Myanmar: Post-Khin Nyung Politics

2005

Robert H Taylor

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.' Sir Isaac Newton's third law appears also to apply in the case of Myanmar politics under the current regime dominated by two men, Senior General Than Shwe and Vice-Senior General Maung Aye. The last two survivors of the officers, who took control of the government in September 1988, have now had 10 months to demonstrate their style of government without the other long term survivor of the regime, General Khin Nyunt. The latter, who has now been tried, convicted and given a 44 year suspended sentence, had a significant role in government decision making during the past decade and more. His removal from the scene in October last year led many observers to describe the post-Khin Nyunt line up as 'hard-line'. The situation appears to be more complex and nuanced than that simplistic description would suggest.

What the government has made clear is that it will take strong action against those inside and outside the country who they see as undermining or attacking the country and themselves. This is obvious with the arrests in February of Shan political leaders and the government's efforts to create the impression of an alleged conspiracy which lead up to the 'declaration of Shan independence' by two aged exiles in April. Similarly, the vitriol which has been hurled at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) following its decision to reactivate calls for sanctions against Myanmar after what the government perceived as not insignificant, even if belated, efforts at compromise, demonstrates a willingness to stand up to foreign criticism. Not only the Myanmar War Veterans Organisation, but also another government sponsored organisation, the Myanmar Women's Affairs Federation, has demanded in meetings across the country that Myanmar withdraw from the ILO and ban the organisations of exiled figures such as Maung Maung, the Western backed leader of the Free Trade Union (Burma) and Dr Sein Win, the 'prime minister' of the unrecognised National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.

The denunciation of Maung Maung, who was allowed to address the ILO meeting where the sanctions were discussed, and Sein Win, a cousin of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was elected in 1990 from a different party than her National League for Democracy, was accompanied by repeated attacks on Daw Suu Kyi herself for alleged support for sanctions and boycotts of Myanmar around the time of Myanmar Women's Day on 3 July. These started on the day of her 60th birthday, 19 June, which was widely celebrated by anti-regime activists abroad. This unsubtle effort to wrap all of the military government's critics in the same clothe is not unrelated to the media treatment being given to the other hot international issue to be decided soon after this article was written, whether Myanmar will pass over the chairmanship of the Standing Committee of ASEAN.

Calls by a small group of ASEAN parliamentarians from Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, that Myanmar abandon its turn to host ASEAN meetings commencing a year from now, as well as calls by several regional foreign ministers from the same governments that Myanmar should look after the 'wider interests' of the group, has been met by a media response in Yangon which also follows Newton's Third Law. When Condoleezza Rice said she would not attend ASEAN meetings in Myanmar, the press editorialised that Myanmar had lots of rice and need not import more from the United States. Media attention has also been repeatedly drawn to the strong and thriving relationship between China and Myanmar as well as India. In particular, the early July second summit of the Greater Mekong Sub-region has been hailed as further evidence of the strong ties between Myanmar and China. Whether the Myanmar government believes that mollifying the United States and the European Union governments, which have also threatened to boycott ASEAN meetings in 2007-2008, is in ASEAN's long-term interests appears to be doubtful.

But while the military government is taking a 'hard-line' with its foreign and domestic critics, it plays a 'softer line' with domestic opinion. In early July more than 300 prisoners were released from prison, of which several hundred were described as political prisoners as well as detained journalists. While some of the big name prisoners such as U Win Tin were not released, and the prospects for the release from house arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and former General Tin Oo look as remote as ever, these releases will create the impression that the regime understands that new steps toward national healing are possible. No one will be convinced that re-arrests are not possible, but the fact that senior government ministers have held meetings with political prisoners released earlier has sent a positive, or at least confusing, signal to political observers within the country. Hints of slightly relaxed press scrutiny also point in the same direction.

Both a hard-line and a soft-line can be perceived in recent government moves. Whatever it demonstrates, it is clear that the government still has the initiative, and pressure or confrontation from within or without will still meet with stout resistance. The 'soft line' may be illusory but politics is often about illusions.

WATCHPOINT: How will Myanmar relations with the other ASEAN countries develop after the July Foreign Ministers meeting in Vientiane?

 

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