Myanmar: The Praetorian Paradox - The Pathology of Coercive Power



When General Khin Nyunt was appointed as the Prime Minister (PM) in August 2003 there were much speculation whether it was a demotion or promotion, whether he had retained his membership in the junta (the State Peace and Development Council or SPDC), and also whether he still controlled the powerful military intelligence apparatus. No clear-cut answers were forthcoming but his high profile and intense public activities in the following 14 months until the announcement of his ouster on 19 October 2004 suggested that he was a confident and pragmatic leader with the potential to acquire performance legitimacy for the regime. Many saw him as the leader of a moderate faction amongst the generals that rule Myanmar. Apparently, his supporters and followers had projected an image of a relatively 'clean' and 'reasonable' workaholic willing to engage in dialogue with the democratic opposition but somewhat constrained by the 'hardliners' led by the SPDC Vice-Chair and Commander-in-Chief of the Army, General Maung Aye, who had held sway over the conservative junta Chairman and supreme commander, Senior General Than Shwe.

The 'shock' and 'awe' of his dismissal officially citing 'health' reasons but later elaborated by General Thura Shwe Mann (third-ranked in the military hierarchy) as due to his 'insubordination' and his being 'involved in bribery and corruption' together with his family. His downfall was triggered five weeks earlier (while he was undergoing medical treatment in Singapore following an official visit) by a 'huge and alarming bribery and corruption case' near the China border involving a border area immigration supervisory body comprising military intelligence personnel and those from three other ministries. It was recounted that the former PM was overly protective of his subordinates and became 'increasingly infuriated' as the drama unfolded. When Senior General Than Shwe called General Khin Nyunt in to inform him that a new intelligence chief would be appointed; the National Intelligence Bureau (whose chair was the PM) would be abolished and the supervision of the border area immigration transferred, General Khin Nyunt apparently ordered his staff (at a meeting on 14 October) to collate the intelligence dossiers on the regional and brigade commanders which he intended to present at a Cabinet meeting. This act, perceived as a 'serious threat to the nation' by way of eventually leading to the 'disintegration' of the armed forces, was the last straw and led to what Shwe Mann alluded to as 'one's own undoing'.

Despite the aforementioned account suggesting that personal failing due to unabated 'anger', overconfidence, and arrogance led to the removal of Khin Nyunt, a more astute observer with a long memory may feel a sense of déjà vu in this sorry saga. There are striking parallels to the demise in 1983 of the powerful intelligence chief Brigadier Tin Oo (a trusted lieutenant of dictator Ne Win) which resulted in a purge that hollowed out the intelligence community to the point of apparent incompetence leading to a North Korean bomb attack on the South Korean premier in Yangon. In fact, one could aver that these purges are symptoms of a systemic problem of a regime exerting tight social control through the coercive powers of an intelligence apparatus. The latter outgrew its usefulness when it became pervasive and all-powerful through its ability to amass and filter information (knowledge is power), exercise extra-judicial authority and enjoy great operational latitude in the name of national security. It grew into a state within a state and increasingly threatened the integrity of the armed forces' command structure. The supreme commander found himself increasingly vulnerable to blackmail and had to prove, once again, that the 'gun' is mightier than 'knowledge'.

In the weeks that followed the fall of Khin Nyunt, two ministers (Home Affairs and Labour) and four deputy ministers 'retired' amidst unsubstantiated news that the former PM's family was under house arrest and 'hundreds' of military intelligence officers and other ranks had been arrested or dismissed and had their properties seized. Tens of thousands of unregistered vehicles imported with the connivance of the military intelligence were being impounded while numerous 'business' ventures ran (jointly or solely) by intelligence personnel having closed shop.

Meanwhile, the Yangon Regional Commander (reportedly related to the Senior General) was appointed the new intelligence chief and a new intelligence apparatus is being fashioned manned by those trusted by the supreme commander. The apparent strong man (believed to be like 'family' to the Senior General) Shwe Mann, the new Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Soe Win (former Seretary-1 of the junta) and Lt. Gen. Thein Sein, the new Secretary-1 of the SPDC (The National Convention chair and former Secretary-2; a position yet to be filled) all promptly gave assurances that there are no policy changes; in particular, the seven-step road map, the National Convention (currently in recess), and the current policy towards the ceasefire groups would continue.

WATCHPOINT: Expect the new state managers to be more cautious and conservative than Khin Nyunt and his followers, especially in international relations - given that those who have fallen from grace might be perceived, in hindsight, as having been too accommodating and cosmopolitan for the country's own good. Domestically, the ceasefire groups could find themselves at the short end of the stick.


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