The junta purges one of its own
covering burma and southeast asia
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The junta purges one of its own


By The Irrawaddy DECEMBER, 1998 - VOLUME 6 NO.6


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The junta has appointed a senior diplomat and an ex-colonel to lead the foreign ministry in Rangoon.

This year the junta unceremoniously dumped its most high-profile cabinet member, Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw, promoted a relative newcomer, Lt-Gen Tin Hla, as third deputy prime minister, and reassigned or retired nearly two dozen other senior officials. So far, none of those ousted have landed in prison. If they weren’t pushed out because of corruption, then it might have been because of incompetence. Ohn Gyaw, for one, was not regarded as particularly astute and, as a civilian, was well removed from the inner sanctum of power. The SPDC has shot its songbird, but it has not yet changed its tune.

During Ohn Gyaw’s decade-long tenure, Burma rejoined the Non Aligned Movement. Also relations with China, Burma's leading source of military hardware, thawed dramatically. Despite strong Western opposition, Burma finally joined Asean in 1997. Burma’s increasing openness has born little fruit. Indeed, ostracism of  Burma has grown in the past year, even within Asean. The International Labor Organization and UN have issued damning reports on human rights, the EU is ultra-critical, and the US has imposed sanctions.

Meanwhile, Ohn Gyaw was often perceived as a rigid and, at times, disingenuous champion of the regime. “He defended them tooth and nail, but lacked innovation,” says a Burmese exile in Bangkok. Ohn Gyaw’s equally unimaginative deputy, Nyunt Swe, (who as onetime ambassador in Bangkok managed to alienate much of the foreign media) was axed too.

Significantly, Ohn Gyaw’s replacement, Win Aung, 54, was an army colonel until 1985 and Burma’s most senior diplomat in Europe, serving as ambassador in Bonn and London.

Win Aung’s military background will give him greater latitude in executing foreign policy than Ohn Gyaw ever enjoined. More important, Win Aung is a favorite of Khin Nyunt, the powerful head of military intelligence, and was the guardian of  one of strongman Ne Win’s grandsons in London.

A veteran of countless international conferences, Win Aung has tangled with some of the regime’s most vehement critics. He has also played a substantive role in debating and formulating policy;  one way has been by writing for the magazine New Pastures, under the byline Sithu Nyein Aye.

“Win Aung is more sophisticated, but we’re expecting the same message,” says a Western diplomat.

The foreign ministry’s new skill at spin control was recently evident. Lt-Col Hla Min, 44, a military intelligence officer (and another rising star) suavely briefed diplomats about detained members of the National League for Democracy. Hla Min said they “have been staying at government guest houses since September 6 in order to foster greater understanding of the situation in the country.” He never once used the word “hostage.”

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