Crisis looms for Myanmar's riven
junta By Larry Jagan
BANGKOK - As the health of Myanmar's
senior general, Than Shwe, deteriorates, two major
factions, one loosely allied to the ailing junta
leader, and one loyal to the junta number two,
General Maung Aye, are aggressively jockeying for
position in anticipation of a new era of Myanmar
politics - though not necessarily a more
democratic era, as billed.
received by Asia Times Online that certain top
junta members are now under secret investigation
for corruption, similar to the probes in the
leadup to the purge of former intelligence chief
and prime minister General Khin Nyunt and his
faction in 2004, indicate that another "soft coup"
could be in the cards, this time against ambitious
military officers who would gain the most from a
planned democratic transition.
between two major factions within the
increasingly on the boil, according to military
insiders. At the core of the conflict is Than
Shwe's mass organization, the Union Solidarity and
Development Association (USDA), which has been
given authority to manage the recently announced
constitutional referendum set for May and
follow-up multi-party elections scheduled for
If successfully staged, despite
barring the opposition National League for
Democracy (NLD) from participating, the process
would fundamentally change the country's political
landscape and see the rise of one set of military
officers who trade in their khakis for business
suits and take top positions in a democratic
government over those who remain in the barracks.
With that writing on the wall, several
senior army members are becoming increasingly
resentful of the USDA's growing prominence and
apprehensive about the curtailment of their
authority after the referendum is held in May. "It
will bring an abrupt end to the army's absolute
power," said one Myanmar government official.
Intra-junta rivalry is believed to be
breaking down on institutional lines as much as on
personalities, pitting those who graduated from
the Officers Training School (OTS), like Than
Shwe, against those who attended the Defense
Services Academy (DSA), where Maung Aye is an
alumni. Several current cabinet ministers
associated with the USDA hail from the OTS, as are
several hardliners on the ruling State Peace and
Development Council (SPDC), who once but no longer
hold operational commands.
OTS-affiliated ministers, including Industry
Minister Aung Thaung, Fisheries Minister Maung
Maung Thein, who is also head of the influential
Myanmar Investment Commission, Construction
Minister Saw Htun and Agriculture Minister Htay
Oo, who is also a key leader of the USDA, are all
extreme hardliners and stand accused by rivals and
critics of being among the government's most
The group has now been
in government for over eight years and enjoys an
extravagant lifestyle in the impoverished country.
The members are also among the military generals
who are expected to move into the USDA and take up
prominent roles in a new civilian-led government.
Many in the army now fear that this group
- along with certain other senior SPDC officers,
who are currently or were formerly heads of the
Bureau of Special Operations (BSO) - may be
plotting a more immediate power grab, using the
USDA and its mass following as its front.
Those concerns apparently run strongest
among officers in the Ministry of Defense, many of
them divisional commanders in their late 40s or
early 50s and widely known as the "Young Turks".
"They see no definite future and are just sitting
around in the office with nothing to do," said a
well-placed source in the capital, Naypyidaw.
"They are watching their colleagues hiding behind
their uniforms and building up massive fortunes
from corruption in government," he said.
So far, apart from governmental inertia,
there are no overt signs of a palace coup. "There
is no doubt that many in the army are extremely
unhappy with they way things are going, and are
concerned about what will happen to them after the
referendum and the elections," said a Thai
military intelligence official. "Nothing can be
ruled out at this stage as resentment and anger is
growing among the junior officers and the
rank-and-file soldiers," said Win Min, an
independent analyst based at Chiang Mai University
in northern Thailand.
ministers, some insiders believe, may in fact be
planning a pre-emptive strike to protect their
positions. The Fisheries minister, Maung Maung
Thein, and BSO officials Maung Bo and Ye Myint,
are all currently under secret investigation by
the Bureau of Special Investigations on
allegations of bribery, kickbacks and illegal
smuggling, a well-placed source inside the regime
told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity.
Several other ministers and members of the SPDC,
and their families, are also under investigation,
according to the same source.
apparently one main reason why the ruling council
has not held its regular quarterly meeting for
more than nine months. Military insiders say Than
Shwe wants to avoid the meeting because he knows
Maung Aye will, based on the evidence of the
investigations, demand the resignations of at
least four BSO-affiliated officers - including
Maung Bo and Ye Myint. The council meeting held
last year reportedly ended when Maung Aye refused
to accept Than Shwe's recommendation that Maung Bo
be promoted to a full general, according to
Myanmar military sources.
generals have not met [for the quarterly meeting]
for months, since before the August and September
protests, so during that time, apart from the
appointment of three regional commanders, there
have been no promotions," said the academic Win
Min. "The impact of this will certainly add to the
growing frustration amongst some of the commanders
who should have already been promoted," he said.
For over a year there has been near total
inertia in Myanmar's new capital as the ailing
Than Shwe becomes more withdrawn and reclusive and
tries to chart a course that will protect his
family's interests after he passes from the scene.
Some military observers believe that the junta
leader's well-worn divide-and-rule tactics may
eventually backfire, as a growing number of top
generals immediately below him view his plans to
move towards "discipline democracy" as a threat to
their future positions and power.
cannot rule out the possibility of a mutiny or
purges within the army," said independent analyst
Aung Naing Oo. "Than Shwe is standing in the way
of change, but so far no one has had the guts to
tell him that he is the main obstacle."
news of the investigations and concerns about the
planned democratic transition become more
widespread, the potential for purges and coups
will only grow.
previously covered Myanmar politics for the
British Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a
freelance journalist based in Bangkok.