Myanmar's move to military democracy
By Larry Jagan
BANGKOK - Myanmar's top brass are in the process of overhauling their junta-led government, where military leader General Than Shwe and second-in-command General Maung Aye are preparing to stand down from their traditional military commands and hand over authority to a new generation of senior soldiers. There's a catch, of course: neither military leader plans on relinquishing his grip on political power.
The planned changes represent the latest phase of Myanmar's excruciatingly slow move toward political reform and the promised introduction of a civilian-led government. The National Convention, which significantly does not include representation from the main opposition National League for Democracy, is set to resume drafting a new constitution next week and wrap up proceedings by next year. If all goes to plan, the draft charter will be put to a national referendum and some sort of democratic elections will be held within the next 12 months.
The scheduled changes would represent the most dramatic change of Myanmar's governing system since the current batch of soldiers seized power from another military-led regime 18 years ago. Both Than Shwe and Maung Aye will retain their top posts within the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which is expected to change its name to the State Democracy and Development Council (SDDC) to mark the start of a new political era. Than Shwe is also expected to relinquish his current position of defense minister.
General Thura Shwe Man, Than Shwe's protege, is in line to take command of the armed forces, while southeastern regional commander Thura Myint Aung is expected to take Maung Aye's post as the military's deputy leader. Thura Myint Aung is relatively unknown in diplomatic circles, but is regarded as one of Myanmar's few neutral top generals - that is, he owes political allegiance to neither Than Shwe nor Maung Aye, according to a source in Yangon close to the country's military leaders.
The yet-to-be-established SDDC, meanwhile, will become the country's overarching new supreme ruling council, which will oversee both the military command and the civilian government. Than Shwe and Maung Aye will head the new body, which is also expected to include new military leader Thura Shwe Man and other regional commanders. Prime Minister Soe Win, who has already traded in his military garb for a civilian business suit, will head the cabinet and government.
"Senior General Than Shwe and Deputy Senior General Maung Aye are in the process of handing over control of the armed forces to the next generation of generals," said a senior Myanmar military source who spoke on condition of anonymity with Asia Times Online. He said Than Shwe informed junta members of the plans at their recent quarterly meeting in the new capital Pyinmana - which is about 400 kilometers north of the former capital Yangon.
The anticipated moves have Myanmar watchers chattering. "This has been Than Shwe's game plan for some time. It is only a matter of when," said Win Min, a Chiang Mai, Thailand-based independent Myanmar analyst. According to Chinese diplomats that follow Myanmar affairs, Than Shwe intends to stand down to become the civilian president under the new constitution.
"He wants to be president for life," a senior military source close to Than Shwe said.
Over the past 12 months, Than Shwe has frequently told Thailand's top army commanders that he would soon retire and that Thura Shwe Man would take over as the country's military leader. The abrupt move of the SPDC's government offices and the armed forces' central command to Pyinmana, which commenced last November and was finally completed in February, has delayed those planned changes.
Now with the new capital up and running, Than Shwe is waiting for the most auspicious time to implement the planned changes. "Although the decision to pass the control of the army to Thura Shwe Man has been made, it is unlikely to happen before the National Convention has finished drafting the new constitution," a Western diplomat based in Yangon told Asia Times Online.
Than Shwe's declining health may also determine the timing of the handover. Last year the then-75-year-old SPDC senior leader, who is known to suffer from hypertension and is a diabetic, had a mild stroke but quickly recovered. In the past few months there have been new reports that his health is deteriorating again, according to a Myanmar army doctor who spoke with Asia Times Online.
According to one foreign visitor who recently met with Than Shwe, the senior general is often short of breath. In a video of his daughter's recent wedding viewed by Asia Times Online, he clearly had trouble walking. According to government insiders, Than Shwe has seldom ventured outside his residence since his military government was moved from Yangon to Pyinmana in February.
Since then he has only once traveled to Yangon, and that for his daughter's wedding ceremony. For the past two months, he has not ventured to the War Office and only attends crucial meetings such as the fortnightly joint SPDC-cabinet session, according to an Asian diplomat who was until recently based in Yangon. He reportedly sends orders to Maung Aye and Prime Minister Soe Win through his heir apparent Thura Shwe Man, who has emerged as his closest confidant.
Some political analysts believe Than Shwe is trying to conceal his poor health to prevent a full-blown power struggle breaking out among his subordinates. Still, government insiders say he is acutely aware of the dangers involved with the political transition, and he has employed his trademark divide-and-rule tactics to maintain his authority, particularly between soon-to-be-army-chief General Thura Shwe Man and Soe Win.
"Even if Than Shwe officially retires he will not give up his power. Instead, he'll remain the gray eminence behind the throne, along the lines of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the years before his death," said Win Min, the Chiang Mai-based analyst.
Efforts to civilianize the junta-led government are already under way. For instance, cabinet members have been made to leave the armed forces, and military control throughout the country is being transferred from the armed forces to the Interior and Planning ministries.
Under the new government, local military commanders will be required to report to the Home Ministry, a move that has already been implemented at the township level and is now being enforced at the district level as well, according to a senior international aid worker based inside the country familiar with the situation.
"This is all part of Than Shwe's plans to streamline government administration and strengthen the authorities' control over the general population in preparation for a transition to so-called civilian rule and to win the elections held under the new constitution," said Win Min.
With the plan's implementation under way, analysts predict that the military's control under civilian rule will likely be strengthened rather than weakened across the country. And the next generation of generals who are settling into leadership positions will be loath to relinquish their newfound powers to a new democratic order. If all goes to Than Shwe's master plan, the chances for real democracy still remain distant.
Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the BBC. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.