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Myanmar's hardline generals gain the upper hand
By Larry Jagan

BANGKOK - A major cabinet shake-up by Myanmar's military junta that resulted in the dismissal of the country's foreign minister, a seasoned diplomat, is sending a signal that military hardliners have strengthened their control over the country, and the pragmatists are losing the internal struggle for influence.

On Saturday, Myanmar's military leaders axed Foreign Minister Win Aung and his deputy Khin Maung Win and replaced them with two little-known military officers, both of whom have no previous diplomatic experience.

Lately, rifts among Myanmar's top military rulers have grown ever wider. For months there has been an impasse among the country's top generals over how to handle international criticism and pressure to introduce political reforms. With this latest move, it seems the hardliners around General Than Shwe, chairman of the junta's State Peace and Development Council, have moved to oust the pragmatists supporting Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt.

Win Aung was a close confidant of Khin Nyunt. His replacement, Major General Nyan Win - deputy head of the military training college until Saturday's promotion - is a Than Shwe loyalist.

In the face of growing international pressure that includes sanctions and persistent demands for the immediate release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's top general has opted for the military's traditional approach of self-imposed isolation.

"Than Shwe is clearly pulling down the shutters to the outside world," a Burmese businessman in Yangon told Inter Press Service. "Burma's leaders have always been quick to impose their own form of self-isolation when they did not want to deal with problems," he said. (Myanmar was known as Burma until the junta changed the country's name in 1989.)

The cabinet changes come only weeks before Myanmar is scheduled to defend its human-rights record and lack of progress toward political reform at several major international meetings. Win Aung was scheduled to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM) in Vietnam and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.

Myanmar joined ASEAN, a 10-member grouping that also includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, in 1997. Despite misgivings by some governments and activists within and outside of the region, ASEAN countries said Myanmar's membership would allow their policy of "constructive engagement" to slowly encourage Yangon to open up its political system.

"To change the foreign minister at this crucial moment is an insult to the international community - and it is a clear message that Burma's leaders have little or no regard for international opinion," said a senior UN official.

Win Aung was replaced less than a week before the foreign minister was scheduled to go to New York for the start of the UN General Assembly and defend Myanmar in the face of international criticism. The country's human-rights record is due to be closely scrutinized during the UN session. And according to diplomats in New York, this year's resolution on Myanmar is expected to be very tough.

Apart from addressing the UN, the foreign minister was also scheduled to attend an informal meeting on Myanmar with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his special envoy to Myanmar Razali Ismail.

It is still unclear whether the new foreign minister will attend these New York meetings, according to senior UN sources. But it seems he will be going to the general assembly, accompanied by Labor Minister Tin Win, who, according to government officials, also was promoted to a ministerial post in the reshuffle.

In addition to Myanmar's human-rights violations, Than Shwe's stubborn refusal to release pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi from house arrest also has inflamed international opinion. Late last month Annan released an extremely critical report on the state of Myanmar's national reconciliation process. In it, he condemned the regime for failing to involve Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) and other opposition parties in the National Convention, which is currently drawing up a new constitution. His comments provided an added blow to attempts made by Khin Nyunt to convince the international community that Yangon is serious about democratic reform.

Suu Kyi was first placed under house arrest by the military junta months before the 1990 national elections, in which her NLD won the majority of seats. She was released briefly in 1995, but her movements outside the capital were restricted by the junta. Suu Kyi was returned to detention following an attack on her and fellow party members on May 30, 2003. Her party has since experienced a renewed crackdown.

Since late last year Win Aung had repeatedly told UN envoy Razali and his Asian counterparts that Suu Kyi would be released in time to participate in the National Convention. "Aung San Suu Kyi will be fully free, able to meet other members of her party and conduct normal political activities," Win Aung told IPS in an exclusive interview in the Thai island of Phuket earlier this year. "The NLD will also be allowed to re-open their offices before the convention gets underway," he said.

But despite these assurances, Than Shwe excluded the political parties from the constitutional drafting process and kept Suu Kyi locked up.

Win Aung's removal now casts major doubts about Razali's future involvement in Myanmar. It has been seven months since he was last allowed to visit Yangon. Repeated requests to return have been rebuffed by the regime, according to diplomats in the capital.

"Ambassador Razali angered the senior general [Than Shwe] last time he was here when he called for the prime minister to be given a mandate to introduce political reform and suggested that there was a rift between the top military leaders," said a senior Asian diplomat.

The pragmatists, including the prime minister, who favor involving Suu Kyi in the national reconciliation process and engaging in a dialogue with the international community, are being increasingly sidelined, and many are worried about their political futures.

The foreign ministry has traditionally been under the control of the country's military intelligence chiefs. Win Aung's removal and replacement by an army man is a clear indication that Than Shwe and the hardliners have wrested control from Khin Nyunt.

"Unfortunately Burma's future lies in the hands of only one man," a Western diplomat based in Yangon said on condition of anonymity. "And that is not the prime minister."

(Inter Press Service)

Sep 22, 2004

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(Aug 24, '04)

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(Apr 24, '04)

Myanmar promises reform ... yet again
(Dec 18, '03)


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