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FEER: 980507: Velvet Glove by Bert

                     Velvet Glove
      A new generation of officers has quietly come to power in Rangoon.
      They're more sophisticated than their elders--and may be even more
                     dangerous to their foes.

                    By Bertil Lintner in Bangkok

                         May 7, 1998
    D ressed in green and khaki uniforms with epaulettes and campaign
    badges, the generals line up on Rangoon's main parade ground. They
    appear to be the same stern-faced officers who saluted the flag on Armed
    Forces Day a year earlier, in March. But a closer look reveals some younger
    faces. In what a Western diplomat describes as "a quiet coup d'etat," a new
    generation of officers has taken control in Burma.

    The silent coup occurred late last year, but it went so unnoticed that the
    Burmese ambassador to Washington, Tin Winn, found it necessary to pen
    a letter to the editor of the Washington Post in March to point out to the
    United States that "the torch has been passed on to a new generation of

    Led by intelligence chief Lt.-Gen. Khin Nyunt and members of an obscure
    think-tank called the Office of Strategic Studies, or OSS, this new
    generation has embarked on an ambitious programme to rid the government
    of its most corrupt ministers, revitalize the country's economy, and improve
    the ruling junta's international image with the help of professional
    public-relations firms in Washington.

    These young officers, some of whom have lived abroad, are clearly more
    sophisticated and polished than their elders. But are they a group of Young
    Turks who, having seized power, are about to implement radical change?
    Hardly, say analysts. "They may be somewhat younger and brighter than
    the old guard," says a Rangoon-based Western diplomat. "But their aim is
    the same. They're dedicated to keeping the military in power, but with a
    more sophisticated approach." 

    The new breed hope the appearance of progress may be enough to roll
    back sanctions and attract foreign investment to their resource-rich but
    impoverished country. But they haven't fooled Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's
    main opposition leader. She spoke out in a videotape that was smuggled
    out of Rangoon and recently presented to the UN Commission on Human
    Rights in Geneva. Asked if the recent changes in the military leadership
    had improved the human-rights situation, she replied: "As far as I can see,
    there has been no improvement at all. In fact, I could say that I am inclined
    to think that things have even got worse."

    Indeed, some of the new leaders' latest moves have further isolated Suu
    Kyi, the last outspoken critic of army rule who has not been arrested or fled
    into exile. In the past month, the junta has apprehended nearly 250
    intellectuals--lawyers, Buddhist monks and old student leaders--according
    to Burmese exiles in Thailand. Officials have accused them of conspiracy to
    bomb public buildings and other "subversive acts," such as spreading
    rumours against the government, the exiles say.

    That harshness is not what Burmese had hoped for when, on November 15
    last year, the authorities in Rangoon announced that the State Law and
    Order Restoration Council, or Slorc--a vicious-sounding acronym for the 21
    generals who had ruled Burma since the political turmoil of 1988--had been
    disbanded. No less than 14 of its old members were pensioned off and
    several of them are now under what a Rangoon-based Asian diplomat
    describes as "virtual house arrest."

    On the same day, a new 19-member junta, the State Peace and Development
    Council--the SPDC--took over. The old Slorc had been made up of officers
    who for years had served as regional commanders and high-ranking leaders
    of other armed-forces units. By contrast, most SPDC members were
    relatively junior commanders who were elevated to their present positions
    in the military hierarchy on the same day, November 15.

    Since the announcement, foreign diplomats and Burmese alike have been
    trying to get a grip on this inscrutable "new generation." Are they the same
    as, or even more uncompromising than, the old guard? 

    So far, most diplomatic attention has focused, misguidedly, on the "top
    five" of the SPDC, who also held important posts in the former Slorc: its
    chairman, Gen. Than Shwe, vice-chairman and army commander Gen.
    Maung Aye, and the three secretaries--intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, army
    chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Tin Oo and Lt.-Gen. Win Myint, who since 1988 has
    been responsible for central security in Rangoon. The remaining 14
    members of the SPDC are not there to exercise any direct power, but
    because the top leadership needs to control the country's 12 regional
    commands, the air force and the navy, an Asian diplomat suggests. 

    But Burma's new power centre does not even consist of the top five
    members of the SPDC, says a veteran Western diplomat in Rangoon. The
    SPDC's strongman is, in fact, Khin Nyunt, the "adopted son" of old
    strongman Gen. Ne Win. Born in 1939, Khin Nyunt was one of the
    youngest members of the original Slorc. "He is dedicated, energetic,
    intelligent--and capable of extreme ruthlessness and brutality," says
    Desmond Ball, a Burma watcher from the Australian National University. 

