Monday, October 25, 2004

Myanmar: Turmoil - 'Sacking' or Coup?


In the history of Burma’s military dictatorship there had been two major sackings in the past. In 1992 Than Shwe overthrew Senior General Sawe Maung to become the head of state. Similarly in 1983 Gen Ne Win sacked his Military Intelligence chief Brig Gen Tin Oo on corruption charges because the top brass found he had become too powerful for their own good. Hundreds of officers were dismissed. So the sudden turn of ‘ill health’ of Khin Nyunt and his ouster can be considered as a realignment of the power equation in the military leadership. But the year 2004 finds Burma in a situation totally unlike 1983 or 1992.

Burma (Myanmar): Why the Prime Minister was sacked?
Col R Hariharan (retd.)

In military dictatorships change in top echelons come through palace coups or key player’s sudden fall from grace. In the case of Burma, ruled by a military junta it is the rule rather than exception. So it came as no surprise when the government controlled media reported that Lt General Khin Nyunt, the prime minister, chief of Military Intelligence and No. 3 man in the ruling military hierarchy had stepped down, after being “permitted to retire for health reasons” on October 19, 2004.

More than Health reasons?

Of course the fact remains that Khin Nyunt was energetic and showed no signs of illness till recently and Brig Gen Kyaw Win, Deputy Chief of Military Intelligence Service, was also sacked along with his chief, and a few hundred intelligence troops have been rounded up. According to BBC one senior figure, Major General Myint Zaw, who had been in charge of border affairs within the powerful office of strategic studies, had been detained are details that do not trouble the regime. These are details that indicate there is more than ‘health reasons’ for the exit of Khin Nyunt. Lt Gen Soe Win, a loyalist of Senior General Than Shwe, the head of the ruling junta known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has been appointed as prime minister.

In the history of Burma’s military dictatorship there had been two major sackings in the past. In 1992 Than Shwe overthrew Senior General Sawe Maung to become the head of state. Similarly in 1983 Gen Ne Win sacked his Military Intelligence chief Brig Gen Tin Oo on corruption charges because the top brass found he had become too powerful for their own good. Hundreds of officers were dismissed. So the sudden turn of ‘ill health’ of Khin Nyunt and his ouster can be considered as a realignment of the power equation in the military leadership. But the year 2004 finds Burma in a situation totally unlike 1983 or 1992. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi had been spearheading the struggle for democracy for the last twelve years. There is a great deal of international pressure, particularly from the U.S. and the EU, on the military junta to hand over power to a democratically elected government. Burma would like to exploit the economic opportunities that have opened up after she became a member of the ASEAN.

Three Theories:

But is there more to Khin Nyuint’s sacking? The actions that have followed his exit would indicate so. There are currently three theories circulating among Burma watchers to answer the question.

First is that Khin Nyuint was becoming all-powerful, much like Tin Oo in 1983, and had to be cut down to size. A protégé of Gen Ne Win, Khin had the support of Ne Win who continued to pull the strings from behind the scenes long after he officially resigned in 1988. In his capacity as spy chief, others feared Khin Nyunt in the ruling circle because he had compiled dossiers on everybody else within the ruling circle and was feared. He could not be touched as long as Ne Win was alive. This influence waned when the junta convicted three of Ne Win’s grandsons and son in law in March 2002 for “plotting to seize state power and split the armed forces”.

In 1994 Khin Nyunt had established the Office of Strategic Studies, or OSS, which he in 1994, ‘to help run everything from the economy, health and education policy, archaeological excavation and foreign affairs, to the ceasefire negotiations with ethnic insurgent armies’ as stated by a columnist. His Military Intelligence operated as an “invisible government” - a state within the state. This accumulation of power made the top brass of military government uncomfortable and Khin had to go. The fact that the National Intelligence Bureau, which until this week was headed by Khin Nyunt, has now been abolished would confirm this. The NIB was an all-embracing octopus that comprised the Military Intelligence Service, the police Special Branch, the Bureau of Special Investigation and the Criminal Investigation Department. It is significant that Than Swe himself signed the decree abolishing the 1983 law that established NIB.

