Myanmar: Military seems set for a Long Game

2005

Robert H Taylor

Though some ASEAN politicians have been increasingly expressing their dissatisfaction with the lack of progress being made in pursuing the military government's 'road map' toward constitutional government, the Myanmar authorities are displaying every indication that they intend to keep playing the game for as long as they alone determine. Even the joining of voices from inside some of the governments of ASEAN member states with those of Western governments has not moved the regime to speed up the process. Indeed, the adjournment in April of the National Convention which is drafting guidelines for the new constitution may have been a way of telling its critics that their views are irrelevant. For those in the country who see the achievement of any constitution, flawed or not, as at least a positive indication of intent, the abrupt and unexpected adjournment has had a depressing effect.

Why are the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and its Chairman, Senior General Than Shwe, willing and apparently able to delay once again concrete steps toward a partial transfer of authority to elected politicians when many see that as an essential move before Myanmar assumes the Chairmanship of ASEAN in mid-2006? A number of possibilities are plausible. One is that they will be willing to pass over the Chairmanship when the time comes in order to forestall the problems of a hand over to a civilian regime. They would thus save their ASEAN colleagues the embarrassment of holding dialogue meetings in 2007 with no representatives from Western governments present. As Foreign Minister Nyan Win said on 9 April, this is not the case, though it has been mooted that perhaps the dialogue meetings could be held in another ASEAN capital. That too is unlikely as it would be seen as an insult to the dignity of a very nationalistic society.

Another possibility is that the convention is not proceeding as smoothly as expected. Accord amongst the ethnic minority ceasefire groups on a number of power sharing agreements may not been achieved. There is some plausibility in this speculation, for the convention is not the completely undemocratic institution that is often claimed by supporters of the National League for Democracy, which chose to boycott the affair. Indeed, the arrest of a number of Shan politicians in February underscores the fact that the Shan are probably the biggest losers in the convention process and some would like to see the process stopped. Their historic role as the hegemonic power in the Shan State is undermined by the autonomy arrangements the army has granted to the Pao, Kachin, Lahu, Wa, Kokang, and other groups in the region. The threat to return to civil strife, if not civil war, is ever present in the background of the convention.

A third possibility is that the regime has other schemes waiting in its locker to be pulled out at an appropriate moment chosen by them. These could include a number of senior officers formally retiring from the armed forces and donning mufti (civilian clothes). This, after all, was the move taken by the regime's only historic role model, General Ne Win, when he left the armed forces in 1971 prior to the adoption of country's second constitution several years later. Such schemes also allow for the reshuffling of top military posts and could resolve difficult succession issues, at least temporarily, by making it clear who the Senior General expects to succeed him. Since the departure of Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt, Senior General Than Shwe has been left exposed to pressures from his subordinates, including Vice Senior General Maung Aye, more than ever before.

A final scenario, which is probably being bandied about in the tea shops of Yangon, is that no one in the government knows what to do, so it is easier to do nothing. To those who saw former General Khin Nyunt as the brains of the outfit, this is a plausible hypothesis. However, for those who have always thought that the Senior General was the architect of the SPDC's remarkable survival over most of its now 17 years of rule, he is still the man with the plan. If he is, despite playing the long game, time will not always be on his side; he is not getting any younger.

However, the regime he leads looks set to preside for some years to come with or without Than Shwe. The underlying fundamentals that have allowed the military to remain in power are not being threatened from any side. Implementation of the road map is part of the plan to ensure for the foreseeable future the dominance of the army. This, however, does not rule out the possibility of unrest in the ranks of the armed forces as the economy falters and prospects for the future of Myanmar society look increasingly bleak. The voices calling for change from without are irrelevant to what may happen within the regime.

WATCHPOINT: A reshuffle of regional commanders and cabinet ministers is increasingly probable but this is unlikely to end grumbling in the ranks of the military over the government's inability to stimulate economic growth.

 

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