Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Burma stonewall

By Larry Jagan

As the United Nations envoy heads for Burma on Thursday, it is clear that the military regime has no intention of introducing democratic reform. However, the failing health of Senior General Than Shwe may force others to move.

The UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari is due to arrive in Burma today on his latest mission to try to encourage the military government to involve Aung San Suu Kyi in the country's political future.

But Burma's top general Than Shwe has no intentions of including Aung San Suu Kyi in his plans for political change. In fact, Mr Gambari is unlikely to even meet the senior general.

"Mr Gambari is only being allowed in to endorse the 'road map' [the new constitution, referendum and elections] and nothing else," according to the Burmese academic Win Min, who is based at Chiang Mai University.

The Chinese urged Mr Gambari to accept the road map as it is when he visited Beijing last month, according to a UN insider.

"The road map has now become Than Shwe's main strategic tool to hold on to power," Win Min added.

"It's a pre-emptive strike against the UN envoy, Ibrahim Gambari and the international community as well as a death blow to Maung Aye's aspirations to be number one."

The announcement last month that the new constitution was drafted and there was a timetable for the referendum and elections are all part of the senior general's game plan to keep a firm grip on power and preserve his family's interests in the future.

It was also a clear message to his subordinates that he intends to keep the reins of power as the country moves from military to civilian government.

It came after months of total inertia within the military hierarchy, as Than Shwe was primarily preoccupied with sidelining his deputy, Maung Aye.

The number two in the military hierarchy woke to hear the announcement on the radio and was not informed beforehand, according to reliable sources in the capital Naypidaw.

This is a clear sign that a major rift exists between the top two generals.

Mr Gambari, Than Shwe hopes, will provide the final seal of approval on that part of the strategy and allow him to turn his attention to other pressing internal matters - the growing frustration within the army over the lack of promotions and career development, and the loud clamouring from the country's businessmen for economic change.

"The top generals have not met [for the quarterly meeting] for more than nine months, since before the August and September protests, so during that time, apart from the appointment of three regional commanders, there have been no promotions," said Win Min.

"The impact of this will certainly add to the growing frustration amongst some of the commanders who should have already been promoted," he said.

While sorting out these promotions may be the first order of the day, it is by no means easy for the senior general, as he realises that most of the top ranking generals now actually owe their personal allegiance to his two chief subordinates, General Maung Aye and General Thura Shwe Mann, and not him. This is beginning to trouble him as he fears that his immediate subordinates may be planning a putsch against him.

"For the past twelve months, Than Shwe has been preoccupied with sidelining Maung Aye," a senior military source told the Asia Times.

"He has in effect promoted the army commander, Thura Shwe Mann, over Maung Aye," he said.

The turning point came more than nine months ago, when Maung Aye was replaced as head of the junta's powerful Trade Council, before the beginning of the August unrest.

He was also effectively replaced as military chief during the protests, when Thura Shwe Mann took charge of security arrangements during the demonstrations and started to chair the National Security Council meetings on Than Shwe's orders.

For more than a year now there has been almost total inertia in the Burmese capital as the senior general is pre-occupied with his own personal concerns, his power and ensuring the dominant position of his family in the future.

Than Shwe has an elaborate game plan, but he is constantly re-examining all the options and revising his various scenarios, according to Burmese government sources.

"Than Shwe continues to follow his trusted approach - divide and rule," said Win Min. "He did this successfully before, preserving his position by pitting Maung Aye against the then military intelligence chief, Khin Nyunt."

But this time Than Shwe's divide-and-rule policy is becoming much more intricate.

"While Thura Shwe Mann has been elevated to the key position below him, Than Shwe has developed a chess board of counterbalancing influences, both inside the cabinet and the military hierarchy, to maintain an equilibrium that keeps Thura Shwe Mann in check and Maung Aye sidelined," a senior military source said.

But Than Shwe's position is becoming increasingly perilous, despite his carefully planned schemes, according to many specialists on Burma's military.

"We cannot rule out the possibility of a mutiny or purges within the army," said the independent Burmese analyst Aung Naing Oo, based in Chiang Mai.

"Than Shwe is standing in the way of change, but so far no one has the guts to tell him he is the main obstacle," he said. "But if the situation gets worse, especially the economy, the possibility of a palace coup to oust Than Shwe is more likely," he concluded.

For the time being, at least, there are no signs that the factions and divisions within the army will lead to a move to get rid of Than Shwe in the immediate future.

But the senior general's failing health may in the end force the others to make their move.

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