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Who is at the heart of Burma's junta?

This year's Armed Forces Day in Burma comes after election laws were announced and before a poll date is revealed.

But while elections elsewhere might imply an end to military rule, the BBC's Vaudine England has been finding out that the country's top generals are as solidly in charge as ever.

OVERVIEW

The elections are described by analysts as the moment when top leader Than Shwe seeks legitimacy and secures a political transition that keeps his old age free from prosecution or disgrace.

Speculation is swirling as to what role the general sees for himself - either Than Shwe will want to remain as army chief or will need a solid ally in place so he can become president.

This is likely to be the last time Than Shwe addresses this gathering as armed forces commander in chief
Professor Win Min
Payap University, Chiang Mai

None of these calculations take the opposition into account, analysts agree. Indeed, the election laws bar the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and all political detainees from taking part.

"It's not Suu Kyi who keeps him awake at night, but the question of how his trusted officers can ensure his future security and that of his family," says Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy magazine.

"I doubt he will announce a successor - he doesn't need to do that - but this is likely to be the last time Than Shwe addresses this gathering as armed forces commander in chief," says Professor Win Min, at Payap University in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.

With or without elections, Burma's military will remain the only institution that counts. So who is in charge?

SENIOR GENERAL THAN SHWE

No-one doubts this general's supremacy. He is chairman of the 12-member State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), aka the junta, and commander in chief of the armed forces. An impressive rise for a former postal clerk who did not finish secondary school.

General Than Shwe (file image)
General Than Shwe is said to hate pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi

Born in 1933, he joined the army in 1953 and helped former top leader Ne Win mount a coup against a democratically elected government in 1962.

He emerged as the chairman of SLORC, the State Law and Order Restoration Committee, precursor to the SPDC, and the body formed when the military took control after the 1988 elections which were won by Ms Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy.

In 2004, he dispensed with a key source of competition to his power, namely then prime minister and intelligence chief Khin Nyunt. He remains under house arrest and hundreds of his followers were purged.

Than Shwe is patron of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a mass organisation known for brutally enforcing military wishes in civilian guise.

He harbours a reportedly visceral hatred for Ms Suu Kyi and is said to be secretive, deeply superstitious, xenophobic and rich.

DEPUTY SENIOR GENERAL MAUNG AYE

Maung Aye (file image)
Maung Aye is thought to have widespread business interests

Born in 1937, General Maung Aye is the closest source of competition, and sometimes conflict, to General Than Shwe.

Once commander of Burma's drug-growing northeast region, he is now also known for his complex business involvements.

He is reputedly hostile to Burma's ethnic groups, yet is believed by some watchers to have argued against the use of force to crack down on the monk-led opposition protests in 2007.

GENERAL SHWE MANN

Recent analysis has concluded that Shwe Mann, joint chief of staff and coordinator of special operations, is Than Shwe's preferred successor.

Shwe Mann (file image from March 2006)
Some analysts believe Shwe Mann is Burma's leader-in-waiting

Born in 1947, he is described as down to earth, with the respect of the foot soldiers he commanded for many years.

He too has complex business links - one of his three sons married into a leading real estate developer's family, another is in business with Tay Za, a tycoon subject to United States' economic sanctions.

TEAM PLAYERS

Ranked as number four in the junta, Prime Minister Thein Sein does not appear on lists of expected successors to Than Shwe.

Number five in terms of influence is General Tin Aung Myint Oo, followed by Lt Gen Tin Aye, the chief of military ordinance.

This is a hugely important job, reportedly involving Tin Aye in negotiations with North Korea among other weapons suppliers.

The other important lieutenant general is Myint Shwe, who could be ranked as number seven, analysts say, even though he is the only name here who is not a member of the SPDC.

A key indicator of who is closest to Than Shwe at any time can be found in his choice of shopping partners on trips to Singapore - long a discreet playground and medical centre for the generals.

"Than Shwe has been trying to promote Shwe Mann but his inability to do so shows he could not yet reach an agreement with Maung Aye," believes Professor Win Min.

With Armed Forces Day being attended by a longer list of guests than usual, the only certainty is that the power - and the opacity - of the junta will remain.



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