Mon 29 Aug 2005
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
August 27: Bangkok: Rumors of a coup among the generals who rule Myanmar, Thailand’s closed and repressive neighbor, flared briefly in the past week and then died away just as suddenly.
Wishful thinking, said Aung Zaw, an emigre journalist from Myanmar who has seen it all before many times.
Like the rumors in the past, they were plausible. Things have been so bad for so long in Myanmar, the country once known as Burma, that people have been saying for years that something has to change.
“There could have been some background to the rumor,” said Josef Silverstein, an expert on Myanmar at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “And if not, Burma right now is at a point where it is probably ripe for some kind of change.”
Things do seem to be getting steadily worse for the generals at the moment. But it remains as unclear as everything else in Myanmar whether a change in leadership would mean a change of any sort in policy.
Myanmar was forced last month to give up its turn to take the rotating chairmanship in 2006 of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a humiliation for Myanmar’s leaders, whatever the hidden dynamics behind it.
In addition, major aid groups have begun withdrawing funds or warning of cutbacks as the regime tightens restrictions on their operations.
And for the past year, since one of the troika that rules in Yangon was arrested along with the entire military intelligence empire he controlled experts on Myanmar say there has been an atmosphere of uncertainty and resentment among many military and civilian officials.
The wholesale removal of the country’s spy apparatus has left the government further isolated from the population and blind in the face of events that have included a rash of bombings earlier this year.
At this point, the military government is more isolated and ostracized than ever from political and economic contacts with the outside world, and it continues to share a mutual fear and distrust with its people.
The coup rumor, which first surfaced in a Thai newspaper report, pitted the remaining two members of the ruling group against each other.
Reports suggested that the No. 2 leader, General Maung Aye, who commands the army, had seized power from the longtime leader, General Than Shwe, now 73, who has led Myanmar since 1992.
“They are now 18 years governing the country and they remain deeply unloved by the majority of the population,” said Aung Zaw, who edits Irrawaddy Magazine, a Thailand-based emigre journal. “That’s amazing.”
The question was whether having a new man at the top would make much difference in a country that has been isolated from the world since 1962 and whose ruling junta has harshly suppressed political opposition since seizing power in 1988 and annulling an election it lost in 1990.
“That’s the $64,000 question,” said Debbie Stothard, coordinator of Altsean-Burma, a regional human rights group. “Will Than Shwe if and when he is succeeded will he be replaced by someone more pragmatic and disposed to dialogue with the opposition?”
There has been no apparent voice for a more modulated approach toward the opposition since the arrest last October of Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, the prime minister and head of military intelligence.
As tough as the rest of them, he had nevertheless appeared to advocate something a bit more creative than simply locking up the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
She had been released from house arrest for a year before being physically attacked and confined again to her home in May 2003, for the third time in 14 years.
But that does not mean there are not other advocates for change within an ossified leadership structure that has pursued few new policies as the country has sunk deeper into poverty and isolation over the past two decades.
“We are not going to see the true colors of people until they come into power,” Stothard said. “Obviously there are people in the regime who are more business-minded and pragmatic. But you can’t be open about having a moderate position. Any general who says ‘I like dialogue’ is basically someone who has a death wish.”
Curiously, Khin Nyunt appears to not have been entirely excluded from possible future developments in Myanmar. He was sentenced last month to 44 years in prison, but the sentence was suspended and he is believed to be under house arrest now.
He was convicted of corruption, a rather audacious charge coming from a government that sustains itself through corruption.
It is unclear whether his removal was the result of a pure power struggle or of differences over policy. The leniency of his sentence could be a sign that he still has influential supporters within the leadership, according to analysts.
Meanwhile, the men in power continue to play on what seems a one-stringed instrument. Whenever they are faced with criticism, they retreat into talk of democracy, calling attention to a constitutional convention that has been held, off and on, since the early 1990s.
Aung Zaw, the Irrawaddy editor, calls it “the longest constitution-drafting convention in any country in the world.”
And in the face of what they clearly see as a threatening world, these generals educated in jungle warfare retreat, literally, into plans for a bunker.
According to unofficial reports, they are spending tens of millions of dollars to move the military headquarters from the capital, Yangon, 580 kilometers, or 360 miles, north to Pyinmana.
“They’ve started building mansions, compounds, underground tunnels, bunkers, all kinds of weird things,” Aung Zaw said.
No one is quite sure what the complex is for. Some say it is a defensive position in case of an American invasion feared by the generals. Others say that like many of the policies of Myanmar’s rulers over the years, it is being built at the direction of astrologers.
For the men who rule this closed and suspicious nation, life has become a bunker within a bunker.