Rift within the junta

By Larry Jagan, Asia Times, 18 June 2003

BANGKOK—The future of Myanmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi may be in the balance.

“There are assassins in the country,” said Foreign Minister Win Aung, “and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is in custody for her own protection.” No one has taken these allegations seriously, but there is a strong sense that the opposition leader's safety may in danger.

United Nations envoy Razali Ismail, who met government leaders and Suu Kyi on his last visit, is also convinced that the military junta wants to shield her from danger.

So for the time being at least, Suu Kyi remains in custody, where she has been since the end of May after an attack on her motorcade and supporters by what US diplomats have called a premeditated ambush by government-supported thugs.

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be released in due course,” Win Aung told his counterparts at the foreign ministers' meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia on Monday. “Don’t press us to commit ourselves to a timeframe and date of releasing her,” he said. “The important thing is that the will [to free her] is there.”

Whether this happens—and when—largely depends on what is happening within the military hierarchy. For some time now, there has been growing evidence of a rift within the army's top ranks over what to do with Suu Kyi and whether to start direct talks with her.

The top military leader, General Than Shwe, clearly felt that there was no need to negotiate with the opposition. The hardliners who share his view have led the campaign against Suu Kyi as she traveled around the countryside.

But not everyone within Myanmar's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) seems to share this approach.

The pragmatists—believed to be centered on the military intelligence chief, General Khin Nyunt—were prepared to talk to Suu Kyi and to engage the international community on political and economic reform in the country. They are clearly embarrassed by what went on upcountry before she was detained.

“It is highly significant that General Than Shwe was out of town during most of Razali's visit,” said an Asian diplomat in Yangon. He reportedly went to a seaside resort shortly after the envoy's arrival and remained there until Razali left for Kuala Lumpur.

This has raised crucial questions about Than Shwe's position and authority. Diplomats are intrigued by the fact that for nearly two weeks after the May 30 attack against Suu Kyi, there was no coverage of the general in the state-run media. “This is more than curious as the media usually follow and document his every move—especially when he leaves the capital and when he returns,” said a Yangon-based diplomat.

In the past few days, the senior general has been back on the front pages and television news—perhaps signifying that Myanmar's senior leaders are resolving their differences. But doubts remain about whether there have been any major realignments with the top leadership.

“The are signs of a power struggle going on in [Yangon],” said a retired senior Asian diplomat who has close ties with Myanmar but did not want to be identified. “There are few public manifestations of this. But in the next few months there is likely to be a major shakeup of the top brass—similar to what happened some 10 years ago when General Saw Maung was pushed out.”

Many of these military leaders saw the start of the dialogue process as something that could guarantee the army a long-term role in the country's political future. Now they realize the process is falling apart, and with it, their grasp on power.

Military sources close to Than Shwe say he loathes Suu Kyi, and refuses to have her name mentioned in his vicinity. “The very mention of her name throws the senior general into a fit,” said a senior Asian diplomat, adding that Asian leaders such as Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi were advised not to mention her name during their meetings last year.

There certainly appears to have been an intense debate within Myanmar's military leadership—possibly confined to the triumvirate of Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt—over whether to allow Razali access to Suu Kyi. In the end, General Maung Aye intervened and sanctioned the visit to the opposition leader.

“What is now clear is that General Maung Aye is exercising power—even in the national reconciliation process, which he had kept well away from since it started,” said a Yangon-based Western diplomat. “This may signal the turning point in the dialogue too.”

In the past three years during his trips to Yangon, Razali has not met Maung Aye—except when he met all three top leaders, at which occasions Khin Nyunt took the lead.

But the dialogue Razali helped broker between the generals and the opposition leader is in trouble. Even UN officials associated with the envoy say “there is no real process at present”.

Yet the latest crisis may provide an opportunity to get substantive talks started. It is now up to Myanmar's military rulers to make the first move. “They have to let her out if they want to continue with national reconciliation,” said Razali. “You can’t do it with one party locked up.”

Two of Myanmar's top three generals have assured Razali this will happen soon. But “they must do something now to indicate that are serious about moving quickly to discussing things with her,” he said, “a point I also made to them after meeting her.”

In the space of two weeks the pendulum may have swung back in favor of the pragmatists—those who want to talk to Suu Kyi and realize they must implement political and economic reform.

Suu Kyi is only likely to be released after the struggle within Myanmar's military leadership is resolved. That would certainly signal the start of a real political dialogue.

“Now there is a very real possibility of serious political talks starting some time in the future,” said a UN official. “But like everything in Burma, it is by no means certain—it depends on developments in [Yangon].”