(9 November 2004)



"The beginning of the end


Genuine Reforms?"



General Khin Nyunt served three dictators for twenty years as their intelligence chief - General Ne Win, General Saw Maung, and until recently, Senior-General Than Shwe. Khin Nyunt became head of intelligence at a time when the MI was at its lowest point. Ne Win, had fired his Intelligence Chief Tin Oo and North Korean agents taking advantage of the security breakdown planted a bomb at the Martyrs' Mausoleum. It killed several visiting South Korean cabinet ministers and President Chun Doo Hwan himself narrowly escaped death. In a major reorganization, the National Intelligence Bureau was created to coordinate all intelligence agencies. This gave Khin Nyunt enormous powers.


After the 1988 democracy uprising was crushed, Khin Nyunt became a key figure in the SLORC - State Law and Order Restoration Council. When the Communist Party of Burma collapsed and its ethnic nationality troops mutinied in 1989, Khin Nyunt moved swiftly. He negotiated deals whereby the rebels could retain their arms, cease fighting the Burma Army, and engage in trade (drugs, etc.) in exchange for not joining the democracy movement. To this day, the cease-fire armies are more comfortable dealing with the MI than with the regular army. When the National Convention to legitimize military rule was convened in 1993, it was said that Khin Nyunt was interested in becoming president to oversee a transition. It is interesting that military intelligence agents arrested recently for corruption by the regular army claimed that they were under orders to raise funds for Khin Nyunt's presidential campaign. Khin Nyunt who was Ne Win's protégé, found himself coming increasingly under pressure in recent years. He began making overtures to the business community and the intelligentsia as an open-minded general. The arrest in 2002 of Ne Win's son-in-law and three grandsons on treason charges, spelt the beginning of the end for him. Khin Nyunt is by no means a democrat. But the SPDC overture to ASSK in October 2000 and the cooperation with the United Nations Special Envoy for Burma, Malaysia's Ambassador Razali, led many to believe that Khin Nyunt was a moderate. When In Aug 2003, Khin Nyunt was appointed Prime Minister, some hoped that for his own survival, he would make political concessions at the same time as try to reduce international pressure against the regime. Khin Nyunt's cooperation with Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawattra's Bangkok Process, and the growing international acceptance of Khin Nyunt and the regime's road map, made the SPDC even more paranoid and uneasy about Khin Nyunt's ambitions. The Bangkok Process was scuttled when the SPDC pushed ahead with the National Convention in May 2004.


Senior-General Than Shwe came up through the ranks. Although not highly educated, he is considered to be an expert in psychological warfare - well-versed in the art of deception to confuse and unnerve the enemy. He replaced General Saw Maung as the Chair of SLORC in 1992. At first he was seen as the neutral umpire keeping the balance between the powerful intelligence service headed by Khin Nyunt and the regular army. Than Shwe began to exert himself in 1993 when he became Prime Minister, made himself a Senior-General (a rank he created), and convened the National Convention. He also began appointing officers loyal to him to key positions. Then in 1997, he changed the SLORC to the SPDC - State Peace and Development Council. Than Shwe also became more vocal about past mistakes and began to portray himself as the man to clean up the mess left by his predecessors, especially Ne Win. In 2000, Than Shwe launched an all out campaign to 'annihilate' the National League for Democracy and ASSK. This culminated with her second house arrest in Sep 2000. He is also believed to have used Lieut-General Soe Win and the USDA - Union Solidarity Development Association, to attack ASSK and her followers at Depayin in May 2003. In recent years it was reported that Than Shwe was becoming increasingly delusional, autocratic, and isolated.


Less is known about Vice-Senior-General Maung Aye, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and second only to Than Shwe. He is a graduate of the Defence Services Academy (DSA) and is said to be more of a 'professional' soldier than his less educated brother officers who came up through the ranks and were trained at the Officers Training School (OTS). Both Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt are OTS graduates. Maung Aye, however, does not seem to have been able in the past to exert much influence over events. He is often portrayed as being frustrated and depressed. He is reputed to dislike the cease-fire agreements negotiated by Khin Nyunt, the SPDC's dependence on China, and Thailand's 'interference' in Burma's internal affairs. But he was said to have been shocked by the Depayin incident where Than Shwe went outside the military chain of command to achieve his goals. Maung Aye  is also reported to have a better rapport with ASSK than either Than Shwe or Khin Nyunt. Some analysts speculate that if Maung Aye is in charge, he could bring about real reforms.


DSA Take-over?


Initially, the removal of Khin Nyunt looked like a power struggle just between the top three - Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt. However, the scope and depth of the unfolding struggle seems to indicate a much deeper and wider rift in the Burmese military, pitting the regular army against the intelligence services. It appears to be a generational shift that could maybe lead to real changes.


It is interesting to note that General Thura Shwe Mann is leading the campaign against Khin Nyunt and not Than Shwe or Maung Aye. Shwe Mann is a DSA graduate (DSA-11). Prime Minister Lieut-General Soe Win (DSA-12), SPDC Sectretary-1 Lieut-General Thein Sein (DSA-9), and the Rangoon Commander, Major-General Myint Swe (DSA-15), are all DSA graduates. Eight of the 12 current Regional Commanders are also DSA graduates. The Northern Military Region Commander, Major-General Maung Maung Swe is an OTS graduate (OTS-47) but he is Maung Aye's brother-in-law.


If the current purge is a DSA take-over, this means that the attempt by Khin Nyunt (OTS-25) and Than Shwe (OTS-9) to prevent such a take-over by creating four Bureau of Special Operations commanded by OTS graduates, failed (The BSOs were to override the Regional Commanders and prevent them from organizing a coup). In the event that this is a generational DSA take-over, both Than Shwe and Maung Aye could also be replaced in the near future although Maung Aye (DSA-1), a DSA graduate, may be retained as a figure head and to provide continuity.


