Understanding Burma’s Military Reshuffle

A lot seems to be happening lately in the world of senior and junior generals in Burma. The reports of the recent military reshuffle involving dozens of senior regime officials cannot be understood fully without taking into account a number of developments both at home and abroad.

The last six months have witnessed a flurry of visits to and from Naypyidaw by important officials and leaders, beginning with US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell in May, followed by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao making “major deals” in Burma, from Snr-Gen Than Shwe's highly controversial 5-day visit to New Delhi, as India’s state guest, and finally North Korean Foreign Minister Pak U-Chun in August and the first-ever visit to Burma by two Chinese warships a week ago.

Internationally, the United States’ confirmation on Aug 24 that it is exploring the “best ways to move forward” with the initiative to establish a UN Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in military-ruled Burma is set to have driven “the fear of god” into the Burmese leadership, from the cabinet upward.

While Washington may have intended to use the CoI chip as leverage to nudge Naypyidaw’s generals to behave, this open-ended policy shift is not taken lightly by the men who have too many skeletons in their closet.

For now, and as usual, the “Myanmarese” regime appears to be content with leaving the job of splitting legal hairs and/or debating the timing of Washington’s policy leak to regime-friendly experts and sinister diplomats.

A year ago, many Burma watchers, experts and diplomats, from Brussels to Singapore, from London to Delhi, were applauding Washington’s long-anticipated Burma policy shift from economic punishment to pragmatic engagement. Based on my first-hand engagement with the generals, I cautioned in these pages the pitfalls of inadequately informed “pragmatic engagement” (The Virtues of Careful Engagement, The Irrawaddy, Aug 21 at
http://www2.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=16617&page=3 ). Then I had an inkling that the Americans were treading on a path to nowhere: they were looking for a quid pro quo with Than Shwe, who engages with the outside world only on his own terms.

One year on, Washington appears to have come to terms with the futility of high level engagement with regime officials who have learned to play the game of triangulation when it comes to great powers, and rogue states alike. Than Shwe certainly knows how to manipulate engagers and play them off against one another.

For instance, Than Shwe rewarded US Senator Jim Webb for the American's openly anti-sanctions stance with the well-timed release of the religious ex-marine, John Yettaw, who went to deliver Aung San Suu Kyi in her captivity his divine revelation that the Nobel laureate’s life was in serious danger, while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, was given the run-around.

Also, Than Shwe is known to have easily fooled diplomats (for instance, EU Ambassador H.E. David Lipman) by granting them an audience. The Burmese general was happy to see Lipman, who came from Bangkok, while not bothering to meet with Campbell, who traveled all the way from Washington to discuss the serious matter of the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in the context of Burmese-North Korean relations. The “Old World” EU ambassador was thus led to believe his “seniority” over Campbell resulted in his well-earned audience with “the owner of white elephants” (as absolute Burmese monarchs were called in past centuries).

As a former psych-war operative in late dictator Ne Win’s military dictatorship, Than Shwe has evidently mastered the art of deception. The Burma Socialist Programme Party's chairman Ne Win handpicked Than Shwe and appointed him Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army in the 1980s, thinking that the general was a non-venomous snake in the midst of fighters and climbers.

How wrong he proved to be!

Former military intelligence chief and Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt was also deceived by Than Shwe into believing, as the regime’s most polished officer and top trouble-shooter, that he was indispensible to the senior general. The rest is history, as they say.

Campbell's visit in May, during which he delivered Washington’s warning to Burmese officials such as Science and Technology Minister Maung Thaung, known as a rabid nationalist, that the US reserves the right to take actions independent of the UN Security Council in view of the satellite photographic evidence that a North Korean ship docked in the Burmese deep seaport at Thilawa in April and delivered what, according to Thai sources, turned out to be missile and rocket components to the regime.

The regime’s official response was predictable: the cargo was cement. (Pyongyang might as well start an international Pizza Hut delivery service – lighter cargo, quicker runs, better tips and perhaps, greater customer satisfaction).

Like a fish that has learned to nibble around the bait, the regime cleverly ate what it could and swam away from the hook. So, the new punitive turn in the US (and UK) policies is for the better, lest American officials want to meet the fate of ill-advised, international luminaries such as Ban Ki-moon, the Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz or US Senator Jim Webb, whom the senior general and his men ably fooled in Naypyidaw.

One Burmese academic close to the regime intimated that the earlier-than-expected announcement of mass “resignations” of senior regime officials may even have something to do with the timing of Washington’s leak about its plan to support the proposal for a UN war crimes inquiry.

To be sure, such inquiries are not targeted exclusively at state actors such as the standing armies and their generals, but also concern other non-state perpetrators of atrocities (for instance, armed resistance groups fighting the central states). However, the fact that in Burma’s crime scene over the past 50 years, the regime is the most significant party helps explains why Washington may have made the generals, especially Than Shwe, sit up and pay attention.

