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Thursday, 28 February, 2002, 15:47 GMT
Burma's unmoving generals
Burma's head of state General Than Shwe
General Than Shwe: Will he relinquish power voluntarily?

Burma's generals remain in charge of one of Asia's last military dictatorships. For a decade-and-a-half the military leaders have run the country with an iron grip.

[The general's] sole purpose is to maintain power and control

Rangoon-based Western diplomat
There is no freedom of speech and the country's press is tightly controlled by the army.

"Nothing happens in Burma without the military's approval," said a Western diplomat based in Rangoon who didn't want to be identified.

"Their sole purpose is to maintain power and control."

New generation

There has been a major reshuffle of the army and military government. Several ministers have been sacked for alleged involvement in corruption and the powerful regional commanders have all been replaced by younger officers.

Army chief General Maung Aye
There's talk of a power struggle involving army chief General Maung Aye
"The army is going through a major restructuring," said Colonel Kyaw Thein, a senior officer in Burma's military intelligence unit.

Most analysts believe the military has started a process of rejuvenation.

"Burma's current military leaders are anxious to ensure that the future army leaders are given the necessary training and experience to take over in the future," said a Western intelligence expert based in Bangkok.

"The new regional commanders are all in their 40s," he said. "Compare this with the moribund leadership of the opposition National League Democracy - all in their 70s."

Power struggle

This reform of the military also involves a streamlining of the command structure, from top to bottom. The country's three, top military figures - the head of state General Than Shwe, the army chief General Maung Aye and the intelligence chief Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt - wield complete power.

Lt General Khin Nyunt
Khin Nyunt is thought to be more outward looking than other generals
"It's now an old-powerful triumvirate that rules the country," said an Asian diplomat in Rangoon. "They decide everything between themselves."

Even applications for a journalist visa have to be approved by Khin Nyunt.

There has been much speculation about a power struggle between Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt and there are certainly many differences of opinion on many issues.

Maung Aye is more xenophobic and inward looking, while Khin Nyunt is keener on more international contact and reaching outwards.

Analysts are still trying to assess the political implications of a series of recent changes:

  • The removal of the old regional commanders - most of whom are believed to have opposed the reforms the top brass were trying to introduce

  • Strengthening the respect for human rights by introducing a local human rights committee and training them

  • Legislating against the use of force labour

  • Entering secret talks with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the political future of the country.

Some analysts are suggesting the appointment of younger regional commanders will favour Khin Nyunt.

They know they must stay together or hang separately

Former Australian ambassador
Others point out that three out of four of the new generation were trained in Burma's military academy, not the officer training college. Their loyalty is almost certainly be to the army chief General Maung Aye.

But diplomats are convinced talk of a genuine power struggle overstates the situation.

A former Australian ambassador to Rangoon said: "They know they must stay together or hang separately. That's why they are so keen on collective responsibility."

Siege mentality

Western military analysts believe the Burmese military leaders have developed a siege mentality.

They do not trust any civilians - even those in government - believing only soldiers can run the country.

"The military regime will not do anything to diminish its grip on power," said an Australian military expert in Canberra, "but will try everything to fend off perceived threats and consolidate their position."

"They may adjust their ruling style, try different ways of administering the country and even contemplate discussions with the opposition, but will not consciously relinquish real power for Burma's generals remain convinced that only the army can guarantee Burma's survival."


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