Myanmar: Polishing Up The Top Brass


Bertil Lintner

November saw the most significant revamp of Myanmar’s top military hierarchy since the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), was formed four years ago. Several high-ranking officials were sacked and military officers transferred to the capital Yangon. Foreign diplomats, and some people in Myanmar as well, became — once again — cautiously optimistic the reshuffle could be paving the way for a more modern, less corrupt government in Myanmar. The reshuffle also came as the UN’s special envoy, Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail, was preparing to visit Myanmar. It is widely believed in diplomatic circles that Malaysia is trying hard to bring about some degree of political change in Myanmar to make the military-ruled country more palatable to its fellow ASEAN members, and the rest of the world.

While some changes may take place as a result of the reshuffle, these are, likely to be largely cosmetic. Myanmar’s ruling military is not prepared, at this stage, to enter into any power-sharing agreement with the country’s main democracy movement, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest in Yangon. Privately, NLD officials express deep frustration over the lack of progress in a series of secret talks that have taken place between Suu Kyi and some SPDC officials over the past year. The talks seem to have centred on one issue only — the release of political prisoners — and in any case no meeting between Suu Kyi and any high-ranking member of the SPDC has been held since April this year.

Although no official reason has been given for the dismissal of some of Myanmar’s most powerful men — including Lt-Gen Win Myint, the Third Secretary of the SPDC, and military affairs minister Lt-Gen Tin Hla — it is widely believed among diplomats in Yangon that corruption charges may have been a factor. But most signs point at a power struggle among the ruling generals — and an almost desperate attempt to find scapegoats for the country’s dire economic straits. The Burmese currency, the kyat, has nose-dived to nearly 800 to the US dollar from 400 a year ago. Over the past six months, the price of rice in Yangon has increased by 15-35 per cent depending on the quality. Cooking oil is up by 45 per cent and petrol is 17 per cent more expensive than half-a-year ago.

The few foreign investors who remain in Myanmar are also expressing concern over the deteriorating situation — and Burmese sources point out that the recent shake-up seems to mirror a similar purge in November 1997, when the entire junta, the then State Law and Order Restoration Council, was dismissed and replaced by the present SPDC. That purge followed a trip by Myanmar’s ageing strongman, Ne Win, to Singapore, where he met senior minister Lee Kuan Yew and other prominent leaders of the city state.

At that time, the Singaporeans told Ne Win that their businessmen were unhappy with the level of corruption in Myanmar, and that something had to be done about it. This time, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has expressed similar concerns, Burmese sources and diplomats say, and has been trying to exert political influence. As well the Malaysians are some of the biggest investors in Myanmar today. In that sense, the shake-up fits into the pattern of finding scapegoats, for no one seriously believes that Myanmar can eradicate corruption as long as government officials are paid a pittance (a senior general or a government minister earns US$140 per month, and a major-general only US$70). At the same time they can afford big houses, drive fancy cars and send their spouses on shopping sprees abroad. In order to seriously tackle corruption, Myanmar would have to change its entire economic system, which is based on black-market dealings, kick-backs and ‘commissions’.

That is unlikely to happen, and nor is the power struggle likely to result in any major political changes. As an Asian diplomat in Yangon put it, nothing is more important for the generals than the institution they serve: the military and its grip on power. And this institution is more important than any individual. Personalities can be sacrificed in times of crises to ensure the supreme role of the armed forces in Burmese politics and society.

WATCHPOINT: In spite of efforts from outside and inside Myanmar, the military’s refusal to give up power means that the country will hobble on from crisis to crisis, and very little will change.


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