Thu 27 Jan 2005
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
In the absence of a free press, Rangoon’s rumor mill is hyper-active even in quiet times. But in recent days it has bordered on the bizarre, with reports of a gun battle among the Burmese military regime’s top three leaders. Adding fuel has been the mysterious public disappearance of one of them.
High Noon in Rangoon
The capital’s tea shops-always centers of the rumor industry-have been abuzz with talk of a bitter quarrel breaking out among junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe, his number two Dep Snr-Gen Maung Aye and newly-appointed Prime Minister Lt-Gen Soe Win. They drew their guns and began shooting at each other during a meeting at the war office, the rumor goes. Then their bodyguards also pulled out their guns and began shooting to protect their bosses.
The only casualty, if the rumors are to be believed, was Maung Aye, who was supposed to have been pronounced dead. While all this has yet to be confirmed, what is known is that Soe Win has not been seen in public since January 11. He is now rumored to be under house arrest – like his predecessor Gen Khin Nyunt, who was arrested last October and accused of corruption.
Diplomats in Rangoon and Bangkok, Thai officials and the Bangkok-based press have been glued to the Rangoon scene, waiting for some real news. â€œHave you heard the news of a gun battle?â€ this correspondent asked a senior western diplomat in Rangoon on January 27. This prompted a chuckle, and the diplomat said close friends had seen Maung Aye recently, alive and well.
Some observers think the gun battle story was sparked by the death â€œon dutyâ€ of Lt-Col Bo Win Tun, 42, Maung Aye’s personal assistant. His funeral was held at Mingaladon military cemetery, on the outskirts of Rangoon. Perhaps inevitably, many believe he was killed in the cowboy-style military shoot out.
Army sources and some diplomats are sifting through two versions of the officer’s death. Many Western diplomats think Bo Win Tun had surprised his wife with another man when he returned to his house. Instead of killing his wife, he turned his gun on himself, according to this version.
â€œBut why does he have to kill himself?â€ asked Khin Maung Thwin, a Rangoon lawyer. â€œI think he would rather kill his wife.â€ The lawyer added: â€œI heard his body was found in his office, not in the house. So why would he have to return to his office to kill himself?â€
Some army sources said the colonel’s body was indeed found in a pool of blood in his office, with a gunshot wound in his head.
Many Burmese, however, do not believe the unfaithful wife story. They think he was killed in the reported gun battle among the regime’s top leaders. One factor throwing doubt on the gun battle rumor is that while the generals’ personal assistants are allowed to carry weapons in the war office, the top brass themselves have to hand in their arms outside the meeting room.
Bo Win Tun’s death and rumors of the shoot out coincided with a meeting of army regional commanders in Rangoon. The meeting was held last week, and was attended by all three leaders as well as other senior officers.
Whatever the truth behind the rumors, analysts in Rangoon believe a major military reshuffle is looming. Some thought an announcement would be made by the junta on Thursday night. Rangoon-based news wire journalists were on full alert. One veteran journalist said he had been watching TV and listening to radio news bulletins for weeks expecting such an announcement. â€œI don’t want to miss anything,â€ he said.
The one solid fact so far is that Soe Win was last seen meeting officials from India in Rangoon on January 11. While some western diplomats scoff at the idea of a gun battle, they have been making serious attempts to locate Soe Win. They believe the Prime Minister’s job has been shaky for a while, and that top military brass were about to show him the door.
Soe Win is widely believed to have organized the physical attack on opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her convoy while traveling through Depayin, Sagaing Division, in May 2003. The incident was quickly followed by her return to house arrest.
Further confusion was thrown on the gun battle rumor by Rangoon’s official newspapers yesterday, when all three regime leaders were reported to have sent messages to India congratulating it on its 56th Anniversary of the Republic Day. But many Burmese appeared to remain unconvinced that all was well.