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In the Dark

The world waits to see whether a top leadership change will affect democracy and reconciliation.

By Bertil Lintner/CHIANG MAI

GEN. MAUNG AYE appears to be the big winner from Burma's recent leadership changes, but analysts cannot agree on whether or not the army chief's victory over long-time rival Gen. Khin Nyunt will lead to policy changes. Some believe Khin Nyunt's tentative steps toward democracy and national reconciliation will be now be abandoned, while others think that Maung Aye could belie his "hardliner" tag and take these processes further. Still others reckon that the power struggle is about economics and personality rather than ideology, and that when the dust settles there will be very little real change.

The military government in Rangoon announced on October 19 that military-intelligence chief Khin Nyunt had been removed as prime minister and "permitted to retire for health reasons." The New Light of Myanmar newspaper on October 25 quoted senior junta member Gen. Thura Shwe Mann as saying Khin Nyunt, who is reportedly under house arrest, was guilty of insubordination and involvement in "bribery and corrupt practices." That raises the prospect of his trial.

Khin Nyunt's once powerful intelligence apparatus, which used to function like a state within a state, has been brought under tighter military control and has lost its virtual autonomy. Hundreds of intelligence officers are also reported to have been arrested.

As prime minister, Khin Nyunt was ostensibly in charge of the democratic process and had been pushing a seven-point road map to democracy, including forging a new constitution and eventually holding a general election. He was, as a result, seen by many overseas as a relative moderate compared to "hardliners" Maung Aye and junta chief Gen. Than Shwe. Khin Nyunt is also credited with forging peace deals between the government and most of the country's ethnic-minority insurgents.

Khin Nyunt's successor, Lt.-Gen. Soe Win, is also tarred overseas as a hardliner. In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher claimed on October 21 that Soe Win was "directly involved in the decision to carry out the brutal attack on [democracy leader] Aung San Suu Kyi on May 30, 2003," in which up to 70 people are said to have died and which led to Suu Kyi's current house arrest.

But with Khin Nyunt out of the way, these tags might not be so useful or relevant. In public, the secretive government has vowed to continue pushing for democracy and national reconciliation. The analysts don't know whether to believe this or not.

Some diplomats, for instance, say that Maung Aye was unhappy at the deals struck with ethnic minorities as they have created large, virtually autonomous regions in Burma's sensitive periphery. They fear he might seek to change them. Yet, according to an intelligence official in northern Thailand, soon after Khin Nyunt's removal the army head sent one of his top officers, Lt.-Gen. Thein Sein, to the northern Burmese town of Lashio to assure the United Wa State Army that their ceasefire agreement with the government would be honoured. The UWSA is the largest ethnic-minority armed force to sign a peace deal with the junta.

The analysts differ, too, over how the leadership changes will affect the democratic process. Many, including several regional and international media organizations, believe that a moderate voice has been removed from the Burmese leadership and that will mean a step backward for democracy.

Others speculate that, with his rival out of the way, Maung Aye will take on Khin Nyunt's mantle and reopen a dialogue with Suu Kyi. "Maung Aye needs to restore Burma's standing in the international community--and he can, therefore, take some unexpected steps," says a Western intelligence officer, who also points out that the general has the clout to do so as "he has the army behind him."

Others are convinced that there will be no policy changes and they say the military brass bust-up was never a fight between hardliners and pragmatists. "The main reason why the spook chief and the army commander dislike each other with some intensity is that they distrusted each other. Khin Nyunt's most important responsibility was compiling dossiers of the activities of other members of the ruling circle," says Bruce Hawke, a Thailand-based Burma watcher.

Khin Nyunt and his intelligence network also controlled access to large amounts of money from cross-border trade and domestic businesses at a time when the government faces trade and aid embargoes with much of the world. This is also seen as a source of friction, and the military has taken over scores of businesses controlled by Khin Nyunt and his associates.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, November 04, 2004

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