Cautionary tales from Rangoon
Burma's generals vie for control as the commander-in-chief prepares to stand down, reports Larry Jagan
There are increasing signs that a power struggle is taking place amongst Burma's top generals as the country moves slowly towards introducing political change and passing control of the army onto the next generation of military commanders. The head of the country's military junta, Senior General Than Shwe's health is failing, and he has become increasing reclusive amid growing international pressure to change.
Burma's National Convention, which is drawing up the country's new constitution, finished its latest session in December. Diplomats in Rangoon believe that there will be one more session in the next few months before it is formally drafted and put to a national referendum. "We expect the referendum to be conducted before the end of the year," according to an ethnic leader involved in the constitutional discussions.
The regime's top leaders are currently pre-occupied with preparing the military for this change. A massive shake-up of the army and the government is planned in the coming months. The country's top two military rulers, General Than Shwe and his deputy General Maung Aye, are expected to stand down from their military commands as the junta's leaders pass power onto the next generation of generals.
The planned changes are intended to prepare the army for the next phase in the country's move towards political reform, and the introduction of a civilian administration. The changes are part of Than Shwe's plans to ensure that the draft constitution is approved by the national referendum. And to prepare the ground for fresh elections which are expected to be held sometime next year.
The changes in the government and the army will be the most dramatic since the military seized power more than eighteen years ago. Than Shwe is reportedly planning to give up command of the army, but retains the key post of chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). He is expected to also relinquish the post of defence minister.
Photo: Abdullah Al Ameriki / Flickr
"Senior General Than Shwe and deputy senior General Maung Aye are in the process of handing over control of the armed forces to the next generation of generals," according to a senior Burmese military source. Than Shwe has already informed the rest of the ruling junta of the plans which he expected to be the key item at the forthcoming quarterly meeting in the new capital Nay Pyi Daw -- some four hundred kilometres north of Rangoon.
Than Shwe's protégé, General Thura Shwe Man will take command of the armed forces, and the south-eastern regional commander, Thura Myint Aung, is expected to take Maung Aye's post as deputy leader. The regional commander is relatively unknown, but is regarded as one of the few top generals who are neutral -- owing personal alligence to neither Than Shwe or Maung Aye, according to a source in Rangoon close to the country's military leaders.
But Than Shwe and Maung Aye will retain their top posts of chairman and deputy in the junta's ruling council. The SPDC is also expected to change its name to the State Democracy and Development Council to mark the start of the new political era.
Than Shwe is also expected to surrender his position as defence minister in the forthcoming cabinet reshuffle, according to a senior South East Asian diplomat who has regular contact with the Burmese regime.
"This has been Than Shwe's game plan for sometime it is only a matter of when," the Chiang Mai-based independent Burmese analyst, Win Min, told Forum. "Than Shwe can only do this, though with Maung Aye's agreement," he added.
Over the past eighteen months, Than Shwe has frequently told Thailand's top army commanders that he would retire soon, and that General Thura Shwe Mann would take over as the country's military leader in due course.
These changes have been in the pipeline for at least a year, according to senior Burmese military sources. The massive move of all government offices and the armed forces central command to Pyinmana, started more than a year ago and completed last February, delayed the changes. Now Than Shwe is waiting for the most appropriate time to implement the planned changes.
"Although the decision to pass the control of the army to Thura Shwe Mann has been made, it is unlikely to happen before the National Convention has finished drafting the new constitution," a western diplomat based in Rangoon told Forum.
But Than Shwe's failing health may also help determine the timing of the hand-over of control of the armed forces to Thura Shwe Mann. He reportedly suffered a mild stroke more than a year ago, but quickly recovered. But in the past few months there have been renewed signs that Than Shwe's health was deteriorating. Last month the senior general visited Singapore for a medical check-up.
Than Shwe is known to suffer from hypertension and is a diabetic. "He's subject to frequent diabetic rages when his sugar levels get out of control," according to a Burmese army doctor
Time appears to be catching up with the seventy-five-year old senior general, according to diplomats who have recently met the Burmese leader. General Than Shwe is often short of breath, according to one foreign visitor who met him recently.
This may have prompted the senior general to take a back seat for the time being. Than Shwe has become far more reclusive since he moved from Rangoon to Pyinmana last February. He has seldom ventured out of his residence. Only once has he returned to Rangoon, and that was for his daughter's wedding.
For the past few months, Than Shwe has not gone to the war office, and only attended crucial meetings like the fortnightly joint SPDC-cabinet session, according to an Asian diplomat who was based in Rangoon until recently. Than Shwe also receives very few visitors, other than General Thura Shwe Mann, who has become his key confidante. Through him he sends orders to Maung Aye and Prime Minister Soe Win. confidante. Through him he sends orders to Maung Aye and Prime Minister Soe Win.
"This is to ensure that as few people as possible are aware of his failing health," said Win Min. But it is also preparing the ground for his handing over of control of the armed forces to Thura Shwe Mann. Although he may retire as the army chief, he will not be relinquishing his power.
General Than Shwe intends to stand down to become the civilian president under the new constitution, according to Chinese diplomats. "He wants to be president for life," a senior military source close to him said.
"But even if Than Shwe officially retires he will not give up his power. Instead he'll remain the grey eminence behind the throne, along the lines of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the years before his death," said the independent Burmese analyst Win Min, who is based in Chiang Mai.
Than Shwe plans to establish a new supreme ruling council -- the State Democracy and Development Council that will oversee the military command and the civilian government. Than Shwe and Maung Aye will head the new body, which is expected to include Thura Shwe Mann and the regional commanders. Under its authority there will be a split between the government and the armed forces. While Thura Shwe Mann will take full control of the army the prime minister, Soe Win, will head the cabinet and the government. He has already become a civilian, losing his position in the armed forces.
Efforts to civilianize the government are already under way. Cabinet members have been forced to leave the armed forces. Military control throughout the country is in the process of being transferred from the command of the armed forces and placed under the authority of the interior and planning ministries.
Local military commanders will have to report to the home ministry. This has already happened at township level and is now being implemented at district level, a senior international aid worker based in Burma told Forum on condition of anonymity.
"This is all part of Than Shwe's plans to streamline government administration and strengthen the authority's control over the general population in preparation for a transition to so-called civilian rule, and to win the elections held under the new constitution," said Win Min.
But Than Shwe is aware of the dangers involved. So to prepare for these momentous political changes, Burma's top leader is planning to use his divide and rule strategy to maintain his authority. Power will be divided between the new army chief General Thura Shwe Mann and Prime Minister General Soe Win.
"This is the new generation of military leaders which is being readied to take over power," according to a senior Indian diplomat who deals with Rangoon. But, he warns, this group of generals lacks the manners and intelligence of its superiors.
"These men are uncouth, uneducated and only know how to bark orders," says a former Indian diplomat who has been based in Rangoon previously and knows the new generals well.
With Than Shwe's succession planning almost complete, the military's control of the country is likely to be strengthened rather than weakened. The next generation of generals is even less likely than its predecessors to give up power. The chances of significant political reform in Burma remain a distant hope. In the meantime, the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is likely to remain under house arrest for the foreseeable future.
Larry Jagan is a former Current Affairs Editor, Asia, BBC World Service.