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FEER: 980507: Velvet Glove by Bert
- Subject: FEER: 980507: Velvet Glove by Bert
- From: suriya@xxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Fri, 01 May 1998 21:30:00
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
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.