Burma’s Emperors: Wearing New Clothes
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Burma’s Emperors: Wearing New Clothes


By Aung Zaw AUG, 2003 - VOLUME 11 NO.7


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Burma’s cabinet reshuffle brought in loyal young blood and consolidated power among the top generals. A sign of change? Or just the same old song and dance? The August leadership shakeup in Burma took everyone by surprise. In the wake of the Depayin attack on the opposition in May, the unprecedented condemnation from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that followed, and the tightening of US sanctions in July, the military government reshuffled its cabinet, thrusting Gen Khin Nyunt, head of military intelligence, into the Prime Minister seat. It is the first time a spy chief has gone on to chair Burma’s cabinet. Initial reactions to the move were split. Few outside of Bangkok and Beijing heralded it as a major step forward, while the international press deemed the changes "cosmetic surgery" and "window dressing." It’s hard to say if the move is a demotion or a promotion for Khin Nyunt. Too soon to tell, perhaps, but safe to say that the spy master’s job description has been redefined. The outgoing Secretary One of the junta, Khin Nyunt, owes his political ascendancy to the late dictator Gen Ne Win. His transfer to Prime Minister, widely considered a ceremonial position, and his replacement as the junta’s top secretary, sparked speculation that Khin Nyunt was on his way out. But reports say Khin Nyunt remains the third most powerful member of the ruling junta. In the weeks leading up to the reshuffle, military analysts in Rangoon said there was much discussion among top leaders on how to allocate the cabinet portfolios. The trick was to distribute power fairly among top veteran generals and newcomers in a way acceptable to both. It’s not clear how Khin Nyunt feels about his new position. A junta statement read: "In order to be able to carry out the interests of the state and the entire people more effectively, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has appointed General Khin Nyunt as the state prime minister with effect from today." The military junta, which has ruled Burma illegitimately for 15 years, appointed a general who also has no popular mandate to lead the country. But what about opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party? In his speech, the spook-cum-premier mentioned Suu Kyi once and the NLD just briefly, only to blame the opposition for holding the country back politically by clinging to its election victory in 1990. Of course, Khin Nyunt didn’t reveal where she has been held in detention since May. As speculation grew over Khin Nyunt’s new role, Burma’s media-shy top leaders disappeared from the public eye for a week. Khin Nyunt, perhaps Burma’s most media savvy general, appeared at the parliament building to address a group of generals, cabinet ministers and government officials. Notably, however, outgoing PM Sr-Gen Than Shwe, his deputy Gen Maung Aye and Gen Shwe Mann were absent from the proceedings, choosing to keep their distance from Khin Nyunt instead. So, what to make of Burma’s "new power structure"? Than Shwe continues as the paramount leader, retaining the country’s two most powerful posts of SPDC chairman and commander in chief of the armed forces. And as the number one general has always made the decisions in Burma, it would be surprising if Than Shwe shares his executive power. He is now in his early 70s and is believed to be building his own dynasty. Some insiders say he will "retire" in the not-too-distant future, a move he began preparing for years ago. Since the mid-1990s, Than Shwe has carefully handpicked his people to fill top posts in the government based on one criterion only: their loyalty to the Tatmadaw (armed forces). Now, insiders believe he will soon assign key positions to rising stars Shwe Mann and Lt-Gen Soe Win. Soe Win, a known hardliner and former Northwest Commander, was promoted to SPDC Secretary Two in February this year before he replaced Khin Nyunt as Secretary One in the reshuffle. Shwe Mann, former Southwest Commander, was last year named joint chief of staff, a position created exclusively for him. Military analysts say he is being groomed to fill the shoes of SPDC number two Maung Aye. The problem for Khin Nyunt is that as long as the ruling council exists, the PM post will be largely ceremonial, and it looks as though he will now have to cede some territory and responsibility to Shwe Mann and Soe Win. And if he gets forced out of his powerful role as military intelligence chief, as some have suggested, Khin Nyunt will be a general without an army. But it won’t be so easy to clip his wings, as he possesses qualities other leaders in Rangoon lack. He is a renowned workaholic and the international face of the junta, regularly meeting with diplomats and foreign delegations. Some in the press and diplomatic circles have even dubbed him a "moderate" among Burma’s top leaders.


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