Myanmar's stalemate

Print edition : April 13, 2002

Myanmar's military junta seems set against democratic change despite a failing economy, pressure from outside the country and rumblings within its ranks.

THE military junta in Myanmar has backed away from the shadow of Ne Win. As the "father of all" military regimes that have ruled Myanmar, Ne Win's clout is now the subject matter of considerable speculation, despite the fact that he retired in 1988.

National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in a 1996 photograph.-AFP

On March 9, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the current military dispensation describes itself, announced that it had arrested the son-in-law and three grandsons of Ne Win for plotting a coup. Some reports even said that Ne Win himself had been taken into custody, but the military later denied these reports. Western news reports have tended to dismiss the alleged plot, stating that the arrests were the result of business rivalries and the ambition of Ne Win's immediate family.

At a rare press conference in Yangon, Major-General Kyaw Win, deputy chief of military intelligence, said that the four were arrested for attempting to seize power from the current leadership. Kyaw Win said the arrests took place in a Yangon restaurant where the conspiracy was being discussed with a former commanding officer. "In this conspiracy they had involved some of the military units and some commanding officers... so the government took steps to prevent this conspiracy, which threatened not only military unity but also the peace and stability of the country... they were arrested in the nick of time," he said.

According to Kyaw Win, the plotters were unhappy that the Ne Win family and its associates, who had long enjoyed state patronage, were now being denied favours. The official denied that any action had been taken against Ne Win or his daughter, Sandar Win. "This is not a matter of house arrest; we are not arresting them or taking any action against them," he said.

On April 1, the military government announced that the arrested persons would have to face trial on charges of high treason. It is still not clear whether the military authorities will proceed against Ne Win's daughter Sandar Win, whose husband and sons will also face criminal trial.

The detention of those suspected of plotting the coup was followed up with the arrest of some high-ranking security personnel - an indication that the military regime had taken the matter quite seriously.

For 26 years, Ne Win ruled Myanmar with an iron hand. Even after quitting in 1988, he maintained his links with top members of the junta. Khin Nyunt, the powerful intelligence chief, is said to be among his proteges.

But the SPDC had tried to make a clean break with Ne Win and the current dispensation. Speaking on national Armed Forces Day, Senior General Than Shwe, SPDC Chairman and Prime Minister, blamed Ne Win for plunging the country into turmoil in 1988.

Than Shwe also hinted at an end to the political stalemate that Myanmar has faced since 1990, when the military refused to hand over power to the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who continues to live in semi-detention at her Yangon residence.

Than Shwe is quoted as having said: "Untiring efforts are being made... to ensure that when the time comes to hand over the responsibilities of the state, succeeding governments will be able to provide leadership with rectitude and with continuity to a nation where favourable conditions of stability and peace prevail."

However, nobody is sure "when the time for democracy" will come. There have been repeated hints that the military junta will release Suu Kyi soon, but so far nothing of the sort has happened.

Nobody is sure whether the military authorities will ever hand over power to a democratically elected government. Even if there is agreement that a new government will assume power after fresh elections (and not on the basis of the 1990 results), the military will continue to dominate the power structure.

There are some models that the military has favoured in the past - Indonesia being one. But with the departure of Suharto and the winds of democracy blowing across Indonesia, the idea of creating a Golkar-type ruling party has died a natural death.

Pakistan, possibly, could be seen as a role model. The military would like to hold sway on key aspects of the country's politics, including the power to oust any civilian government that is perceived to be a threat to the interests of the armed forces. Pakistan could provide clues on how this is to be accomplished.

Many analysts believe that the military is too insecure and loath to give up its privileges to a civilian government. They point to the lack of progress in the dialogue process that has been going on behind the scenes since October 2000, between the military and Suu Kyi. While neither side appears willing to jeopardise the talks by making public statements, there is growing frustration at the slow pace of the talks and the nature of the process itself.

An announcement made by the United Nations, which said that the Secretary-General's special envoy Razali Ismail would visit Yangon from March 19 to 22 (the visit was subsequently postponed at the suggestion of the military authorities), also stated that the talks remain in the "confidence-building" stage. A tangible impact of the talks has been seen in the release of the activists of the NLD.

A U.N. spokesperson described the military government's decision to postpone Razali's visit as "disappointing". However, on March 19, the military's spokesperson said that the decision to postpone the visit was made on account of the coup that was plotted by Ne Win's family members.

While the military authorities have said more than once that the dialogue process will not be affected, there are reports that the "coup plot" is the screen behind which the power struggle between Khin Nyunt and Army chief Maung Aye continues. In a bid to quash these suggestions, the two have appeared together, inspecting troops. All the three top men - Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt - have also appeared together.

Whatever be the truth about the power struggle, it remains to be seen whether the snapping of the umbilical cord with Ne Win will benefit the dialogue process.

Meanwhile, according to U.N. special investigator Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the process of change in Myanmar is fragile and violations of human rights continue. Pinheiro said that at the private meetings that he held with as many as 25 political prisoners during a visit in February, he did not come across any instances of beating or torture. But he added that he disagreed with the military government's contention that an estimated 1,600 political prisoners were criminals. The U.N. investigator said he had met Suu Kyi, who did not seem hopeless about the future of Myanmar. Pinheiro said he told the junta leaders that they should release Suu Kyi.

As the world continues to wait for the "release" of Suu Kyi, Myanmar is losing precious years which could have been devoted to economic development and democratic reform.

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