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Power Shuffle in Myanmar?

Updated On: Sep 29, 2006

Reports of a power shuffle in Myanmar have been streaming to the Chinese and independent Burmese media in the past week. Although the Myanmar government denied the changes, some degree of leadership change seems to be in the air.

Xinhua News Service initially reported (based on the broadcast from the Myanmarstate-run Radio Myanmar) that Senior General Than Shwe, Chairman of the Myanmar State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services had passed his military power to General Shwe Mann who was also a member of the SPDC and was ranked third in the military. However, Xinhua subsequently withdrew the story after it published another report saying that military sources denied the high-level shake-up in the military. All three reports by Xinhua were reported on Friday 22 September 2006.

Despite the Myanmar government's denial, independent Burmese media provided similar stories. The Norway-based Burmese Democratic Voice of Burma reported the intensifying power struggle between General Shwe Mann and Vice Senior General Maung Aye, Vice Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Both have been supposedly trying to divide the various positions among their supporters. There have been reports of ongoing changes in the divisional commanders, brigadier-generals, and colonels, including ambassadors since August 2006.

The Irrawaddynews website also claims to have obtained a two-page official document signed by Lt-General Thein Sein, stating the military government's plans to change the structure of the administrative bodies at the state, division, district and township levels. The document showed that army chiefs would continue to chair most administrative groups. However, it also reported Thein Sein urging new civilian representatives to be prepared to take those positions in the future.

It is unsure if the power shuffle is related to the likelihood of discussion of Myanmarin the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC is set to receive a briefing from the UN Undersecretary for Political Affairs, Ibrahim Gambari on MyanmarMyanmar's foreign minister has predictably condemned the decision. TheMyanmar government has also adopted another strategy to handle the discussion at the UNSC. It has allegedly pressurised the various Burmese ethnic ceasefire groups to oppose the placing of Myanmaron the UNSC agenda. The Irrawaddyreported that the government officials from the Military Affairs Security have approached these groups to ask them to denounce the discussion of Myanmaras an intrusion on Myanmar's internal affairs. A peace group in Myanmar- the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Association (DKBA) has also issued a statement criticising the USfor using the UN to pressurise Myanmar.

Even if there had been a power shuffle, there is little to suggest that there will be a liberalisation of the political system of Myanmar. This week, the government detained three student activists, questioning them at the Home Affairs Ministry. The arrest was probably related to the commemoration of the 18th anniversary of the founding of the National League for Democracy (NLD).

About 350 members and supporters of the NLD, including foreign diplomats gathered at the NLD headquarters in Yangonfor the 18th anniversary. About 50 non-NLD party members were also reported to have staged a peaceful sit-in outside the NLD headquarters demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi (who has been under house arrest under May 2003).

Interestingly, there was also another party celebrating its 18th anniversary around the same time as the NLD though it had a different message. Like the NLD, the National Unity Party (NUP) was formed in 1988 to contest the 1990 general election. It was a replacement of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) that had been the only legal political party from 1962 to 1998. However, unlike the NLD, the general secretary of the pro-military party National Unity Party (NUP), Khin Maung Gyi has slammed democracy as “alien” and said that, “We have to learn from history, but not to copy alien culture, norms and politics such as democracy.” It would be interesting to see what lessons the NUP has learnt from history.

Sources:

Peace Group in Myanmar Criticises US for Using UN to Pressure Country (Xinhua General News, 27 September 2006)

Myanmar Detains Three Activists As Opposition Party Celebrates Anniversary (The Associated Press, 27 September 2006)

Myanmar Opposition Party Celebrates Anniversary Amid Detentions (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 27 September 2006)

Myanmar's NLD Celebrates 18 Anniversary (JapanEconomic Newswire, 27 September 2006)

Myanmar Defends Itself Against US At UN (JapanEconomic Newswire, 26 September 2006)

Local Admin Changes Hint of Top-Level Shuffle (Irrawaddy Website, 25 September 2006)

Myanmar Pro-Army Party Slams Democracy as “Alien” (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 24 Septembers 2006)

Radio Says Burma Commanders, Ministers, Others Summoned to Capital (BBC Worldwide Monitoring [Burmese Democratic Voice of Burma], 23 September 2006)

The Story “Urgent: Myanmar Top Leader Hands Over Military Power” Withdrawn (Xinhua General News Service, 22 September 2006)

Urgent: Myanmar Denies Military Shake-Up (Xinhua General News Service, 22 September 2006)

Urgent: Myanmar Top Leaders Hands Over Military Power (Xinhua General News Service, 22 September 2006)