covering burma and southeast asia
Saturday, March 23, 2019


By The Irrawaddy JULY, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.6


New Rivalry Taking Shape?

Rumors of a split within Burma’s ruling military council have long focused on the alleged enmity between Gen Maung Aye and Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt. But now it appears that a new standoff has emerged, with even greater potential to jeopardize the junta’s unity.

According to sources in Tokyo and Rangoon, Sr-Gen Than Shwe, chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has begun to assert greater authority over the regime’s economic policies, pitting him against its economics czar, Gen David Abel.

Abel, who is a minister for the prime minister’s office, is highly regarded by Asian economic planners as a rare realist within Burma’s ruling clique. They see him as a key player in efforts to implement reforms needed to lift the country out of its economic morass. As such, he is a familiar face at regional gatherings aimed at enhancing Burma’s economic engagement with the rest of Asia.

But at a recent meeting between Burmese and Japanese officials in Tokyo, Abel was conspicuously absent. Instead, Than Shwe sent Dr Than Nyunt, a chairman of Civil Service Selection and Training Board who wields little or no influence over economic policy. The chagrined hosts of the meeting were reportedly troubled by what they saw as a sign of backtracking by Than Shwe, who has grown increasingly resistant to reforms.

A source in Rangoon said that the SPDC chairman now ignores Abel’s calls for greater liberalization, pointing to his decision to go ahead with plans to nationalize sugar mills and factories. "David Abel’s position is now merely ceremonial," the source said.

Abel’s marginalization appears to be symptomatic of a deepening paralysis at the highest levels of the junta’s power structure. Despite persistent rumors that Than Shwe is preparing to step down, few dare to contradict him. "Many in the regime disagree with his policies, but they are afraid to speak up," said the source.

Part of the problem is that Than Shwe’s obvious successor, Maung Aye, has been weakened by perceptions that his inept performance during an official visit to Thailand in April led to the latest bout of renewed tensions between the two countries. "His best friend now is booze," said one source in Rangoon.

Meanwhile, Khin Nyunt, the third in command, is still under a cloud of suspicion for his long-time association with members of former dictator Ne Win’s family, who are now on trial for treason after allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.

With no clear contender for the top spot emerging, Than Shwe seems set to stay in power for the foreseeable future. And with his reputation for ignoring even his most respected advisors, that could mean a protracted strain on the patience of more forward-looking members of the inner circle.

Bending at the Border

Hundreds of soldiers wounded in the border war between Thailand and Burma since May have been sent for medical treatment by the military government to hospitals in Shan State and Rangoon.

Border-based opposition sources estimated that more than 700 soldiers, including Wa, were wounded, and at least 20 more, including officers, were killed in battle. Fearing humiliation, the state-run press does not announce the tally of killed or wounded soldiers while, newspapers must refrain from publishing funeral announcements of dead soldiers and officers.

Following the clashes, Rangoon closed down border checkpoints with Thailand and has requested Thailand’s compliance on three demands before re-opening, according to a Shan source.

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