Officers fear a coup on road to vote
Officers fear a coup on road to vote
Larry Jagan, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: March 29. 2009 8:30AM UAE / March 29. 2009 4:30AM GMT
BANGKOK // Myanmar’s leader has warned political parties planning to contest elections scheduled for next year that they must shun foreign ideologies.
“Democracy in Myanmar today is at a fledgling stage and still requires patient care and attention,” Gen Than Shwe said in an address to troops assembled in Naypitdaw, the capital, to celebrate Armed Forces Day.
“We have to ensure that the progress of democracy in the country does not affect non-disintegration of the union and non-disintegration of national solidarity.”
Gen Than rarely speaks in public except at the annual Armed Forces Day, which marks the day in 1945 when the army of Myanmar, also known as Burma, launched its resistance fight against the Japanese occupation forces. But this year’s celebration is different, as it may be the last before the country is ruled by a civilian government – which would be the first since 1962.
Beneath the pomp and ceremony, and the show of strength and harmony, there are signs of splits and dissension within the ranks over the army’s future role in the country as well as over the country’s political future and the road map to democracy.
The last three stages of the seven-stage road map to democracy, announced in Aug 2003, could dramatically change the role of the army as it involves free and fair elections and the convening of the national and provincial parliaments, followed by the establishment of a developed and democratic nation under the new parliament and constitution.
A battle is emerging between those who control most of Myanmar’s assets and those who see themselves as the country’s guardians.
On one side are the ministers and members of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, who have major business interests and are associated with Gen Than’s brainchild, the mass community-based organisation, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). They have been running the government for nearly a decade and have accumulated massive wealth.
On the other side are the middle- and top-ranking generals, who graduated from the Defence Services Academy, as did their mentor, second-in-command Maung Aye. They see their main role as the protector of the people, and are anxious to see the military machine transformed into a professional army and withdraw from politics and the economy. They have become dismayed at the excessive corruption within government and understand that it is undermining the army’s future role in the country.
As the conflict between these two groups escalates, Gen Than’s deteriorating health and increasing reclusiveness have effectively left the country without a real leader. The result is inertia in government administration.
“Everyone is trying to second guess the big boss, and all critical decisions are being deferred until they are sure he has actually given them the go-ahead,” said a European businessman who was recently in Naypitdaw.
There is also fear that one of the contesting factions may launch a “soft coup” in the near future, according to military sources in Myanmar. But the real army, as these officers see themselves as, is going to have to act quickly if it is to remain a force to be reckoned with.
In the new political environment, the USDA will play a crucial role: either as the key pro-military party or an intermediary between the army and whatever political party emerges. All this will significantly increase its power and control over the country’s new political process.
Senior members of the army are increasingly resentful of the growing dominance of Gen Than’s USDA and the likely curtailment of the army’s authority in the months leading up to the election.
“When the new parliament is elected, it will bring an abrupt end to the army’s absolute power,” said a Myanmar government official.
These ministers and top USDA officials have all amassed huge personal fortunes from smuggling and kickbacks. “These fellows are out of control and raking in the money from bribery and fraud; no one can touch them,” a military source in Myanmar said. “They are building enormous war chests while they can. Some will use it for the elections, but there are others who are reluctant to squander their ill-gotten wealth on the election campaign.”
Many in the army are concerned that this group is planning a grab for power using the USDA as a front.
There is also resentment and frustration among junior officers in the ministry of defence, many of them divisional commanders.
“They are watching their unscrupulous colleagues hiding behind the uniform, building up massive fortunes from corruption in government, and they are worried that this is tarnishing the image of the army as a result,” a source in Naypitdaw said.
Although the grumbling and resentment have increased, there are still no signs of a coup.
“There is no doubt that many in the army are extremely unhappy with they way things are going, and are concerned about what will happen to them after the elections,” said Byo Nein, the son of a former government minister and a Thailand-based writer who follows Myanmar’s military affairs.
“But they are army officers and will continue to obey their orders unquestioningly.”
So far there is little to suggest that they are planning a purge of their opponents in the same way that the former prime minister, Khin Nyunt, and his intelligence apparatus were crushed five years ago.
“Nothing can be ruled out at this stage as resentment and anger is growing among the junior officers and the rank-and-file soldiers,” said Win Min, an independent analyst based at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand.