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Myanmar payback time

Heavy sentences handed down after purge of hundreds of military intelligence officers. Bertil Lintner reports

By Bertil Lintner JDW Special Correspondent, Bangkok

Criminal trials involving hundreds of military intelligence (MI) officers purged last October have begun in Myanmar, with stiff sentences handed down for followers of former prime minister and intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt.

The purge is the most sweeping since 1983, when then intelligence chief Brigadier General Tin Oo was ousted along with his followers. Gen Khin Nyunt then became head of MI and built up the organisation to become the state's most powerful institution.

Domestic intelligence was prioritised in Myanmar following widespread pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 which almost toppled the regime. By 1991, the number of intelligence companies throughout the country had been bolstered to 23, compared with 17 in 1989 and perhaps as few as 10-12 before 1988.

The new intelligence units covered some of the urban areas hit by demonstrations as well as border regions abutting Bangladesh, China, India and Thailand. Signals intelligence capabilities were also considerably expanded and analysts say MI extended its reach to monitor Gen Khin Nyunt's rivals within the armed forces.

The former MI chief came to command what nearly amounted to a parallel government and it is this institution which is now being dismantled. Foreign observers in Yangon say the crackdown involves up to 3,500 personnel countrywide, including some 300 senior officers. The remainder are junior officers, other ranks, informants and other subordinates.

The overall figure roughly mirrors the number of prisoners pardoned in the aftermath of Gen Khin Nyunt's ousting on 19 October 2004. Most were petty criminals, but some had been held for political crimes.

Analysts caution against assertions in some media reports that the purge resulted from a power struggle between the "pragmatic" Gen Khin Nyunt and hardliners around the two top leaders of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), junta chairman Senior General Than Shwe and and Deputy Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Commander-in-Chief (Army) Vice-Senior General Maung Aye.

These reports contend that Gen Khin Nyunt favoured a dialogue with the leader of Myanmar's pro-democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest since May 2003. Gen Than Shwe and Gen Maung Aye were said to be opposed.

Analysts argue that Gen Khin Nyunt was smoother in his dealings with foreigners but his MI apparatus was the SPDC's primary instrument of repression against the pro-democracy movement.

A more plausible explanation for the split, they say, is that Khin Nyunt and his MI followers had accumulated significant wealth through involvement in a wide range of commercial enterprises. This group, like Brig Gen Tin Oo's circle before it, was building a state within the state and not sharing its wealth with the regular military leadership.

An example of this commercial activity is the involvement of Gen Khin Nyunt's youngest son, Ye Naing Win, in Myanmar's only internet service provider, Bagan Cybertech. This company leased transponder capacity in a multi-million-dollar deal with Shin Satellite Plc, a company controlled by the family of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Other businessmen with MI connections bene- fited from the cross-border trade with China and Thailand. Some, intelligence sources say, had a hand in the region's lucrative illicit drug trade.

Gen Khin Nyunt's whereabouts are unknown, but his son was arrested and Bagan Cybertech taken over by the military. One of the former MI chief's closest associates, Brig Gen Thein Swe, recently received a prison sentence of 152 years.

Brig Gen Thein Swe, an air force officer and former defence attaché to Thailand, was involved in a number of businesses with Thai entrepreneurs. His son, Sonny Swe, was deputy chief executive officer of Myanmar Consolidated Media, publisher of the English-language weekly newspaper Myanmar Times. Sonny Swe has reportedly been sentenced to 14 years in prison for violating censorship laws and the Myanmar Times is now effectively controlled by the army.

In another blow to the former MI clique, the government announced on 1 April that operating licences have been withdrawn for Myanmar Mayflower Bank and Asia Wealth Bank. Some observers interpreted this as a move against money-laundering, as both banks have drawn US accusations that they are at least partly controlled by known drug traffickers. More likely, sources say, is that they were shut because of links to the purged MI officers.

Depositors will be permitted to reclaim their funds, the government announced, but are required to personally contact the banks. This suggests that funds belonging to people now in custody will be taken over by the state.

Against this backdrop, it is unlikely that the pro-democracy dialogue issue arose when Gen Than Shwe and Gen Maung Aye decided to move against Gen Khin Nyunt. Both the former are following the same political path as did the former MI chief when he was prime minister: the writing of a new constitution by a hand-picked assembly of some elected and mostly non-elected representatives in preparation for some kind of referendum followed by elections to a national assembly firmly under military control.

The purge has, meanwhile, left a vacuum in a country where the internal security apparatus is an important instrument of state control. Currently, the police special branch has seen its power expanded. In the longer term, analysts expect that Gen Maung Aye will build a new MI organisation that should be controlled more directly by the armed forces supreme command.

This article first appeared in Jane's Defence Weekly, April 15, 2005

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