Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

MYANMAR: The Future Takes Form - but Little Change in Sight

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

MYANMAR: The Future Takes Form - but Little Change in Sight

Article excerpt

The military regime, headed by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), in 2006 further consolidated its ranks, relocated to a new capital, and at year's end looked poised to wrap up the long-running constitutional assembly and retire control to a loyal successor regime, possibly by 2008. The National League for Democracy (NLD) made a last-ditch effort to gain a role in the transition by offering to recognize the SPDC as the lawful government in return for convening of the elected parliament, while democracy activists abroad celebrated another campaign "victory" as the UN Security Council adopted Myanmar on its formal agenda. But neither conciliatory gestures nor threats had any apparent effect on the military leaders who seemingly remain supremely confident in their own judgement. With competition for Myanmar's rich energy resources intensifying, any notion that economic failure could force the military to accommodate demands for reform also appears increasingly implausible. While the regime may change, the prospects for substantive changes in power or policy in the near term look slim.

Military Politics

Despite its long-standing hold on power, the Myanmar military has never claimed a right to rule directly. Since they first assumed the reigns of government in 1988, the generals have struggled to find a way to return titular sovereignty to civilians without relinquishing actual control of the country. They were unsuccessful in their first attempt in 1990 when the election failed to produce a compliant parliament, and hit another snag five years later when the NLD, the landslide winners of that election, refused to cooperate in the drafting of a constitution designed to institutionalize a leading role for the military in politics (and limit its own). But this time, it appears, they are not going to take "no" for an answer.

Consolidating the military hierarchy

One of the most difficult challenges facing the ruling military council since its birth in 1988 has been the power vacuum created by the concomitant departure of former strongman Ne Win, whose towering influence over the army and the country had defined so much of its post-independence history. Yet, after nearly two decades of gradually consolidating his position, Senior General Than Shwe today seems to be in absolute control, challenged only by his own fragile health.1 The purge in 2004 of long-standing intelligence chief, General Khin Nyunt, along with scores of his closest associates, was accomplished with surprising ease and after several key appointments in 2006 the restructuring of the regime seems near completion. The main remaining challenge for the supreme but ailing leader is to secure his retirement.

The frontrunner among the next generation of military leaders is General Shwe Man, who since 2001 has served as Joint Chief of Staff of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the third most powerful position in the military hierarchy. Another commander moving quickly up through the ranks is lieutenant General Myint Shwe, who in January 2005 took over Khin Nyunt's position as head of a downsized military intelligence (renamed the Office of Military Affairs security, or OMAS). Having held a double position as Yangon commander and Chief of OMAS for a year, Myint Shwe was further promoted in 2006 to head a new Bureau of Special Operations, which oversees the regional commands in Yangon, Bago, and the new capital of Naypyitaw He was replaced in January as Yangon commander by Brigadier General HIa Htay Win (former commander of LID-11, which has responsibility for security in Yangon) and in May as head of OMAS by Major General Ye Myint (former eastern commander in Taunggyi). The latter change was part of a broader restructuring of the powerful regional command posts, which saw six new regional commanders appointed, including Brigadier General Wai Lwin, who has taken charge of a new 13th regional command based in Naypyitaw. Of the previous commanders, two were transferred to high-ranking posts in the Ministry of Defence, while three were made ministers. …

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