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MYANMAR: Winds of change but still no hope for democracy

Paper no. 774                                    28. 08. 2003

by C. S. Kuppuswamy

Gen Khin Nyunt  has been appointed  as Myanmar’s prime minister as per an announcement  on the state radio and television on August 25, 2003.  He replaces the most powerful  military leader Senior Gen Than Shwe  who continues as the head of state.  However Gen Than Shwe  remains the most powerful figure as he continues to hold the posts of the chairman of the ruling military body, commander-in-chief of the armed forces  and the defence minister.   The announcement also indicated that five ministers and two deputy ministers have been retired.  Three questions arise over this announcement-

* Why this major cabinet reshuffle?

* Is this a harbinger for democracy?

* Will Aung San Suu Kyi be released?

It is rather premature to make any major inferences.  The official announcement however said that the changes were aimed at making the government more effective and efficient. There is no indication of any change of heart of the Generals who continue to hold on to power.  The only change –if there is any  is that Gen Khin Nyunt will play a more direct role in the day to day running of the country and nothing more.

Aung  San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who is under protective custody since May 30, 2003, appears to be  a major  factor in the changes taking place in the military hierarchy.  The military junta has been under great international pressure for her early release.   Tough sanctions have been imposed by the United States, Canada and European Union and even Japan has suspended new assistance.  The UN special envoy Razali Ismail and Pinherio the UN human rights rapporteur  to Burma are frustrated in their efforts to get Suu Kyi and other political prisoners released.  Razali Ismail while on his last visit to Myanmar in June 2003, stated in an interview “It (continued detention of Suu Kyi)  really undermines  the credibility  of ASEAN by insisting on non-interference and in the process of doing that perpetuating status quo”.  This issue also figured in the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) of the foreign ministers held at Bali in July this year.  China is the only country which has decried these sanctions and maintains political ties with Myanmar .China has also provided the much needed economic assistance to Myanmar without which it could not have sustained itself till date against these odds. 

ASEAN, which always believed in non-interference in internal matters and relied on constructive engagement rather than sanctions, has also started crticising Myanmar on this issue.  Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who espoused the entry of Myanmar into ASEAN in 1997,has openly warned that the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi may lead to the country’s expulsion from ASEAN.  Thailand has now come up with a “road map” for Myanmar’s return to democracy.  The military junta has said that it will give due consideration to the “road map”  though it cannot rush into any conclusions. 

Gen Khin Nyunt, the new prime minister, is an ethnic Chinese and considered as progressive.  He  was  close to  Ne Win  and  is believed that  he owes his present position to him. The Chinese support Gen Khin Nyunt   and he has visited China.  The American and Thai governments have a predilection for Gen Khin Nyunt because of his “progressive” leanings and see him as a way to expand their business interests (Laxman Bahroo  in his article titled Myanmar-Intersecting destinies of a new Asia). 

Gen Khin Nyunt holds the powerful  post of the Director of Defence Services Intelligence (DDSI)  besides being the  Secretary-1  of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).  He was also the brain behind an obscure think rank called the Office of the Strategic Services (OSS) founded in 1994. The OSS functions under the DDSI and advises the foreign ministry in handling relations with its neighbours and formulates policies on ethnic affairs and drug trafficiking (FEER Asia Year Book 1999)

The diplomats regard Gen Khin Nyunt as a pragmatist  who sees the need for political and economic reform and wants to engage the international community (Larry Jagan – BBC Burma Analyst). It is believed that Khin Nyunt has often  supported dialogue with  the opposition at the lower levels to begin with if not at the top level. He is keen to get the country out of its present political isolation.  He and a few other generals of his flock  are of the opinion that the resumption of talks may  even help in establishing  the military’s long term role in the country’s affairs.

Conclusion 

As of now the reshuffle seems to be more of a change in structure than in policy.  In the oft rumoured power struggle between Khin Nyunt and Gen Maung Aye, Khin Nyunt seems to be having the upper hand with this elevation to the post of the prime minister.   The all powerful triumvirate in the military junta (Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt) will continue to stick together despite their differences if their purpose is to maintain control and power.  Khin Nyunt, being less of a hardliner than the other two, may be amenable for resumption of talks with the opposition which began in October 2000 but came to a grinding halt later. If and when the resumption of talks takes place it is going to be a long drawn out process till the conditions are favourable for the military to establish its supremacy even in a civil government (as was in Indonesia till recently). 

This change does not augur well for India as Khin Nyunt, a ethnic Chinese, is known to have leanings towards China and Pakistan as against Maung Aye who  is more favourably disposed towards India.

Can early release of Aung San Suu Kyi  be expected as an immediate outcome of this reshuffle?  Too early to say.  The Generals are too smart and any prognosis  now could only be in the realm of speculation.

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