Fri 29 Oct 2004
Filed under: News,Opinion
October 25: If Burma’s military junta had an incrementally gentler side, it was personified by General Khin Nyunt. No one would call him a liberal in the Western sense – he headed the dictatorship’s military intelligence service – but diplomats from the outside world considered him more pragmatic and less xenophobic than the country’s paramount leader, General Than Shwe.
Khin Nyunt steered the country into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997. (Burma is set to chair the regional grouping in 2006.) He succeeded in brokering cease-fires with 17 of Burma’s armed, rebellious tribes. And when he was elevated to Prime Minister 14 months ago, he announced a “road map to democracy” that envisaged a new constitution and the first national elections since 1990, and a possible reconciliation with detained Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
The junta barely made a step down that path to peace, but Suu Kyi told U.N. envoy to Burma Razali Ismail in March that Khin Nyunt was someone she could deal with. After that endorsement, some residents of Rangoon started calling the Prime Minister the “second most popular figure in Burma” – after Suu Kyi.
It’s not wise to get too popular when you share power with a bunch of hard men – and few come harder than the generals who run Burma. In July, Foreign Minister Win Aung told ASEAN officials at a regional gathering in Jakarta that Khin Nyunt was losing a struggle within the State Peace and
Development Council (SPDC). “He is in a dangerous position,” said Win Aung, according to officials privy to the conversation. “Khin Nyunt may have to flee the country. If that happens, I will have to flee with him.”
They didn’t leave fast enough: last month, Win Aung was replaced as Foreign Minister and is believed to be under house arrest. And last week, the Prime Minister was arrested by the army at Rangoon airport shortly after he arrived from Mandalay, where he had spent the day touring development projects. Burma’s state-controlled media announced that Khin Nyunt had been permitted to “retire for health reasons.” Khin Nyunt is now under house arrest in Rangoon; last Thursday, Burma’s new Foreign Minister told diplomats that he had actually been removed on suspicion of “corruption.”
If history is any guide, the Prime Minister’s career is over and any hope of Suu Kyi’s being released soon has been snuffed. It was Khin Nyunt who helped negotiate Suu Kyi’s release in 2002 from her second stint under house arrest.
She was detained again in May 2003 – following an attack by
government-sponsored goons on her convoy, in which scores of people were reported injured and killed – and is back under house arrest. Last week, Than Shwe replaced Khin Nyunt with Lieut. General Soe Win, a known hard-liner believed to have ordered the brutal attack on Suu Kyi’s followers in May. “The removal of Khin Nyunt demonstrates that Than Shwe wasn’t interested in 99% of power,” says a senior Western diplomat in Bangkok. “He wanted 100%.”
Than Shwe’s power play is unlikely to please Burma’s neighbors. While the U.S. and many other Western countries have persisted with economic sanctions, Japan, China, India and Thailand have actively pursued a policy of engagement with Burma, encouraging closer economic ties and increased
trade in the hope that the generals would gradually ease their grip on society. Khin Nyunt traveled frequently, and appeared to accept that Burma needed to reduce its diplomatic isolation to avoid economic collapse.
He was admired abroad for granting regional autonomy to the armed rebel groups that live along Burma’s borders with its neighbors – deals that might now unravel. “China will be furious,” says Panitan Wattanayagorn, a security and defense analyst at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “They want stability along their borders, no matter what the cost. But Than Shwe has shown he doesn’t care much about stability, just regime survival.” India’s porous border with Burma, which is exploited by insurgents on both sides, is bound to be discussed during Than Shwe’s five-day visit to New Delhi this week.
On Friday, Than Shwe announced that Khin Nyunt had also been sacked as head of military intelligence and its operations closed down. Several hundred intelligence officers were also detained throughout the country, and businesses under military-intelligence control, including the lucrative black markets on the borders, have been shuttered or taken over
by the junta.
The power struggle barely registered among average Burmese. Life in Rangoon was normal, except for a slightly higher number of troops on the streets. “Nothing really changed in Burma,” says a Western diplomat. “The reforms were only ever cosmetic, and done for an international audience.” What Khin Nyunt’s arrest really demonstrates is that the only real threat to the junta’s survival comes from within its own ranks.