversial purge happened in 2004 when Khin Nyunt, the prime minister and chief of intelligence, was dismissed and arrested on charges of corruption. Gen Khin Nyunt, who for many years was one of the most influential figures within the junta, is currently under house arrest, with a suspended prison sentence of 44 years.

Some foreign observers regarded Gen Khin Nyunt as a "moderate" military officer who had shown some willingness to move the country towards a political transition. However, Burmese dissidents dubbed him the "Prince of Evil," as the person primarily responsible for the arrest and torture of thousands of political prisoners.

The 2004 purge was due to Senior General Than Shwe's suspicion of the military intelligence apparatus, which had been under Gen Khin Nyunt's control for two decades. Gen Than Shwe ordered the dismantling of the military intelligence services, but Gen Khin Nyunt's political legacy _ the so-called "road map to democracy" _ remained in place even after he was neutralised.

Since last September's monk-led protests, there have been persistent rumours of discontent among field generals who disagreed with the top generals' orders to shoot monks and other peaceful protesters.

However, no evidence of a serious rift within the junta has yet emerged over its handling of the demonstrations.

Instead, the current 11 members of the State Peace and Development Council (the military regime's official name) and its powerful regional commanders seem to be more unified than ever, especially since the Feb 9 announcement of a constitutional referendum slated for May 10.

It is, in fact, very difficult to imagine military officials wanting a radical political shift. They know that it is in their own interests to stick together in order to hold on to their privileges. No high-ranking military leader is going to put the good of the country ahead of his family's well-being.

There may well be a handful of far-sighted military officials who realise that the current situation cannot continue forever. But these individuals are in no position to seriously influence the country's political direction. The only choice before them is to obey and hopefully work their way up the ranks, where they might be able to do some good. But the odds are strongly against it.

Anything is possible, but there is little point in daydreaming that Burma's long overdue revolution could come about through a transformation within the junta.

Unfortunately for the Burmese people, the regime's ability to manage its internal conflicts probably means that it will see no need to respond to external pressures for some time to come.


Kyaw Zwa Moe is managing editor of "TheIrrawaddy" magazine based in Chiang Mai.www.irrawaddy.org


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