Commentary: Behind the military shake-up

Htet Aung Kyaw

Jun 25, 2008 (DVB), While most of Burma is busy trying to help survivors of the deadly Cyclone Nargis in the delta region, military rulers in Naypyidaw are busy with their own agenda.

Are they celebrating their new constitution and planning for the 2010 election rather than helping survivors?

Last weekend, state media announced a small cabinet reshuffle with the navy chief moved to become a minister. But there was also an unannounced major reshuffle in the army as five powerful warlords were dismissed or designated for new government posts in 2010, according to former army officials and military observers.

Those dismissed belonged to a group of Bureau of Special Operations commanders who are the key players between the War Office and regional commanders, including lieutenant general Ye Myint, Kyaw Win, Aung Htwe, Maung Bo, and Khin Maung Than.

"Changes in the military are never announced to the public but only made known through an internal circular distributed within the military" said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a defence analyst based on the China-Burma border.

After those top five off, seven regional commanders are ready to replace while more reshuffle in the lower levels. "Although it seems they were force to retire but I think they will become high officials in USDA when the new election is held in 2010," he adds.

Many believe that the Union Solidarity and Development Association will become a powerful political party in the 2010 election, while detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is being threatened by these military-backed thugs.

Before the reshuffle, the junta announced the adoption of the new constitution which they forced people to approve while the NLD urged people to vote No in May.

"This was not only laying the groundwork for the USDA but was also part of the power struggle between senior general Than Shwe and general Maung Aye," said major Aung Lin Htut, a key member of former prime minister general Khin Nyunt’s spy network who served as deputy ambassador in Washington before he sought asylum in the US in 2005.

He seems to think that the reshuffle was just a way of shoring up power for Than Shwe and the USDA. He cites the cancellation of the first US C-130 flight to Burma on 8 May as an example.

"The green light for the flight had already been given by general Maung Aye to the Burmese embassy in Bangkok. But [Than Shwe's right-hand man] U Aung Thaung of the USDA postponed this order" claimed Aung Lin Htut.

That showed clearly that power did not rest with Maung Aye and the army but with Than Shwe and the USDA, he added.

Moreover, Aung Lin Htut says that the reshuffle was connected with Nargis.

"Vice Admiral Soe Thein was studying at the US naval academy in the 1980s. That is why he had such a good rapport with admiral Timothy Keating from the US Navy when they meet in Rangoon airport. That is why he was dismissed," the former spy official told this correspondent.

The former major put the dismissal of major-general Maung Maung Swe down to the fact that he is Maung Aye's son-in-law, while the dismissed major-general Saw Lwin is a close friend of Maung Aye.

Power struggles and election preparations aside, is there any hope for dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi? Both the former spy official and the military observer say no.

Aung Lin Htut and Aung Kyaw Zaw agreed that there was no hope for dialogue or any change of direction as long as Than Shwe in power.

But the former spy and diplomat still hopes for the day when the army will return to the barracks. "I don't think general Maung Aye is as bad as general Than Shwe. As a professional solider, general Maung Aye would not be as involved with the USDA or civil affairs as general Than Shwe is today," Aung Lin Htut said.

Aung Kyaw Zaw agreed but asked, "Who will remove Than Shwe from power and how? I don’t think Maung Aye or any soldier will fight against him anytime soon," he said.

However, they are both agreed that Than Shwe’s age and lack of moral power could present a chance for change.

"He is now 75 years old and his memory is failing. So he may face similar karma to general Saw Maung who was forced to retire for medical reasons in 1992," the analyst said.

But they warned that Than Shwe will not retire or be dismissed before the 2010 election if there is no strong action from the NLD-led people's movement and international pressure from the United Nations.

Htet Aung Kyaw is a journalist for the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma

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