The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
JUNE, 2000 - VOLUME 8 NO.6

Resignation Rumors Fuel Ceasefire Concerns

Rumors that Sr Gen Than Shwe may soon step down as head of Burma’s ruling junta have raised questions about the possible implications for a number of shaky ceasefire agreements with ethnic insurgent groups.

Speculation that Than Shwe, 68, is seeking to retire was renewed after the top general recently postponed a planned visit to Bangladesh, citing health problems. Observers say that the general has been wanting to quit as army chief and prime minister for the past five years, but has been prevented from doing so because of his key role in maintaining the balance of power between rival factions within the regime.

Hardliners led by Gen Maung Aye, number two in the ruling junta, are believed to be at loggerheads with Lt Gen Khin Nyunt, head of the intelligence faction and powerful first secretary of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

Rangoon-based diplomats say they doubt an open battle between the two sides would ensue if Than Shwe finally did step down, but ethnic leaders in Burma are watching the situation closely. The reason: if Maung Aye takes over as chairman, he could insist that all cease-fire groups surrender their arms.

That could jeopardize relations with cease-fire groups as well as with Khin Nyunt, who is the architect of almost all cease-fire agreements since 1989. Maung Aye, who once stepped on the Karen national flag during a surrender ceremony held in Karen State, is widely disliked by most ethnic groups.

A few months ago, leaders of cease-fire groups held a number of low-profile meetings in Rangoon, where some expressed concern about the slow pace of development in their areas since they reached agreements with the regime. Kachin and Wa rebels were notably restless about the lack of lasting political settlements.

According to a well-informed ethnic source on the China-Burma border, the Was are not happy with the SPDC’s interference in their territory. A few months ago, a Wa commander allowed a high-ranking Burmese army officer and his soldiers to visit their headquarters, but told them not bring guns. It is estimated that the Was have more than 35,000 soldiers and abundant supplies.

Non-ceasefire groups along the Thai-Burma border stand to benefit most from an end to the status quo. "They (rebels) can come back to the jungle (if the ceasefire agree-ments break down)," said one ethnic leader recently.

SPDC Build-Up in Northern Shan State

Shan sources say that the proliferation of groups "joining the legal fold" and signing ceasefire agreements with the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), Burma’s ruling military junta, has done nothing to slow down the pace of militarization in northern Shan State.

"Since the latter part of 1999, (the) SPDC has been expanding its military presence in northern Shan State," reports the Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), an independent news service. The process has involved the creation of new battalions and the confiscation of land for military bases along the main roads from Lashio, Hsenwi, Kutkai and Muse up to Mongko, Laokai and Chinshwehaw, near the border with China. Since mid-1999, there have been at least 36 battalions stationed in towns and villages along the Lashio-Muse road alone, said the report.

SHAN quotes an ex-member of a local township council as saying that the top military command had set down a policy of self-reliance for regional and local military commands, prompting increasing depredations on the local population. The source also noted that most of the new battalions were under-sized, "in order to get as much land for the military as possible."

Apart from helping to provide for the needs of Burma’s vastly expanded armed forces, the growing presence may also have strategic significance.

"One of the main objects of the SPDC’s military expansion in northern Shan State is probably to one day threaten some of the 10 ceasefire groups in the area into laying down their arms or force them to dissolve altogether," commented one observer in Lashio. Despite the cessation of open conflict in much of the state, most ceasefire groups remain heavily armed.

 Thai Rak Thai & the Burmese

In an attempt to bolster its foreign policy credentials, a team from media-mogul cum politician Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai political party visited Burma, Laos and Singapore to present their vision of the future. According to deputy party leader Surakiat Sathirathai, the presentations went well.

While details are vague, Surakiat noted that Burma?s Lt Gen Khin Nyunt was particularly responsive to the party’s drug suppression platform. This has been a contentious issue in recent Burmese-Thai relations.

Thaksin is no stranger to dealing with Burma. His ties to the country go back several years. In 1994, Thaksin visited Burma and met with Khin Nyunt while serving as Thailand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. His company, Shin Corporation, also has large telecommunications investments in Burma.

And while the date for the next election has yet to be set, analysts believe that Thai Rak Thai is well placed to take the lead in forming the next government with Thaksin as the leader. Thaksin and his party’s relations with Burma could play an important role in future Thai-Burmese relations.

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