Dec 14, 2009 (AFP), As Burma gears up for rare elections due next year, eyes are turning to the fate of the country’s ageing military strongman, Than Shwe, and a possible succession, exiled activists say.
Described by critics as reclusive, paranoid and deeply in thrall to astrology, the 76-year-old "Senior General" has ruled the country with an iron grip since 1992, but is now in the twilight of his career.
A new constitution approved in a widely criticized 2008 referendum says that the State Peace and Development Council – the junta that Than Shwe heads – must hand over power to a new national assembly after the elections.
Than Shwe may take over the new presidential position provided for by the constitution to maintain his hold on power, according to opposition activists living in exile in Thailand.
But after constantly striving to increase his power, he now faces underlying resentment from within the regime, the activists say.
When he eventually quits, "Than Shwe will make sure his future is safe," said Naing Aung, secretary general of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.
He added, however: "Than Shwe has only close circles with him. He is an isolated man."
Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, predicted it would be "interesting to see how he leaves politics because he cannot leave right away".
"If he retains a formal position, it means he is not leaving. If he doesn’t, then he will be protected for quite some time" by keeping his aides close to him, he said.
Than Shwe will be well aware of the fate of several previous leaders since the military took control of Burma in 1962.
Ex-dictator Ne Win, who ruled the country between 1962 and 1988, died under house arrest in 2002 and was not granted a state funeral, while several members of his family were sent to jail. The official press hardly mentioned his death.
Than Shwe himself presided over a purge of the military intelligence service that ended with the sentencing of ex-prime minister Khin Nyunt to 44 years’ house arrest in 1994.
"He may not want to retire, but under the constitution he may have to. He will put someone he really trusts like his son," said Win Min, an academic at Chiang Mai university and pro-democracy activist.
Win Min said that until Than Shwe played his hand, it would be impossible to predict successors in the largely opaque Burma military hierarchy.
"Unpredictability is his strategy. You don’t know what he is going to do. He is a control freak," he said.
In 2005 Than Shwe moved the capital almost overnight from Rangoon to the purpose-built city of Naypyidaw to satisfy his dreams of grandeur – and also to protect himself against supposed threats to his rule.
The elections, meanwhile, have been tailored to favor the junta.
The constitution reserves a quarter of all seats for the military, while opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained for most of the past two decades since her National League for Democracy won the last polls in 1990.
Yet critics say that Than Shwe will still have to deal with some new faces, even if they are just in the military.
"With a new constitution, whether you like it or not, you’ll have new leadership," Aung Naing Oo said. "I don’t think anyone can be as bad, as manipulative as Than Shwe. The new system will open up a little bit."
A complex power struggle is likely between Than Shwe’s circle and the new military officials who will be keen to use their electoral legitimacy, analysts said.
But Than Shwe’s fate will for the most part remain in his own hands.
"Than Shwe will be directing things from behind the curtain," said Khuensai Jaigen, exiled leader of the Shan Herald Agency for News, a news service for the Shan ethnic minority.
Changes "will not come right away. People will not be in a hurry to change things like Obama after Bush," he said ironically.
"At first, the successor will be careful. He’ll try to change things a bit until he’s sure he can be confident. Then there might be drastic changes."