Thursday, 09 July 2020

Larry Jagan

BANGKOK - As the health of Myanmar's senior general, Than Shwe, deteriorates, two major factions, one loosely allied to the ailing junta leader, and one loyal to the junta number two, General Maung Aye, are aggressively jockeying for position in anticipation of a new era of Myanmar politics - though not necessarily a more democratic era, as billed.

Reports received by Asia Times Online that certain top junta members are now under secret investigation for corruption, similar to the probes in the leadup to the purge of former intelligence chief and prime minister General Khin Nyunt and his faction in 2004, indicate that another "soft coup" could be in the cards, this time against ambitious military officers who would gain the most from a planned democratic transition.

Tensions between two major factions within the military government are increasingly on the boil, according to military insiders. At the core of the conflict is Than Shwe's mass organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), which has been given authority to manage the recently announced constitutional referendum set for May and follow-up multi-party elections scheduled for 2010.

If successfully staged, despite barring the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) from participating, the process would fundamentally change the country's political landscape and see the rise of one set of military officers who trade in their khakis for business suits and take top positions in a democratic government over those who remain in the barracks.

With that writing on the wall, several senior army members are becoming increasingly resentful of the USDA's growing prominence and apprehensive about the curtailment of their authority after the referendum is held in May. "It will bring an abrupt end to the army's absolute power," said one Myanmar government official.

Intra-junta rivalry is believed to be breaking down on institutional lines as much as on personalities, pitting those who graduated from the Officers Training School (OTS), like Than Shwe, against those who attended the Defense Services Academy (DSA), where Maung Aye is an alumni. Several current cabinet ministers associated with the USDA hail from the OTS, as are several hardliners on the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), who once but no longer hold operational commands.

Key OTS-affiliated ministers, including Industry Minister Aung Thaung, Fisheries Minister Maung Maung Thein, who is also head of the influential Myanmar Investment Commission, Construction Minister Saw Htun and Agriculture Minister Htay Oo, who is also a key leader of the USDA, are all extreme hardliners and stand accused by rivals and critics of being among the government's most corrupt officials.

The group has now been in government for over eight years and enjoys an extravagant lifestyle in the impoverished country. The members are also among the military generals who are expected to move into the USDA and take up prominent roles in a new civilian-led government.

Many in the army now fear that this group - along with certain other senior SPDC officers, who are currently or were formerly heads of the Bureau of Special Operations (BSO) - may be plotting a more immediate power grab, using the USDA and its mass following as its front.

Those concerns apparently run strongest among officers in the Ministry of Defense, many of them divisional commanders in their late 40s or early 50s and widely known as the "Young Turks". "They see no definite future and are just sitting around in the office with nothing to do," said a well-placed source in the capital, Naypyidaw. "They are watching their colleagues hiding behind their uniforms and building up massive fortunes from corruption in government," he said.

So far, apart from governmental inertia, there are no overt signs of a palace coup. "There is no doubt that many in the army are extremely unhappy with they way things are going, and are concerned about what will happen to them after the referendum and the elections," said a Thai military intelligence official. "Nothing can be ruled out at this stage as resentment and anger is growing among the junior officers and the rank-and-file soldiers," said Win Min, an independent analyst based at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand.

The OTS-affiliated ministers, some insiders believe, may in fact be planning a pre-emptive strike to protect their positions. The Fisheries minister, Maung Maung Thein, and BSO officials Maung Bo and Ye Myint, are all currently under secret investigation by the Bureau of Special Investigations on allegations of bribery, kickbacks and illegal smuggling, a well-placed source inside the regime told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. Several other ministers and members of the SPDC, and their families, are also under investigation, according to the same source.
That's apparently one main reason why the ruling council has not held its regular quarterly meeting for more than nine months. Military insiders say Than Shwe wants to avoid the meeting because he knows Maung Aye will, based on the evidence of the investigations, demand the resignations of at least four BSO-affiliated officers - including Maung Bo and Ye Myint. The council meeting held last year reportedly ended when Maung Aye refused to accept Than Shwe's recommendation that Maung Bo be promoted to a full general, according to Myanmar military sources.

"The top generals have not met [for the quarterly meeting] for months, since before the August and September protests, so during that time, apart from the appointment of three regional commanders, there have been no promotions," said the academic Win Min. "The impact of this will certainly add to the growing frustration amongst some of the commanders who should have already been promoted," he said.

For over a year there has been near total inertia in Myanmar's new capital as the ailing Than Shwe becomes more withdrawn and reclusive and tries to chart a course that will protect his family's interests after he passes from the scene. Some military observers believe that the junta leader's well-worn divide-and-rule tactics may eventually backfire, as a growing number of top generals immediately below him view his plans to move towards "discipline democracy" as a threat to their future positions and power.

"We cannot rule out the possibility of a mutiny or purges within the army," said independent analyst Aung Naing Oo. "Than Shwe is standing in the way of change, but so far no one has had the guts to tell him that he is the main obstacle."

As news of the investigations and concerns about the planned democratic transition become more widespread, the potential for purges and coups will only grow.

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd.