2004: A 'Busy Year' for Burma, or More Blather?
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Tuesday, June 25, 2019


2004: A 'Busy Year' for Burma, or More Blather?

By Aung Zaw JANUARY, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.1

A reshuffle in Burma’s leadership and a new "road map" for national reconciliation have led some to believe that 2004 will at last bring democracy to this benighted land. Hosted by Burma’s most powerful general, Than Shwe, this year’s Independence Day reception was something to behold. Following dinner, invited guests and foreign diplomats watched a traditional cultural performance about the life of revered King Anawrahta, founder of the Pagan kingdom. The king is known for having built several dams while preserving peace within the realm. As the show progressed, a picture of Than Shwe appeared on a screen while dancers hopped around the stage. The screen proceeded to display a virtually endless series of dams, bridges, and schools built by the current military junta. Thus did Than Shwe, originally from Kyaukse, liken himself to King Anawrahta, for both of them have undertaken construction projects in their respective hometowns. Though some audience members were bewildered or rather amused by the show, few missed its point: as chairman of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, and commander in chief of the armed forces, Than Shwe is still Burma’s paramount leader, the man who would be Burma’s king. Although widely regarded to be slow, reclusive and calculating, Than Shwe now wants to speed things along. For more than a decade he has headed a regime condemned as one of the most repressive in the world. Dissidents have charged that he is among the high-ranking officials responsible for the deadly ambush on opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her convoy in Upper Burma last May. As the world protested the incident, Than Shwe suddenly disappeared from the public. Critics were left to wonder what the general—known to some army insiders as Tat Choke Gyi, or "commander of all troops"—was up to. But in recent months Than Shwe has returned to the limelight. The SPDC chairman now wants to assure that his newly appointed prime minister will implement the "road map" intended to legitimize the SPDC. Should the map prove successful, Burma may soon have a new government and constitution. But there are reasons to think otherwise. In August of last year, shortly after the attack on Suu Kyi, Gen Khin Nyunt was appointed prime minister and soon proposed the seven-point road map. Since then, Khin Nyunt and his team have been on the diplomatic offensive. The general attended the Bali Summit where he briefed Southeast Asia’s leaders on the new plan. He also went Tokyo to attend a summit held by Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi. In December, Foreign Minister Win Aung attended the "Bangkok Forum." Hosted by the Thai government, this was the first international conference attended by the regime’s representatives to discuss the situation in Burma. Previously the generals had maintained that Burma’s internal affairs were nobody’s business but their own. The international community remained skeptical about the road map. But most countries have backed away from pressuring the generals and are prepared to give them one more chance. Only the US and UK remain vocal critics of the junta. Within a few months, the generals had recovered from the widespread condemnation that began last May. "They [Burmese officials] were quite confident," says a Burmese scholar who was recently in Rangoon. Attending the Bangkok Forum has put a spring in the SPDC’s step. "They believe they now have backing from the region and international governments," the scholar adds. But the energetic PM is not resting on his laurels, such as they are. Instead he has been wooing ethnic groups to garner support for the National Convention. He has been traveling to Shan, Kachin and Mon states to meet with locals and officials. In Shan State late last year, he made a symbolic gesture by appearing in a group photo with local Shan at the Panglong monument. Khin Nyunt has also invited ethnic leaders from a dozen ceasefire groups to Rangoon to back Khin Nyunt’s plan. State-owned newspaper the New Light of Myanmar often runs front-page headlines declaring that such leaders have expressed their support for the road map. A western diplomat in Rangoon notes that the government is still trying to get all the ethnic eggs into its basket: "They are obviously trying to sort that out before addressing the NLD question." The diplomat added that many cabinet ministers and officials are short on ideas when it comes to how to kick off the national reconciliation process. Currently the junta is courting the Karen National Union, or KNU, which sent a high-level delegation to Rangoon in January. It was the KNU’s second trip to Rangoon in two months. But the National League for Democracy, or NLD, Burma’s main opposition party and winner of the 1990 elections, has been eerily silent.

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