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Subject: Nation: Editorial & Opinion The politics of the Burmese military cliques
Editorial & Opinion
The politics of the Burmese military cliques
What happens (or does not happen) in countries under military rule is the
function of intra-military politics and the existing power equation within a
politically dominant segment of the military, writes Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe.
ON an official visit to Japan in January 1999, courtesy of the Japanese
Ministry, Gen Kyaw Win, No. 2 to Khin Nyunt -- the defacto strongman of Burma
-- accused Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of obstructing the path to a multiparty system
and ''hampering national unification and economic development''.
The military's version of why there has been no change or progress seems
plausible on the surface. But a more rational explanation for stagnancy is to
be found elsewhere. According to analysts who are familiar with the power
dynamics of military regimes, what happens (or does not happen) in countries
under military rule is the function of intra-military politics and the
power equation within a politically dominant segment of the military. In a
political landscape where there is no other centres of power, it is misleading
to read too much into what the opposition, if it is allowed to exist, say or
In the aftermath of a military seizure (unlawful by definition) of power, no
military leader claims as the new regime's goal, the perpetuation of military
rule. Coupmakers invariably proclaim that their goal is to hand power over to
elected politicians (or parliament) as soon as things return to normal, or a
certain economic benchmark is attained.
What transpires however is that, once in power, the ruling generals tend to
proclaim that the goals, the benchmarks for the transfer of power to
are still too far away. And they give many reasons for their failure
such cases, failure serves their interest). They range from continuing armed
rebellions, foreign threats or subversion, intransigent opposition groups or
leaders, the inherent backwardness or immaturity of the people (and their
unfitness for democracy), low or unsatisfactory economic growth (owing to
foreign sanctions, for example, or drought, crop failure, etc), or best of
the argument that only the military ''can do'', and are therefore
Military regimes however do not last forever. As put by a scholar of military
politics with long experience in Burma-watching, these regimes are weakest
the strongman-ruler, the No.1 -- Gen Ne Win in Burma's case -- is in decline,
physically or otherwise.
It is at such a time that the military ruling bloc is more or less paralysed.
Its only strategy then is to maintain an uneasy status quo because no one can
(or dares to) act decisively for fear of displeasing or arousing the suspicion
of the old No.1 -- whose role is that of an erratic ''wild card'', owed to the
residual power he holds and fear he still inspires.
The survival and future of every potential or aspiring successor is dependent
on how he plays the ''wild card'' in the game of ''court intrigues''. Anyone
aspiring to become the new No.1 -- Lt Gen Khin Nyunt, in Burma's case -- must
necessarily be skilled in handling the old No. 1, lest his rivals -- ie, Gens
Maung Aye, Tin U, and a clique around Senior Gen Than Shwe -- succeed in
turning the old No. 1 against him.
As noted by a military specialist stationed at a Western embassy in
long as the old No. 1, Gen Ne Win, is alive, there can and will be no new
initiatives. An example given of this, is the lack of progress in the drafting
of a new constitution and the frequent postponement of ''National
which was first convened in January 1993.
As well, knowledgable Burmese attribute the refusal of the junta to hold
meaningful talks, its unwillingness to discuss anything of substance with the
opposition, the NLD (National League for Democracy), and especially with the
popular, charismatic Noble laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to what can be
termed, the ''Ne Win factor''. It is widely believed in Burma that Ne Win, the
old No.1, was deeply offended by a remark made by Daw Suu Kyi's remark in
asserting that the armed force, the tatmadaw, should play the role envisioned
for it by her father, Gen Aung San: the role of a professional body under the
command of a legitimate, civilian government -- implying that Ne Win had
corrupted the tatmadaw.
As such, no ruling general, including the now quite powerful Khin Nyunt, dares
to engage in any dialogue with the NLD, especially with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,
for to do so would provide his rivals with an opportunity to jettison him,
the blessing of the old No. 1. This was precisely what happened to a
generals senior in rank to Khin Nyunt -- Gens Kyaw Ba, Tun Kyi, Myo Nyunt --
who flouted their wealth and power, over whom Khin Nyunt apparently had very
Complicating life further for Gen Khin Nyunt, the defacto but shaky No. 1, is
the existence of a hardcore ''old guard'' faction led by former Gen Sein Lwin,
notorious and hated for his role in the bloody suppression of student
protesters in 1988. It is said that Sein Lwin's henchmen are in charge of the
military's pseudo-political ''mass organisation'', the USDA (Union Solidarity
Given the power dynamics and the prevailing political equation within the
ruling military bloc, composed of aspiring strongmen-rulers and various
and factions, it is only natural that there is no forward movement in Burma.
The only kind of politics aspiring strongmen and rival cliques and factions
able to safely play in such an environment is one where they try to prove to
the old No.1 and to each other, that they are tougher, more hardline, than the
rest -- ie, the kind of politics witnessed in recent months in the form of
holding mass rallies to denounce Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, shutting down branch
offices of the NLD, and harassing its members.
Inertia, the lack of progress on almost every front, stagnancy, and so on, are
inherent in systems where power is monopolised by a few men (in uniform or
otherwise). This becomes more pronounced in periods when there is a growing
power vacuum, as the decline (physical or otherwise) of a military strongman,
or the old No.1, progresses.
Therefore, to blame the opposition -- in Burma's case, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi --
for lack of progress and deadlock, can be compared to blaming the passengers
rather than the crews for an air disaster.
However, with rumours emerging again, that the old No.1 is about to pass away,
and if these rumours are valid, one can expect to see substantial changes in
Burma by this time next year.
One would either see Lt Gen Khin Nyunt becoming -- since he is the
the lot -- the new No.1, with the military in charge for perhaps another
decade. Alternatively, there could be in place by this time next year, a
transition in progress, facilitated, paradoxically it would seem, by none
than Khin Nyunt, he being, in the view of knowledgable Burmese, the most
intelligent and flexible military leader in Burma.