    Apart from being head of the powerful Directorate of Defence Services
    Intelligence, a post he has held for 15 years, Khin Nyunt also heads the
    new OSS. And it's the OSS which is the most interesting power centre in
    Burma today. Scholar Andrew Selth, from Australian National University,
    says: "A small body answerable to Khin Nyunt, the OSS was initially
    believed to be a semi-academic institution similar to the strategic-studies
    institutes and think-tanks found elsewhere in the region and further afield."
    It has proved to be much more. 

    Founded in 1994, the OSS organizes symposiums in Rangoon and sends
    representatives to its counterparts in other Asian capitals. It also has links
    with intelligence groups in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and
    Pakistan. "That's a clever move. It has strengthened Khin Nyunt's regional
    standing, especially before and after Burma joined Asean in July last year,"
    says a Bangkok-based Burma analyst.

    Gradually, this shadowy group moved to strengthen its power within the
    country. Rangoon-based sources say Khin Nyunt spent months collecting
    data about corruption within the government and its agencies before
    making his move last November. He visited Singapore in October, and a
    diplomat who is well-placed says that he returned with some damning

    He targeted ministers who had raked in big commissions and kick-backs
    from foreign investors. The corruption was so massive that it was hurting
    the economy, the diplomat says. Although more than $6 billion worth of
    foreign investment had been committed to Burma, "only a fraction of that
    amount had materialized." 

    The ministers who are now under "virtual house arrest" held portfolios that
    gave them sway over foreign-investment decisions, lending credence to
    the diplomat's explanation. But while ministers whose greed impeded
    foreign investment may have been purged, that doesn't mean corruption
    has been rooted out: Even Khin Nyunt, who is considered relatively clean,
    lives beyond his official monthly salary of less than $20. (The average
    Burmese takes home $10-15 a month.)

    What's increasingly clear is that the OSS is now in charge. "Its stated
    objectives mirror the functions of the government," says a Rangoon-based
    analyst. "It advises the Foreign Ministry and tells the Ministry of
    Information what to say. The OSS directs ethnic affairs and Burma's drug
    policy, apart from keeping a watchful eye on dissidents within and outside
    the country. It has even organized seminars in Rangoon to map out
    economic policies. In effect, it is the government."

    According to a Ministry of Defence protocol list made available to the
    REVIEW, the OSS consists of 12 members; five are identified as "heads of
    departments." Apart from Khin Nyunt, other leading members include Col.
    Kyaw Thein, a 49-year-old intelligence officer who is one of the few
    university graduates in the military hierarchy. In the late 1980s, he helped
    to forge peace deals with former communist and ethnic insurgent groups.
    Now in charge of "anti-narcotics activities," he is also frequently referred
    to as acting director of the OSS. 

    Another office bearer, Brig.-Gen. Kyaw Win, is a former student activist. He
    joined the army after the first university unrest in 1962--which coincided
    with the army's seizure of power in Burma. The air-force representative, Col.
    Thein Swe, speaks flawless English peppered with American
    colloquialisms. In the early 1990s, when he was defence attache at the
    Burmese embassy in Bangkok, he made strenuous efforts to befriend the
    foreign media. 

    Another member, Lt.-Col. Hla Min, grew up partly in America, where his
    father served as a diplomat at the Burmese embassy in Washington.
    According to a source close to him, he "loves baseball and misses
    America." Today, he directs the Burmese government's efforts to have its
    side of the story presented on the Internet; dissident exiles dominate most
    Burma Web sites. Hla Min is also the main point of contact between the
    Burmese military and the American public-relations firms which have
    recently become active on the junta's behalf in Washington.

    But behind the smooth facade exists an iron-fisted mentality, as recent
    sentences demonstrate. In March, the SPDC sentenced a leader of the 1988
    student uprising, Aung Tun, 30, to 15 years in prison for writing a history
    of the student movement. Then in early April, San San, a woman in her 60s
    and a leading member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy,
    received 25 years' imprisonment for "distributing false information
    domestically and internationally." Burmese exiles say the charge flowed
    from an interview San San did last year with the Burmese service of the
    British Broadcasting Corp.

    In Geneva on April 14, the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted a
    European Union motion on Burma which expressed concern at abuses
    including "extrajudicial executions, torture, and repression of ethnic and
    religious minorities." Shortly afterwards, Amnesty International released a
    report on atrocities committed against villagers in Burma's Shan State.

    A decade after millions of people across the country took to the streets to
    demand an end to army rule and a restoration of the democracy the country
    enjoyed before 1962, the Burmese military appears to be more solidly
    entrenched in power that at any time in the past. Sadly, the younger, more
    sophisticated generals and colonels in the OSS may be better poised to
    ensure this state of affairs prevails than their old, crude and clumsy
    colleagues in the abolished Slorc.