Myanmar’s top generals are in the throes of a full-blown power struggle as they grapple with how best to introduce significant political reforms, including a planned move toward some form of democracy, and hand political power to a new generation of military commanders.

Senior General Than Shwe, head of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), is of failing health and in recent months has become increasing reclusive amid growing international pressure for political change – including the United States’ recent failed attempt to impose sanctions against the regime through the United Nations Security Council.

Against that backdrop, the SPDC’s top three generals – Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Thura Shwe Mann – reportedly cannot agree on how to move forward, according to Western diplomats who spoke with Asia Times Online.

“It’s a stalemate,” said a Western diplomat based in the former capital Yangon. “The three generals don’t trust each other and are closely watching each other. It’s like a giant chess game, and as a result nothing is happening.”

Big changes were in the cards. Top military rulers recently met in the new capital Naypyidaw – some 400 kilometers north of Yangon – for their quarterly meeting, where Than Shwe’s plans to prepare the government and military for constitutional reform were discussed. The top general significantly was not present for the meeting, and the SPDC’s second in command, Maung Aye, reportedly refused to accept some of the proposed changes, according to people familiar with the meeting.

Myanmar’s National Convention, which is drawing up a new constitution, finished its latest session in December and Western diplomats in Yangon believe that in the next few months the charter will be formally drafted and by year’s end put to a national referendum. In anticipation of those reforms, a massive shakeup of the army and government is planned for the coming months to pave the way for constitutionally mandated civilian rule.

The changes, if fully implemented, will be the most dramatic since the military seized power more than 18 years ago and have been designed to ensure that the draft constitution is democratically approved during a national referendum. Significantly, they will also pave the way for general democratic elections, which are expected to be held some time in 2008.

The ruling junta annulled the results of the 1990 general election, which was won overwhelming by the National League for Democracy, and it remains unclear whether the opposition party will be permitted to compete in next year’s planned polls.

As part of the reform plan, Than Shwe is reportedly planning to give up his command of the army, but retain the key post of chairman of the SPDC. However, Maung Aye, perhaps sensing Than Shwe’s declining health and tenuous grip on power, is now refusing to retire along with the senior general – as was earlier planned. His refusal promises to complicate the political transition and heighten intra-military rivalries in the months ahead.

Maung Aye “fears he will be completely sidelined if he accepts retirement”, said a relative of the general. “He still wants to be No 1.”

Than Shwe’s protege, General Thura Shwe Man, was tipped to take command of the armed forces, while Than Shwe and Maung Aye retained their top posts of chairman and deputy of the junta’s ruling council, which is expected to change its name to the State Democracy and Development Council (SDDC) to mark the start of a new political era.

Once established, the SDDC will be charged with overseeing both the military command and the civilian government, which unlike the current administration will have split authority structures. Over the past two years, Than Shwe has frequently told Thailand’s top army commanders that he planned to retire soon and that Thura Shwe Mann would take over his position as the country’s top military leader. Prime Minister Soe Win, meanwhile, has already shed his army khakis for a civilian business suit and his ex-military cabinet ministers have officially left the armed forces.

Last legs
Now Than Shwe’s deteriorating health promises to alter, or potentially even scupper, those grand plans as new competitive divides open inside the SPDC. The changes have been in the planning pipeline for at least a year, according to senior Myanmar military sources. But the recent massive move of all the government’s offices and the armed forces’ central command to Naypyidaw – started more than a year ago and completed last February – have delayed the full transition from SPDC to SDDC rule.

Than Shwe suffered a mild stroke nearly two years ago, but since has fully recovered. He also suffers from hypertension and is a diabetic, which causes him frequent violent seizures when his sugar levels get out of control, according to an army doctor familiar with the situation. According to one foreign visitor who met with him recently, Than Shwe is often short of breath.

Than Shwe has become far more reclusive since the government finished its move from Yangon to Naypyidaw last February. For almost the past year, Than Shwe has not gone to the War Office and has only attended crucial meetings, such as the fortnightly joint SPDC cabinet session, according to an Asian diplomat who until recently was based in Yangon. The senior general also nowadays receives few outside visitors, other than Thura Shwe Mann, through whom he sends directives to Maung Aye and Soe Win.

Last month, the 75-year-old senior general traveled to Singapore for an urgent medical checkup after suffering from chest pains. What was to be a day or two in hospital attenuated to a week-long stay and stoked wild speculation and rumors about his health. Singaporean doctors discovered that Than Shwe is suffering from cancer of the pancreas, according to reliable medical sources in Yangon. “Than Shwe may only have three to 18 months left to live,” predicted one Myanmar army doctor.

Many inside Myanmar thought the senior general was already on his last legs when he left for Singapore, and several ranking majors and colonels began jockeying for position in expectation that Maung Aye, rather than Thura Shwe Mann, would soon take the military’s top spot.

Since his return to Myanmar, Than Shwe has moved to allay speculation about his health, and he took the unprecedented step of allowing local television cameras to film the opening of the SPDC’s quarterly meeting – the first time ever that the traditionally highly secretive meetings have been allowed pubic exposure. His hale image has also been splashed almost daily across the front page of the government-mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

“This is to ensure that as few people as possible are aware of his failing health,” said Chiang Mai-based independent Myanmar analyst Win Min. “Even if Than Shwe officially retires, he will not give up his power. Instead, he’ll remain the gray eminence behind the throne, along the lines of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the years before his death.”

According to Chinese diplomats, Than Shwe intends to stand down but become the civilian president under the new constitution. “He wants to be president for life,” a senior military source close to him said.

However, Maung Aye’s refusal to retire has suddenly put a wrench in those works and raises hard new questions about his commitment to Than Shwe’s reform plan. Thura Shwe Mann has already been handed effective control over running the country’s day-to-day affairs, although he still reportedly consults Than Shwe on major policy issues. At the same time, government ministers have recently started to complain about the political inertia and their inability to make even basic decisions.

From the outset, Than Shwe was aware of the potential dangers involved with backing a transition from pure military to some form of democratic rule. And unless he is somehow convinced that his personal power and his family’s fortunes are not at risk through its implementation, the current political stalemate could last at least as long as the senior general’s declining health holds out.

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the BBC. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.