Are the generals still indifferent?

14 May 2008

[Source - Bangkok Post]

Whenever Burma faces a political or humanitarian crisis, Burmese and foreign observers monitor the reclusive military leaders from a distance, trying to gauge their reactions, guessing what shapes their decisions and where possible conflicts within the leadership lie. The question Burma watchers are quietly asking this time is: has the cyclone managed to instil fear in strongman Senior General Than Shwe and his hard-core military cronies? Are they trembling or are they standing firm?

It is easy to imagine the pampered generals running from the storm, boarding themselves in their collective bunker and curling up in terror as the cyclone whipped through the southwest of the country. In the wake of the cyclone, the ordinary people of Burma are braving the elements and starting to put their lives back together. Meanwhile, the cowering junta has been oblivious to the calls to help survivors and allow aid into the affected areas.

Despite the junta's long history of perfidy and brutality, many observers were taken aback by the regime's refusal to allow international aid and foreign aid workers to tend to the cyclone victims in and around the Irrawaddy delta.

Then, over the last week, cracks of dissent within the leadership were detected. Gen Than Shwe and his deputy Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye reportedly have been at loggerheads since troops opened fire on Buddhist monks and activists on the streets last September.

Now rumours have surfaced that Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein has drawn the ire of the top general for showing a soft side after witnessing the tragedy first-hand while overseeing the delivery of aid to cyclone victims from a helicopter. Apparently distressed by what he saw, Gen Thein Sein urged his boss to permit international aid into the area as quickly as possible.

Reportedly, Gen Thein Sein filed a situation report and was immediately stonewalled. At an emergency meeting in Naypyidaw, Gen Than Shwe is said to have told council members that the country's armed forces could handle the humanitarian crisis and that he would rather concentrate on the referendum.

Gen Thein Sein backed off and returned quietly to Rangoon to oversee the relief effort, which was already falling apart _ ill-prepared, ill-equipped and mismanaged. To his and everyone else's frustration, the doors to large-scale international aid remained closed.

The prime minister reportedly began suffering from stress and told his subordinates that he was looking forward to retiring soon.

This time around, sources in Rangoon say Gen Than Shwe and Gen Maung Aye are hanging tight together. They both were seen on TV at polling stations casting their votes last Saturday.

With Gen Than Shwe determined to focus on the national referendum, calls from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to postpone the referendum, and pleas from the international community to allow aid into the delta, fell on deaf ears.

Then, a rumour started circulating among dissidents in exile that Gen Thura Shwe Mann, who is being groomed to take over the armed forces, supports the line of Gen Thein Sein, the prime minister.

Sources say Gen Shwe Mann wanted aid flown in immediately. However, he was apparently unwilling to confront the commander-in-chief, Gen Than Shwe.

Gen Shwe Mann may be acting out of personal concerns. Two of his sons run Ayer Shwe Wah Company, selling fertiliser to farmers in the Irrawaddy delta. They also own a rice mill. Among the Burmese businesses on the United States' sanctions list, the Ayer Shwe Wah Co has approximately 30,000 acres of rice fields in the Irrawaddy delta and is a leading exporter of rice.

Reports from Naypyidaw suggest that Gen Than Shwe doesn't want to hear about the death toll and missing persons in the delta. Some senior officials in the capital have let it leak that Gen Than Shwe's subordinates are afraid to brief him on the horrific figures.

It is a sad irony that it has taken a disaster of such proportions to unmask the true depth of the inhumanity and darkness that resides within the brutal strongman Gen Than Shwe. Perhaps the military leaders closest to him will look into his heart of darkness and see the truth for themselves.

Aung Zaw is Editor of the Irrawaddy magazine covering Burma and Southeast Asia.


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