Myanmar: More of the Same


Frank Milne

Developments in the past month suggest that the National Convention, which resumed on 17 February, will not constitute anything more than a rubber stamp for an authoritarian constitution drafted by the regime. The National League for Democracy is not participating, nor is the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD). The government evidently intends to use its handpicked delegates to force through a new constitution before the end of the year, as a gesture to its ASEAN partners who are showing increasing concern about the lack of reform.

Following the eclipse of Khin Nyunt, the regime seems even less disposed than before to consider any compromise with the opposition or the ethnic groups which fail to toe the government line. The house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and her deputy Tin Oo was recently extended for a further year, and the Chairman and General Secretary of the SNLD were also detained recently. The Army is continuing its efforts to impose a military solution on the dissident Karens, despite a verbal agreement in January 2004 on a ceasefire. A Karen National Union delegation went to Yangon last October, but talks were shelved in the wake of Khin Nyunt's removal.

According to observers in Yangon, there is an ongoing power struggle in the leadership between Senior General Than Shwe and his deputy, Army commander General Maung Aye. Khin Nyunt's replacement as Prime Minister, Lt Gen Soe Myint, is caught in the middle and is not expected to hold office long. The wholesale purge of the Military Intelligence service after Khin Nyunt's fall, with the trial of 300 officers on charges of corruption and illegal economic activities, and the forced retirement of 1500 others has caused uneasiness in the officer class. It will be interesting to see what the line-up of the leadership will be on Armed Forces day (27 March), but whoever comes out on top is unlikely to be any less xenophobic and inward looking than the present leaders.

One bright spot in Myanmar's under-performing economy is the prospect offered by the major Shwe gas/oil field off the west coast of Arakan (Rakine) state, now estimated to have gas reserves of up to 20 trillion cubic feet. Gas is already Myanmar's largest export earner, with substantial sales to Thailand. India, involved in a consortium with Korean companies to develop the field, hopes to transport the gas from the Shwe field by a pipeline through Bangladesh, though the latter is seeking to extract a quid pro quo from India for transit rights for power lines from Nepal and Bhutan.

WATCHPOINT: Will the leadership manage to hang together, or is there the prospect of further upheavals?


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