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Change in government may be more than 'old wine in a new bottle'
This article was first published in the 15 November 1997 issue (#869) of BurmaNet, and is reprinted here under permission from BurmaNet (firstname.lastname@example.org).
On November 15, the SLORC was dissolved and the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) came into being. The same top four SLORC leaders are at the head of the SPDC: Than Shwe, Tin Oo, Maung Aye, and Khin Nyunt. Many analysts have suggested that this is merely "old wine in new bottles". In many ways, yes, but it may signal a shift in tactics although probably not overall strategy.
One reason for forming a new government may have been so that the military leaders could distance themselves from the 1990 election issue. Before the 1990 election, the SLORC assured the people that it would transfer power to the winning party. After the SLORC-backed National Unity Party lost, the SLORC refused to hand over power to the NLD and insisted that a new constitution needed to be drafted first. Hounded by criticism for not having transferred power to the legitimate government, the military leaders may think that by changing the government, they can claim that they bear no responsibility for acting on the 1990 election results.
The new regime's name, the State Peace and Development Council, is certainly more innocuous than "SLORC" was. The SLORC must have been tired of the negative press it had received for having such a fittingly odious name. The leaders clearly thought long and hard about what to call the regime. For instance, they have used "aye chan thaya ye" rather than "nyein chan ye" to mean "peace". "Nyein chan ye" implies an unstable situation to which peace is restored, and using this would remind the public of the fact that there is no real peace in Burma today. Instead, they have used ""ayechan thaya ye" which suggests peace and tranquility already exist and will be enhanced by the regime.
The decision to reorganize the government appears to have been made as a result of internal and external factors. Like the civilian population, the SLORC members themselves seemed to have felt that the situation could not continue as it had. Some change needed to be made to turn around the economy and the junta's image. At the same time, pressure from ASEAN governments may have influenced the SLORC, though what ASEAN seemed to be looking for was a government that appeared less brutal and could handle the economy more effectively. While the name of the regime sounds less evil, the SLORC did not put a civilian facade on the government as Burma watchers had predicted they might. Even such ministries as health, tourism, and trade are still being run by military men.
Interestingly, the tension that existed in the SLORC between the Maung Aye/Tin Oo infantry faction and the Khin Nyunt military intelligence faction, has not been resolved in the new government. Most of the members of the SPDC, which consists of all the regional commanders, are more sympathetic to Tin Oo and Maung Aye. However, the Cabinet members are closer to Khin Nyunt. The advisory committee contains some of the more notably corrupt members of the SLORC, such as Tun Kyi and Kyaw Ba. Although they have been pushed aside into largely ceremonial roles, they could still play a role if they can form a power bloc with either of the other two factions.
Nevertheless, Khin Nyunt appears to have the upper hand. For instance, Lt General Win Myint, who is the new Secretary 3, and therefore the fifth most powerful person in the SPDC, is close to Khin Nyunt. He was responsible for putting down the Karen uprising in the Irrawaddy Delta area in 1991 (extremely brutal, many civilians imprisoned and killed), and for dealing with the Rohingyas in the early 1990s. As the former commander of the 11th Battalion, he has played a key role, because the best troops from around the country are recruited into this battalion.
Also close to Khin Nyunt is Tin Hla, the minister of the newly formed Ministry of Military Affairs. In 1988, he was the Commander of the 22nd Battalion, which was most responsible for crushing the pro-democracy movement in Rangoon. The 22nd Battalion is also considered to have been the most useful to the SLORC, and is highly favored by them.
The Ministry of Military Affairs is a newly created Ministry. This ministry is not necessary but was probably established to appease Tin Hla, who is more senior than Win Myint, and theoretically should have become Secretary 3 instead of him. Because there is already a rivalry between the 11th and 22nd Battalions, there may well be jealousy between the two men.
Other SPDC Cabinet members who are affiliated with Khin Nyunt include Major General Kyaw Than, who is the new Minister of Trade and Commerce, Major General Sein Htwa, the new Minister of Religious Affairs, and Major General Saw Lwin, the Minister of Hotels and Tourism.
Because of his loyalty to Khin Nyunt, Brigadier General Win Tin has retained his position as Minister of Finance and Revenue despite his inability to improve the economic situation in Burma. Likewise, Ohn Gyaw is still the foreign minister, even though he has not been able to convince the international community that the military junta has been working for the good of the country.
The fact that Khin Nyunt has regained his power is important because he approaches the country's problems differently from Maung Aye and Tin Oo. While members of the SLORC and now the SPDC are united in their desire to maintain military control over the country, their tactics have differed. The Maung Aye/Tin Oo faction, whose power base comes from infantry commanders, has relied on the use of force to deal with the armed ethnic groups and the democratic opposition. Khin Nyunt, whose career has been in military intelligence, has favored using political tactics to divide and weaken the opposition.
With regard to the ethnic groups, the Maung Aye/Tin Oo faction has sought to crush the armed opposition through brutal military campaigns. Meanwhile, Khin Nyunt has tried to convince the armed groups to sign cease-fires, and has used the promise of economic deals to entice resistance leaders. Once the cease-fires are signed, Khin Nyunt's men have tried to divide the leaders from their people by limiting the money that is distributed to the political organizations and their supporters, but giving generous gifts and business deals to individual leaders. As a result, the resistance leaders, who convinced their people that the cease-fire would bring benefits to everyone, have become distanced from their people, who see the leaders growing richer while they are as poor or poorer than ever.
A similar difference can be discerned in how the two factions have dealt with the NLD and other pro-democracy activists inside Burma. The Tin Oo/Maung Aye faction has preferred physical aggression and intimidation. For instance, this faction is widely believed to have been behind the attack on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's car last year.
Meanwhile, Khin Nyunt's faction has tried to weaken the NLD by dividing and exhausting them. For instance, when the SLORC came to Aung Shwe late one evening and told him he could meet with the SLORC the next day, Khin Nyunt was trying to drive a wedge in the NLD. If Aung Shwe didn't go meet with the SLORC it might look like the NLD was being uncooperative, but if he did go, he would be acting against party policy, which stated that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi must be present. Having no time to consult with other CEC members first, Aung Shwe risked polarizing other NLD members who might disagree with his decision, whichever way he decided.
Likewise, allowing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to travel to meetings sometimes and then to block her at other times may be an attempt to wear her out and to make people bored with the NLD. The military junta and the NLD appear to be playing a cat and mouse game while the people's problems are not being resolved. Because the restrictions on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are not absolute and she can move around somewhat, her situation does not attract much international media attention. Nevertheless, it is extremely difficult for her or her party to carry out their work under these conditions.
It is still too early to predict how extensive policy changes will be with the creation of the SPDC, but it is likely that the SPDC will try to marginalize their opposition (armed and unarmed) by using a combination of flattery, bribes, intimidation, and vacillating restrictions.
Despite the size of its army and its control over the flow of information, the SPDC will find that the road ahead is not an easy one. With up to two thirds of the rice crop destroyed by floods, food shortages are likely in 1998. Meanwhile, many of the over 1 million Burmese migrant laborers working abroad will be coming home or at least remitting much less money, because of the economic downturn in Southeast Asia. Unless the SPDC can resolve the country's economic woes and initiate a genuine political dialogue with all the opposition groups, it will be viewed with as much disgust as its predecessor, the SLORC.