Splits emerge in Burma’s army over country’s roadmap
March 21, 2008
There is a growing rift within Burma’s military government over the country’s political future and road-map to democracy. A battle is now beginning to emerge between those who are currently in control of most of Burma’s assets and those who see themselves as the country’s true guardians. Several key members of the ruling junta are secretly being investigated for corruption.
Once in State Peace and Development Council (File Photo:Mizzima)
The junta is no longer cohesive and united, as two major camps have clearly emerged. On one side there are the ministers and members of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) who have major business interests and are associated with Than Shwe’s brainchild, the mass community-based Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).
On the other side are the top ranking generals, led by second in command Maung Aye, who want a professional army and see its main role as protector of the people. They have become increasingly dismayed at corruption within the government and understand that it is undermining the army’s future role in the country.
As the war between these two groups escalates, Senior General Than Shwe’s rapidly deteriorating health has effectively left the country without a real leader. The result is total inertia in government administration and a growing fear that one of the contesting factions may launch a “soft coup” in the near future, according to Burmese military sources.
But the “real” Army, as these officers view themselves, is going to have to act quickly if it is to remain a force to be reckoned with. The planned referendum for May and the election in two years time will radically change the country’s political landscape. The USDA, which is organising both the referendum and the elections, will significantly increase its power and control over the country’s new emerging political process.
Senior members of the army are increasingly resentful of the growing dominance of the USDA and the likely curtailment of the army’s authority after the referendum in May. “It will bring an abrupt end to the army’s absolute power,” said a Burmese government official.
At the center of this emerging battle for supremacy is the growing division within the Army between those who graduated from the Officers Training School (OTS) like Than Shwe, and those who went to the Defence Services Academy (DSA) like Maung Aye.
Many Cabinet ministers associated with the USDA are from the OTS, as are several hardliners within the ruling SPDC, though some no longer have operational commands. These leaders are known to have the ear of Than Shwe and have convinced him to take an uncompromising stand against detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
These key ministers, including Industry Minister Aung Thaung, Fisheries Minister Maung Maung Thein (who is also head of the powerful Myanmar Investment Commission), Construction Minister Saw Htun and Agriculture Minister Htay Oo (who is also a key leader of the USDA), are notorious hardliners and amongst the most corrupt members of the government.
They have all amassed huge personal fortunes from smuggling and kickbacks. “These fellows are out of control and racking up the money from bribery and fraud – not even Maung Aye, who despises excessive corruption, can touch them,” a Burmese military source told Mizzima on condition of anonymity.
They have been in government now for over eight years and are entrenched in their lifestyles and practises. Everyone seems powerless to stop them at present, according to Burmese government sources. “They are known as ‘the Nazis’ within the top ranks of the army,” according to a Burmese businessman with close links to the military hierarchy. “They have the money and they have their own militia,” he added.
Many in the army now fear that this group – with some senior officers in the SPDC, current or former heads of the Bureau of Special Operations (BSO) – are planning a grab for power using the USDA as a front. “They are the real enemies of the people,” said the Burmese businessman.
But there are now growing numbers within the army that are viewing these developments with increasing concern. There is mounting resentment and frustration amongst the junior officers in the Ministry of Defence in the new capital of Naypyitaw (Nay Pyi Taw).
Many of the junior officers are divisional commanders, aged between 47 and 55. These are the army’s “young Turks,” who are alarmed at the way in which the USDA is growing in influence at the expense of the army.
“They are watching their unscrupulous colleagues, hiding behind the uniform, building up massive fortunes from corruption in government and they are worried that this tarnishes the image of the army,” said a source in Naypyitaw.
“It’s time to get rid of the OTS bastards,” an officer recently told a visiting businessman. But so far there are no signs of a palace coup. Many officers may feel aggrieved, but there is no open discussion as yet about doing anything in practise. “The climate of fear that pervades the whole country is also prevalent in the military,” a Thai military intelligence officer told Mizzima.
“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 referendum and the elections,” he said. “But they are army officers, and will continue to obey their orders unquestioningly,” he said.
Yet there are now signs that the top few generals under Than Shwe may be beginning to form an informal alliance against the USDA leadership – and possibly Than Shwe himself. These are the deputy chief of the military, Maung Aye, Chief of Staff Thura Shwe Mann, Prime Minister Thein Sein and Secretary One of the SPDC, Tin Aung Myint Oo.