A second theory attributes it to the mutual antagonism between Khin and Gen Maung Aye, Vice Chairman of the ruling SPDC and No. 2 in the ruling hierarchy. Maung Aye is a career soldier who became the Vice Chairman in 1992. He is essentially a field commander who wanted to keep Army clear of politics. Khin had never commanded troops and operated through his intelligence apparatus from plush office. For any uniformed soldier such covert operations by men not in uniform are anathema and Maung Aye was no exception. Some Burma watchers had been expecting a showdown between the two officers because of simmering differences between the two. Maung Aye bided his time and has struck now. A major corruption scandal involving military intelligence personnel which was recently unearthed at a checkpoint on Burma's northern border with China apparently provided a touch of point for the final crackdown on Khin.

The third theory relates to the Army trying to cut the size and scale of MI operations and take charge of the initiative. Army and MI are known to have been at loggerheads for some time now. Military operations against ethnic insurgent groups with whom Khin had worked out ceasefire agreements in the past would indicate this divide. The dismantling of the intelligence apparatus nurtured by Khin also supports this view. In this context the radio announcement on the dissolution of the NIB is significant: "The SPDC, which is striving to establish a modern, disciplined and democratic nation in line with the changing times, in the interest of the people, the security and the tranquility of the country, has found that the NIB law is no longer practicable."

In other words, it was a reassertion of Army supremacy over all other organizations. There are a number of businesses associated with MI and the former prime minister in Burma. It is reported that these have been closed down following the arrest. According to local reports the affected business included Bagan Cybertech, the Internet service provider run by Ye Naing Win, the younger son of Khin Nyint. It has been taken over by the Army. An interesting sidelight is that Bagan Cybertech had leased the transponder from Shin Satellite Plc, a company controlled by the family of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The reports also said that about 30 Burmese journals and magazines published under licences issued by MI have been shut. These would indicate definite that the Army had stared the scaling down of operations right in earnest.

Removal of Khin alone will not be enough

The removal of Khin has left a lot of loose ends for the regime to tie up. One is the sensitive issue of dealing with the ceasefire groups of ethnic insurgents, which have expressed concern over the sudden leadership change in Rangoon(Yangon). Khin Nyunt had been the architect of the ceasefire agreements and he had built good rapport with the ethnic leaders. Maung Aye having exhibited hostility to the ethnic minorities in the past; these could resurface and provoke armed conflicts all over again. In this context the report from Kachin sources that Zahkung Ting Ying, leader of a ceasefire group New Democratic Army-Kachin, NDA-K was summoned by the Army immediately after Khin was whisked away is significant. Ting Ying has a good relation with Khin Nyunt since NDA-K entered ceasefire agreement with Military government in 1989. The junta appears to be aware of the need to assuage the fears of ethnic groups. According to reports, immediately on assuming office the new Prime Minister Lt Gen Soe Win and Lt Gen Thein Sein, the new Secretary-1 of the junta, met with several ethnic ceasefire leaders and assured them that everything would remain the same.

The other major issue is that of restoring democracy. Though Khin became prime minister only in 2003, he had been the internationally visible figure of Burma. On becoming prime minister of Burma, he announced the seven-step "road map to democracy" that was supposed to culminate in free elections. His sudden exit when the process had not taken off has caused dismay among many well- wishers of Burma. There are good reasons for this. The statement “It’s a big shock. I had good relations with him,” by the UN special envoy to Burma, Razali Ismail sums up the feeling of some who had dealt with Khin. As far as Aung San Suu Kyi is concerned, things are not looking bright. The newly appointed Prime minister Soe Win, is a hardliner who is believed to have master-minded the violent attack last year on Aung San Suu Kyi.

Responses from Other Countries:

Dealing with an intransigent military regime in Burma had been a major headache for many nations. Bernard Bot, the foreign minister of the Netherlands, which now holds the presidency of the EU, summed it up, in the context of Burma’s participation in ASEM despite European objections, that Europeans should see the relationship with Asia as more than "a zero-sum choice between human rights and trade".

India appears to be no exception. It is welcoming Than Shwe the head of the Burmese military junta, which has crushed democracy for over four decades with open arms to develop closer relationship with Burma. Nothing works like trade and commerce blended with oil politics as they overcome other scruples based on idealism.

Col R Hariharan (retd.) is a specialist in counterinsurgency intelligence with more than two decades of experience. He had served as an MI specialist on Burma.

South Asia Analyst Group 25/10/2004