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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 9, 2011

Power struggle in 'democratic' Myanmar
By Larry Jagan

BANGKOK - The trappings of the old military regime that ruled Myanmar are slowly fading from view under new democratically elected president Thein Sein and his promises of reform. At the same time, a budding power struggle between the president and vice president Thin Aung Myint Oo has pitted moderate versus hardline agendas and stalled significantly the new government's economic and political progress.

Thein Sein, who served as prime minister for four years in the outgoing military junta, faces what many view as a pre-ordained challenge to his democratic mandate. According to some government insiders, Thin Aung Myint Oo has deliberately tried to

undermine the new president, including by asserting his influence over the new army chief. As a result the president's planned economic reforms and debate over whether to release over 2,200 political prisoners have already been put on hold.

Thin Aung Myint Oo represents the old military guard and their hard-line attitudes towards political change. As former junta leader Than Shwe has withdrawn from the scene, some believe he deliberately left a power vacuum in his wake which Thein Sein and Thin Aung Myint Oo are competing to fill. If the competition escalates into open rifts, some fear the military could step in to suspend the country's nascent democracy.

To complicate matters, the top leaders of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) - the military-linked ruling party in parliament - are also trying to assert influence. These top party officials, who were persuaded to resign or retire from the army ahead of last November's election, no longer have their military stripes. Many are from the older generation of military ministers who remain suspicious of the country's move from military to democratic rule.

Although Than Shwe may have formally retired from the country's political scene, seen in the removal of his once ubiquitous portraits hung in official buildings, his legacy is playing havoc with Thein Sein's room to maneuver. In an effort to ensure that no strong military leader emerged to take control of the country and endanger his and his family's authority and wealth, Than Shwe is believed to have deliberately left a vacuum in his wake.

Thein Sein is committed to introducing moderate democratic and more ambitious economic reforms, according to sources close to him. "The old military regime has gone," said a former senior Myanmar diplomat who wanted to remain anonymous. "The new government really wants to introduce positive change," he said.

This optimistic view has been echoed by many Myanmar government officials, including diplomats posted in Asia and Europe. Thein Sein's speech in March when he took over as the country's top leader and made calls for a move towards democratic governance is indicative of his vision, they said.

But with a new pluralist power structure, comprised of executive, legislature and army branches, there is substantial scope for spoiling activities. Analysts believe that Thin Aung Myint Oo, the former head of an influential trade council, is playing that role, exploiting opportunities to usurp the president's authority and subvert his agenda.

After cabinet meetings, which usually take place once a week, the ministers are summoned into his room without Then Sein for tea and an ear bashing, according to people familiar with the situation. In particular, he has bid to exert influence over key economic decisions, including authority over potentially lucrative import and export licenses and company registrations.

In one telling episode, Thein Sein ordered that excise duties on exports be reduced to 5%. Later Thin Aung Myint Oo intervened with the support of the finance minister to put the rate at 7%. The vice president also unilaterally cut the budgets of line ministries by between 20% to 40%, apart from the defense portfolio.

Thin Aung Myint Oo has also strained the new government's international credibility by telling visitors to the capital, including a recent European Union delegation and influential US Senator John McCain, that the country holds no political prisoners. International human rights groups contend that the regime holds over 2,200 political prisoners behind bars. Internal debate over the issue has reportedly been stonewalled by the vice president.

New marching orders
The most critical tussle will concern the once dominant military's future role in politics. The 2008 constitution guaranteed military members 25% of the total seats in parliament. New army chief General Min Aung Hlaing has downplayed the military's political role and soldier MPs in both national houses of parliament were virtually silent during discussions in parliament's first session held earlier this year.

Min Aung Hlaing told military MPs before parliament was convened that their political duty was to rebuild the reputation of the army: It's your duty to become seasoned politicians, he reportedly said, as you represent the future Myanmar. He virtually blamed the old guard for the country's current economic and political mess, according to one military MP.

Thin Aung Myint Oo is reportedly unhappy with this limited role for the armed forces and has maintained they should exert pressure on both the executive and legislature. Several weeks ago Thin Aung Myint Oo reportedly summoned the army chief to his office and lectured him on the new power structure, emphasizing that he was his boss as militarily he out-ranked Thein Sein.

Die-hards in the USDP, many forced to resign from the military to contest electoral seats as civilians, are already expressing frustrations about being sidelined by the current government and parliament. They are also now working behind the scenes to reassert their lost influence through connections to the old regime.

In particular, they are reportedly trying to encourage Than Shwe to establish and lead a new State Supreme Council to oversee the new power structure, as outlined and allowed for by the new charter. USDP leaders Aung Thaung and Htay Oo have reportedly urged the former leader to consider a senior advisory role similar to the ones China's Deng Xiaoping and Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew played after they stepped down from their respective countries' formal leadership positions.

Some analysts believe that Than Shwe still runs the country from behind the scenes, evidenced in his frequent meetings with MPs at his personal residence in Naypyidaw. "Than Shwe has no plan to switch state power to the president or parliament," said Aung Lynn Htut, a former Myanmar military intelligence officer and diplomat who defected after he was posted to Washington. "He will continue to control things from behind the curtain," he said.

For the moment, these layers of political intrigue are dogging Myanmar's movement forward as a guided democracy. Thein Sein appears to have at least one strong ally in the parliamentary speaker Thura Shwe Mann, the junta's former No 3. It is in his interest to ensure parliament functions effectively within the new political structure. He is also a known rival of Thin Aung Myint Oo, especially in economic matters.

Myanmar's political future will hang in the balance until this power struggle is resolved. While Thein Sein presents a new way forward, Thin Aung Myint Oo represents the front line of defense for the status quo. While each pushes their conflicting agendas, the military waits in the wings and the potential for a coup in the name of restoring stability and suspending democracy can not for now be ruled out.

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

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