And house always win. Also in Burma.
1. Is it possible to say how strong is the position of general Than Shwe as the ruler of Burma? Why he is the ruler if we have so many generals in Burma?
2. Is any person in the junta who could challenge his position with some success and what could happen then?
3. How would you describe the relationships between Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi? Do he really hate her some much as is traditional opinion?
4. How junta was able to survive for relatively long time and what could be lethal for Burma generals?
Jack Fong, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Department of Psychology and Sociology, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
1. Yes, there are many generals in Burma, but among these Than Shwe is the number one strongman. In this regard he wields power very much like a dictator. One must remember that Than Shwe once had a “rival” of sorts by the name of Khin Nyunt (pronounced Kin-nyoon). Khin Nyunt was purged and ousted in a coup in October 2004 because he believed in some sort of compromise or reconciliation with the ethnic nationalities as well as with Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy Party. Moreover, Khin Nyunt even invited the Karen National Union rebel leader, the highly feared and respected General Bo Mya to Rangoon for ceasefire talks in January 2004. It was during this time that I was able to enter the Karen State and ascertain their politics. After Khin Nyunt was ousted, Than Shwe was able to consolidate his power with only the hardliners in the State Peace and Development Council, the name of the current regime. The reason why we have so many generals in Burma is because the country’s largest institution is the military. It overshadowns all other social institutions–so generals are in charge of every aspect of social life and are thus “everywhere” sort of speak.
2. If you mean “in” the junta as in inside the tightly closed circle of generals: my current answer is no. But this is only speculation because the SPDC and its previous incarnationas (SLORC and BSPP) are highly secretive. What has been floating around in the dialog of observers of the region, especially since cyclone Nargis, is that many lower-level generals are a bit upset at how Than Shwe is not accepting outside help. But then again, all generals–even if they’re upset–fear the prospect of neo-colonial intervention even more. The colonization of Burma by the British has inculcated in its nationalists a deep and long-lasting paranoia of any external, and especially Western force intervening in the internal affairs of the country. As you may know, Burma can accept help from Thailand, but they’ve resisted assistance from the UN, the West, and a myriad of other nations (to my knowledge from my reading of the news this morning, this is beginning to change since the UN’s Ban Ki Moon has personally visited the country and spoke with Than Shwe). One must always remember that Than Shwe is surrounded by servile sycophants–so even if they’re in disagreement with him, the propensity for them to, say, assassinate him, is unlikely. This is because if they destroy Than Shwe, they destroy themselves. Given that the only means toward social status in Burma is through the military, no lower-level general at this point will risk career suicide, I feel.
3. Than Shwe does dislike Aung San Suu Kyi greatly. After all, her entire raison d’etre is to remove people like Than Shwe from power. And Than Shwe maintains his grip with the SPDC upon the country because he fears supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi will take over the country. You may have heard of the famous anecdote that he does not even allow anyone to mention her name in front of him. I cannot verify the authenticity of this. Although Than Shwe may personally detest Aung San Suu Kyi, he will not do anything violent to her. After all, she is the daughter of Burma’s liberator, Aung San. Secondly, by keeping her under perennial house arrest like a caged bird, he is in essence showing the world who is really in power.
But it is also very important to remember that the ethnic nationalities of Burma have been fighting for democracy for many decades also. One cannot leave them out of the equation of Burma. No matter where one enters the chronology of the country after WWII there was sectarian conflict. Moreover, many of these ethnic nationalities, like the Karen, are fighting for what you and I already have, freedom and democracy. Even Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD at one point had their office at the Karen capital of Manerplaw before it fell in 1995.
4. This is such a good question and very, very important question and I’ve answered this in great length in my book recently released 2008 book Revolution as Development: The Karen Self-Determination Struggle against Ethnocracy 1949-2004. First off, the junta did “survive” but in many instances, barely. Indeed, up until the 1970s, virtually all of Burma’s ethnic nationalities were fighting against the BSPP military regime at the time. The KNU, the KNPP, the NMSP, the KIO, etc. were all heavily armed and very formidable foes. These groups also had, relatively speaking, a great deal of international sympathy. Moreover, by the late 1980s, the SLORC was challenged by virtually the entire Burmese population who later threw their lot behind Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. However, by the 1990s, the important KNU capital at Manerplaw was seized and by then Aung San Suu Kyi had been placed under house arrest. Subsequent ethnic cleansing campaings (known as the “Four Cuts”) succeeded in somewhat reducing the fighting efficacy of the remaining ethnic nationalities (although many of them and their inter-ethnic coalitions are still not going to surrender).
But if I could narrow down reasons for their survival, it would “orbit” around these reasons: (1) China’s warming support for the regime in the mid-1990s and its subsequent sale of arms to the regime; (2) the international community’s–especially the UN’s–unwillingness to entertain the notion of a “failed state”, thus never questioning the premise of the state; (3) the discovery of massive natural gas fields in the Andaman Sea known as the Yadana fas fields and the abundance of teak, gems, and other natural resources; (4) and a variety of hypocritical countries that supposedly represent democracy, but continue to do business with the regime. India, for example, is now courting the regime because they’re worried about China’s influence on Burma. Even Germany has sold weapons to the regime, as has Israel, Russia, Singapore, Serbia, Ukraine, and Pakistan in varying degrees. One must remember that from a business perspective, it is much better to do business with authoritarian regimes simply because the latter can never be held accountable by the population.
I am of the firm belief that the only way to liberate Burma is to encourage the establishment of a federal system, as espoused by the ethnic nationalities such as the KNU and Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, among others. But this cannot be simply sloganeered as a generalized indignation, as rhetoric. Quite frankly I’m sick of the rhetoric. The Burmese people I know are sick of the rhetoric, and so are the Karen people I know. One must realize that the generals of Burma do not care about what the world thinks or “feels”. They understand only the language of guns. Therefore what could be lethal for the general is if the UN physically intervenes with a peace-keeping force like they did for East Timor. We cannot any longer depend on regional trade blocs such as ASEAN, who after all, admitted Burma into the organization. All these members want is money and business–they do not genuinely care about human rights. A typical defense by regional powers is that Burma’s affairs belong in the internal sphere of the country, so they don’t want to get involved. But Andrej, they do get involved in shady business dealings. Moreover, China and India also have separatist-oriented populations at their cultural periphery, so they will do everything they can to never let Burma break up, for it’s bad for business and regional geopolitical configurations. One must understand the the politics of Burma has always been ethnopolitical. And there are many ethnic nationalities of Burma that will never consider themselves Burmese. Where Burma is today is where the former Yugoslavia after Tito used to be. Thus a free Burma cannot be only a free Burma for Burmans, but for all other ethnic nationalities who’ve contributed greatly to the tapestry of the country’s democratic struggle.
David Steinberg, Distinguished professor, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University
They say Than Shwe will not even hear Suu Kyi’s name. He is strong because one person has to be in charge of his entourage–power cannot be shared. The issue that might fracture the junta was the saffron revolution, which I think upset many devout Burman Buddhist generals. Not only is Than Shwe in charge, but he is shielded from reality as much as possible, at least before the cyclone. It is a Potemkin society .