It is also interesting that Senior-General Than Shwe made an unprecedented official trip to India less than a week after Khin Nyunt's dismissal. Normal procedure in such situations for the man in charge is to stay close to base in case of a counter strike. His trip could indicate that he is not the man in charge. It could also indicate that the new regime wanted him to visit India to send a strong message. Than Shwe himself may not have been too willing to leave for fear of being replaced while abroad. It was very unusual that the wife of Lieut-General Thein Sein and Major-General Myint Swe were included in the official delegation, perhaps as a guarantee or a token of good will.


China like Thailand, had been banking on Khin Nyunt. Than Shwe's visit to India definitely signaled to China that the SPDC is no longer going to be a docile client state. Than Shwe also sent a message to the international community which emphasized that the SPDC is committed to democracy. Significantly, Than Shwe used the word, 'national reconciliation'. Normally, he prefers 'national reconsolidation'. But the new SPDC may have realized the danger of antagonizing China. To balance the tilt towards India, Prime Minister Soe Win was dispatched to China to convey the message that Burma's problems will be solved by the Burmese themselves.


It remains to be seen whether the new SPDC will be able to bring about changes and at the same time negotiate the dangerous international waters it is entering. Such a thorough purge of experienced intelligence/ foreign service personnel does not bode well. However, the upcoming ASEAN Summit in Laos may provide some more clues as to the intention and capability of the new SPDC.  


In addition to an internal power struggle and a fight for scarce resources, the new SPDC may also have been alarmed by Khin Nyunt's wooing of the ethnic nationalities whose goal is a federal union. The international community's recognition of the ethnic nationalities aspirations may also have alarmed conservative elements.  The Burma Army's concept of national unity is "One blood, one voice, one command". Federalism is to them equivalent to the 'disintegration of the nation'. Rumours are already making the rounds that the regular army will be dis-arming the cease-fire groups. Troop movements to the cease-fire areas are fueling the fears. While such a move does not make sense militarily, it could gain the new SPDC some much needed popular support from Burmese dissidents in exile who would prefer to see the problem between the SPDC and ASSK resolved first, rather than have a much more complicated 'Tripartite Dialogue' as called for by the United Nations. Should this be a significant factor, the SPDC may move sooner towards a reconciliation with ASSK.


Many have in the past feared that without a strong military, the Union of Burma could break up along ethnic lines like the former Yugoslavia. However, it is more likely that if the new SPDC is not up to the task, this could be the beginning of the breakup of the Union of Burma, but not along ethnic lines:


1.       The cohesion of the Burma Army is under strain. Clashes have occurred between the regular army and intelligence/security units over resource allocation, and field commanders have also been reported to be ignoring orders from their Regional Commanders;


2.       The shake-up of the intelligence service could effect the security of the nation;


3.       A return to hostilities is a possibility if the regular army decides to restrict the privileges enjoyed by the ethnic armies under arrangements made with Khin Nyunt and the intelligence services. The SPDC is at the moment trying to reassure the ethnic cease-fire armies that nothing will change. Should hostilities resume, China, India, Thailand and Bangladesh will be tempted to protect their interests by providing certain ethnic nationality armies with covert logistical support;


4.       The command structure of the Burma Army has also been weakened by the rapid expansion of the military from 200,000 men in 1988 to 500,000 men today, in a stagnant economy. Local and Regional commanders have had to make their own arrangements to feed their troops. This has led to widespread land confiscation, forced labour, and corruption. As neighbouring countries step up cross-border economic projects and make arrangements with local commanders to facilitate their business, this trend will accelerate;


5.       Since the economic pie in Burma is shrinking, the struggle to secure resources will intensify. Regional Burma Army commanders will become more autonomous as they cut deals locally with cease-fire armies, businesses and drug lords, in order to survive;





The current SPDC power struggle is seen by many as a 'reformers' versus 'hardliners' struggle, with the hardliners gaining the upper hand. This is not the case. Both factions are hardliners.


The current reshuffle is more an internal power struggle between the regular army and the intelligence services over resource allocation, rather than a reformer - hardliner struggle. The regular army tends to be more isolationist since it has had little exposure to the outside world and believes it can solve Burma's problems without engaging the international community. The intelligence services are more adept at using international diplomatic norms to achieve the SPDC's goals. Both factions believe in the supremacy of the military and the need to strengthen the military's grip on power.


There is a slight possibility that the power struggle is bringing about a generational change in the army with DSA graduates dominating policy. If this is the case, both Than Shwe and Maung Aye could also be replaced in the near future. In such an event, it will not mean an immediate transition to democracy but a reconciliation with ASSK could become a reality. A new SPDC with some form of dialogue with ASSK could give the new SPDC enough legitimacy to take on the ASEAN chair in 2006.  


However, the new SPDC is playing a dangerous game with China and India. It could also be embarking on a dangerous collision course with the ethnic nationalities. If it over estimates its capabilities or underestimates the dangers given its limited world view, Burma could be entering into a period of increasing instability.


The outlook for the survival of the Union of Burma as an independent nation is also becoming more uncertain. The SPDC's focus on consolidating power at the expense of the economy and the welfare of people can have very serious consequences, especially if the army's command structure is further weakened because of economic forces.


The outlook for the region is also bleak. A failed state at the intersection on India, China and ASEAN does not bode well. The stability of the region may be threatened in the near future.





Square Gutenberg 11- 2, Brussels B-1000, Belgium

Tel: 00 32 2 280-0691, Fax: 00 32 2 280-0310

email: burma@euro-burma.be