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Bangkok Post (22 November 1997)

Shifting from 'Law and Order' to 'Peace and Development'
The Burmese military has ruled the country since 1962, too long for there
not to be divisions, and now they appear to be open to the public.

Coquitlam, Canada

Burma's ruling military junta caught everyone by surprise last Saturday
when the ruling generals declared the State Law and Order Restoration
Council dissolved and announced the formation of a new junta under the
name of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

The 19-member SPDC consists of four generals who held top positions in
Slorc and a host of new generals. They include the heads of the navy and
air force and, most crucially, the commanders of military zones (sit
taing). There was also a cabinet reshuffle and the formation of a "new"
39-member cabinet, and a 14-member Advisory Council.

As many Burmese observers pointed out, the number "9" figures quite
prominently in the council and the cabinet, the two decision-making
bodies. They therefore suggest that the change comes from the Duburn
Beach command (that is, where "retired" strongman Ne Win lives).

Similarly, many opposition groups, including the influential opposition
journal, "Burma Alert", view the change as "putting old wine in a new
bottle". This may very well be the case as the old hands - Ne Win and
Sein Lwin (the "Butcher of Rangoon"), among others - are believed to be
still pulling the strings behind the scene. 

Among Burmese, it is believed that the generals currently ruling - Than
Shwe, Khin Nyunt, Maung Aye, Tin Oo - are all mindless, anxious puppets
(or "children") of the "Old Man", or Sein Lwin.

What is significant about the change is the elevation of zone commanders
(taing hmus) to the SPDC. This can be interpreted as the assertion by top
line-commanders of their clout, which may mean that power is more or less
devolved to the second echelon. 

Intended or not, zone commanders have become king-makers in Burmese

Although it is not known to which of the top generals, the military
patrons, these zone commanders are affiliated, it is clear that top
generals have now become, and will increasingly become, dependent on
their subordinates. 

Which way the "new" junta will go in future may very much depend not so
much on the preferences of Than Shwe, Khin Nyunt, Maung Aye, etc, but on
the extent to which they can win over the zone commanders as

For the top military patrons, winning over the zone commanders will not
be easy since the latter are kings (or de facto warlords) in their own
fiefs, and have often ignored orders from above, or have only selectively
carried them out. 

Moreover, the zone commanders are linked to business interests in their
areas of command. They have as such benefitted personally from links,
especially with ethnic Chinese, commercial-entrepreneurial networks that
straddle borders. A zone command represents an opportunity for its head
to amass substantial fortunes, and an opportunity to build a patronage
network (and a power centre) within the tatmadaw (armed forces).

With the king-makers-cum-warlords gaining a foothold in the top ruling
body, it will be difficult to reshuffle these commands - as the "Old Man"
has always done previously. Ne Win's lifetime and quite successful effort
to prevent the emergence of autonomous (from him) power centres within
the military is, it seems, being reversed.

The implications of the emergence of entrenched rival power centres
within the tatmadaw are many. For one, intra-military politics will in
future be more complex and volatile. 

Topmost leaders in the military hierarchy will no longer be able to
transfer top line-commanders at will. They will instead be forced
increasingly to negotiate with and accommodate the emergent centres of
power within the military itself.

The emergence of centres of military power may not, in the long run, be a
bad thing. 

Top generals will have to learn how to deal with military pluralism and,
by extension, with societal pluralism. What Burma needs is not political
order by command, but by negotiation, accommodation and bargaining
between and among all segments, groups and sectors in society.

Regarding the short-term outcome of the change, it is likely that the
military will ignore as long as possible the need for dialogue with the
opposition, in particular with Aung San Suu Kyi (and her National League
for Democracy) and the ethnic organisations and leaders. Whether or not
some sort of a dialogue will take place depends on which of the military
factions is dominant.

Judging from the current alignment of power players, the fact that Gen
Than Shwe is the top dog - despite the "Old Man's" desire to have him
replaced with Maung Aye - indicates that there may be some moves in a
more positive direction in the near future. 

Many new important players - Win Myint (Secretary 3), Tin Hla (Army
Affairs), Nyunt Tin (Agriculture and Irrigation), Saw Lwin (Hotel and
Tourism) - are, according to reliable sources, not in Gen Maung Aye's
hardline camp. This may be quite significant. 

Also, the fact that many anti-dialogue hardliners - Gens Kyaw Ba, Myo
Nyunt, and Myint Aung - have been sidelined is something that deserves a
closer look.

While it may be premature to expect a positive breakthrough in the
current stalemate in Burma, it is rigid thinking to dismiss the recent
changes as meaningless. 

A ruling military is not a monolithic, far-sighted, clever creature. It
is like a ruling political party, albeit armed and uniformed. 

As such, military players are, like politicians and political czars,
moved by power considerations. And as we all well know, power divides. 

We can safely say that the struggle for dominance between military
factions has begun in earnest, and will continue until someone emerges as
the new military strongman.