Even Ne Win, who died as the result of Than Shwe’s decision to deny his old boss access to a doctor when the disgraced despot in captivity needed one most, was never under any threat of being hauled to the Hague.

If the timing of this continued wave of "civilization” was in part influenced by Naypyidaw’s heightened sense of a renewed American threat then Than Shwe may have picked the wrong man to be the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

For one, Lt-Gen Thura Myint Aung (Defense Services Academy/DSA Intake-18) has much blood on his hands. According to his DSA contemporary, ex-Major Aung Lynn Htut (DSA-20 ( http://www.voanews.com/burmese/news/soldier-talk/08_28_10_soldiers_talk023-101709843.html ), Myint Aung was one of the senior military officers directly involved in the Christie Island massacres.

Aung Lynn Htut, then a military intelligence officer,was present at the emergency meeting at the Zardatgyi Naval Headquarters where Myint Aung told everyone (officer) present in the room to “not ask any questions and just follow the execution order from Abagyi or the Senior General.”

Those in desperate search of a silver lining in the new military line-up would do well to rethink their age-biased projection that “young is liberal.” The news from Burma that men in their mid-50s with blood on their hands have been anointed top soldiers in the Tatmadaw, even if the real power remains in the hands of the same old general, does not bode well for future prospects for democratization.
The fact that the younger generation of junior generals are being promoted to such key, formal positions as “commander-in-chief” “deputy-commander-in-chief” and so on does not necessarily mean this generational shift signals a new progressive era even by the country’s regressive standards.

For those of us who lived through Ne Win’s 26-year rule of one-man one-party dictatorship, this business of “civilianizing military rule” is all déjà vu.
One major problem is that, young or old, the officer corps since Ne Win installed the military rule in 1962 has been conditioned to view themselves not simply as “guardians of the nation and defenders of the faith, culture and race,” but more importantly, the natural-born rulers of the country who by virtue of their soldiering – and nothing else – must lead Burma’s “great unwashed.”

The founding motto of the Defense Services Academy in the early 1950s was “Victorious Warriors of the New Era.” Today it is a more self-serving one: “Ruling National Elites of the Future”.

During the 48 years since Ne Win destroyed the fledging and flawed parliamentary system, the two generations of military officers have gleefully bought into this flattering perception of the soldiering class, equating national defense with nation-building, with rather catastrophic consequences.

For one, this smacks of internal “social class colonialism” reminiscent of the superiority complex typical of the “the-heaven-born,” a faded reference to the Oxbridge educated colonials who manned the British Empire’s outposts, teaching “stinky and smelly natives” Civilization 101 while sowing apartheid’s seeds in places like South Africa and legalizing forced labor in British Burma.

Like the heaven-born of bygone days, Burma’s military officer corps as a distinct professional class has been a categorical failure when it comes to promoting public welfare and nation-building. A cursory glance at the mountains of verifiable evidence suffices.

In all national dimensions such as life-expectancy, corruption, governance, accountability, public health, rule of law, political freedoms, public health, education, infrastructure, economy, foreign relations, the state of the natural environment, resource management, human resources development, peace, human and food security, Burma fares worse than most other Asian nations.

Sixty-two years after the country’s independence, 50 of them under military rule, the Burmese enjoy neither peace and security nor freedom and prosperity, while successive generations of junior and senior generals continue their “march of folly” toward one man-made disaster after another.

These otherwise able men with patriotic intentions could turn the country around. In fact, the Tatmadaw is the institution with possibly the largest concentration of human resources in Burma. But they must first abandon their self-serving class ethos of “soldiers as the heaven-born” and the generals’ nation-destroying policies and practices, which have brought the country to its current state.

Unfortunately for the Burmese public, the officer corps, the newly promoted or the nearly-dead, have refused to reflect honestly and critically on their own mythology of “national unifiers” against their profession’s spectacularly failed record in either nation-building or national unification.

It matters not which general sits on the throne, what structures the military creates, or what slogans of patriotism the officers wear on their sleeves, as long as the officer corps clings to its double-Orwellian creed—“officers-good, dissidents-bad,” “military-superior, civilian-inferior”—there exists no bright future for Burma country and its people.

Fifty years, or the equivalent of two generations, is more than enough for any social class in power to do good. The military, as the ruling class with a monopoly over state power and institutions, have failed the people over the past half-century. And they are bound to produce a similar record of spectacular failures in the coming 50 years.

The generals’ record in nation-building speaks louder than half-baked expert theories of how the military-elite-led liberalization is going to deliver the Burma peace, prosperity and democracy. This, even superstitious Burmese with their voodoo art of fortune-telling, can tell you with precision.

There just isn’t any other way to make this message more palatable to the (presumably) hostile ears of junior and senior generals.

The crucial question is “can the 50-million Burmese, and their environment, afford another half-century of bound-to-fail military rule with a civilian mask?”

Dr Zarni (m.zarni@lse.ac.uk) is research fellow on Burma at the LSE Global Governance, the London School of Economics and visiting senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University.
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