So far there is little to suggest that they are planning a purge of their opponents in the same way that former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and his intelligence apparatus were crushed four years ago. “Nothing can be ruled out at this stage as resentment and anger is growing amongst the junior officers and rank-and-file soldiers,” said Win Min, an independent analyst based at Chiang Mai University.
But a pre-emptive strike against some of the key people in the USDA is definitely underway. Fisheries Minister Maung Maung Thein and the BSOs, Maung Bo and Ye Myint, are being secretly investigated by the Bureau of Special Investigations over bribery, kickbacks and illegal smuggling, a source inside the regime told Mizzima.
Maung Maung Thein and Maung Bo are under intense scrutiny for allegations of smuggling. At least 90 percent of the fish caught in Burmese waters are smuggled out through Thailand, especially Ranong, according to informed industry sources. Burma is estimated to be losing more than $500 million as a result.
For more than six months now the Myanmar Investment Commission, also controlled by Maung Maung Thein, has refused to grant import and export licenses to those in the construction industry to anyone not part of the USDA, according to Burmese businessmen. Licences granted for construction projects are crucial for the economy. For example, licenses are obtained to import cars and trucks theoretically needed for a construction project but instead sold for a massive profit.
Several other ministers and members of the SPDC and their families are also under investigation, according to government sources. Maung Maung Thein’s infamous son, Ko Pauk (Myint Thein) had his timber business dissolved a few weeks ago for malpractice. Maung Bo’s son’s business, the Hurricane Bar, is also under investigation concerning drugs.
There are many other businesses and businessmen affiliated with USDA members being investigated, including the Managing Director of Asia Light, Soe Myint.
This has not happened in the past and indicates the concern the top military commanders have about corruption and what it is doing to the army’s reputation. “It’s an effort to distinguish between the government or USDA and the army,” a senior military man told Mizzima.
Most of this is still behind closed doors. There is still no open confrontation between the two camps. In part that is because the SPDC quarterly meeting has been continuously postponed by Than Shwe for fear that it may open up a war between himself and his top subordinates.
One of the main reasons the ruling council has not met for more than nine months is that Than Shwe is trying to avoid the meeting as he knows Maung Aye will demand the resignations of at least four of the BSOs – including Maung Bo and Ye Myint. The last meeting reportedly ended when Maung Aye refused to accept Than Shwe’s recommendation that Maung Bo be promoted to a full general, according to Burmese military sources.
At least two of them have since been removed from their commands – Khin Maung Than and Maung Bo being replaced by Khin Saw and Tha Aye (both graduates of the DSA) and Myint Hlaing is soon expected to replace Tin Aye. However, although they no longer have operational command for their regions they remain on the SPDC, imposed by Than Shwe.
If these three BSA commanders and DSA officers also replaced their predecessors on the SPDC it would radically change the composition of the council. Four years ago, with the support of his OTS men, Than Shwe’s authority was unchallenged – but with these new promotions Maung Aye and Thura Shwe Mann would effectively control the SPDC.
As a result of the constant postponement of the SPDC quarterly meeting all promotions within the army have ground to a halt. “The top generals have not met [for the quarterly meeting] for months, since before the August and September protests. So during that time, apart from the appointment of three regional commanders, there have been no promotions,” said Win Min.
“The impact of this will certainly add to the growing frustration amongst some of the commanders who should have already been promoted,” he said.
Time is now running out for the top generals under Than Shwe if they are to take control.
They know that after the referendum in May their position will become increasingly less significant, as Ministers and selected military generals move into the USDA and take up civilian roles in the future. At the same time they fear that widespread corruption will also destroy the country and its political stability.
“The real Army is the only institution that can bring genuine democracy to the country in the future,” a military man told Mizzima. “The new generation of officers represent the real hope for the country.” They would be open to a political dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, he insisted, as they see themselves as the real guardians of the country.
In the meantime, Than Shwe’s health is rapidly deteriorating and he is fast losing his memory. He is increasingly withdrawn and reclusive. His position is now becoming progressively more perilous, despite his carefully planned schemes, according to many specialists on Burma’s military.
“It is not worth risking a crisis when nature may solve it for us legally and peacefully,” Maung Aye recently told some of his close confidantes. But with the referendum only weeks away the army may yet have to move against the corrupt USDA lobby before it’s too late.