Prime Minister Soe Win may follow predecessor Khin Nyunt into the wilderness
While reported differences between the Burmese regime’s top two leaders, Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Dep Snr-Gen Maung Aye, remain the focus of speculation in Rangoon, the fate of Prime Minister Lt-Gen Soe Win is also intriguing. Rumors also abound about what exactly is happening to his disgraced predecessor, Gen Khin Nyunt.
Soe Win’s unexplained disappearance for more than two weeks in January, and his low-key public image since are also fodder for tea-shop gossip. An earlier story had it that he had either been sacked or killed during an early-February gunfight at the War Office. BBC (Burmese Service) even reported military sources as saying the junta had already chosen his successor. Although Soe Win publicly resurfaced in late January, dramatic rumors about him, as well as his junta colleagues, persist.
Sources close to the junta say that while most of the gossip is unfounded, Soe WinÂ is in â€œserious troubleâ€ with the regime’s Number One, Than Shwe. He is also thought to be at odds with Maung Aye. This is supposed to have begun in May 2003, when Soe Win ordered a deadly attack on opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters in Depayin, Sagaing Division.
He kept both Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt in the dark about plans for the attack, said a Western diplomat in Rangoon. A European diplomat believed Khin Nyunt, also military intelligence chief at the time, was only informed the afternoon before the bloody incident, and was deeply concerned.
For now, Soe Win remains the country’s prime minister and heads several national committees. He has only barely reemerged in the state-run media, attending a graduation ceremony in Rangoon in late January, and congratulating Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on his reelection in early February.
A journalist in Rangoon, however, says this is only a token gesture on the junta’s part to present an image of stability. His picture has not run for weeks in the regime’s mouthpiece, New Light of Myanmar. â€œThere’s no smoke without fire,â€ commented the European diplomat.
Meanwhile, Soe Win’s predecessor is a persistent source of rumors. Khin Nyunt lost both his positions when he was arrested in Mandalay last October. It is believed his MI had grown too powerful for Than Shwe’s comfort, and it was quickly dismantled.
It is not even certain where Khin Nyunt is being held. One rumor has him being â€œbrainwashedâ€ in Yemon military camp, in Rangoon’s outskirts. Another has him in a military base near Putao, in Kachin State, known for its inhumane treatment of political prisoners-tortured with the same methods he devised for his victims.
Or he could be under house arrest with his wife. She was also rumored to have been either shot while resisting arrest, or killing herself. Most think she is fine. Khin Nyunt’s son, Ye Naing Win, who headed Burma’s largest internet service, Bagan Cybertech, and provided satellite feeds, is under detention and awaiting trial.
As for the scores of intelligence agents also arrested, one of the more far-fetched rumors, according to a Rangoon businessman, has it that they are being injected with a serum which will eventually turn them insane before dying.
â€œRemember Saw Maung?â€ the businessman asks. Snr-Gen Saw Maung set up the current ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council in 1988. Three years later, he publicly talked of his imminent death and of sightings of Jesus in Tibet. No longer mentally fit to rule, he was replaced by Than Shwe in April 1992.
Now, as a journalist puts it, it’s like Khin Nyunt has been â€œchopped into four pieces.â€ These are: Maj-Gen Myint Shwe, who has taken control of intelligence duties, handing responsibility to the police special branch under the Ministry of Home Affairs; Lt-Gen Thein Sein, chairman of the National Convention, tasked with drafting a new constitution; Gen Thura Shwe Mann, the army chief of staff who is widely tipped to become the country’s next army chief or prime minister; and Soe Win. Unlike Soe Win, the other three have appeared almost daily in the New Light of Myanmar.
Maybe the outcome of the swirling morass of speculation is in the stars. In Burma, prophecies carry a lot of weight. And these have been busy times for the country’s soothsayers. One popular astrologer in downtown Rangoon predicts â€œbig changesâ€ in April, as he strokes his beard and draws pensively on a cigarette.
Looking around the room, perhaps to make sure nobody can hear him, he adds: â€œAnd much bloodshed.â€