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To be Burma's President or Army Chief?


Irrawaddy News Magazine (Thursday, July 1, 2010)

Halfway through 2010 and  the date for Burma’s election has not yet been set. The signs seem to suggest that two years after the first announcement the regime will call a snap election, if they call anything at all.

The election, when or if it is held, will bring change. It will change the leadership within the army and it might even stir conflict within the ranks. Even such a  limited cosmetic change appears to be a cause of great angst for Sen-Gen Than Shwe. And that’s why he hesitates.

In Burmese politics today, the chief of the armed forces is the one who holds  absolute power. Snr-Gen Than Shwe is No. 1, and he will hold on to power with an iron grip.  As long as he has power, he will use it to achieve his goal.  His words, as a Burmese proverb goes, can kill the fire.

According to the Constitution, in post-election Burma, the army chief will continue to be the major power holder. Than Shwe has the power to choose: to be president or  army chief.

Than Shwe, now  in his late-70s, could find the choice difficult.

According to the seniority system in the Burmese army, Vice Sen-Gen Maung Aye should be the next chief of the armed forces, but Gen Thura Shwe Mahn could also be in line since Maung Aye is in his late 70s.

Lt-Gen Myint Swe and  Lt-Gen Tin Aye of the defense ministry may also hope to be No 1.

What is clear in Burma is that there are many more generals who have dreams of being army chief than those who dream of becoming the country’s president. This is a direct result of the 2008 Constitution which was written to keep the army chief and his military clique in power.

If Than Shwe chooses himself as the country’s next president, will he be able to continue to control the army as late dictator Gen Ne Win managed to do during the Burmese Socialist Programme Party? The question is: Are his fellow generals loyal to him?

Will Maung Aye, Shwe Mahn, and Myint Swe continue to obey Than Shwe if  he leaves the army to be the country’s president?  Will enemies from within the army appear at that point? Than Shwe did after all bring down the former dictator Gen Ne Win and then, only six years ago, he put one of the most powerful men in Burma, Gen Khin Nyunt, behind bars.

There may be supporters  of these deposed figures lurking in the background, ready to emerge when Than Shwe and his fellow generals take off their army uniforms.

Even though both the president and the next army chief will be selected by Than Shwe, he cannot be certain of the loyalty of the army chief.

Perhaps the election date has not been announced because Than Shwe cannot decide on the next army chief and the next president from within his own elite circle. The power to set the date is purely in his hands. There is no opposition to protest the date. There is no need for a sudden, snap election or for the lack of a decision.

But, for Than Shwe and his clique, the decision is one that could determine their common fate. It is a dilemma of their own making, the very 2008 Constitution which they wrote and which could bring about their own demise, if the wrong decision is made.

One thing is sure now, they have to do something. Having proffered an election, they have to set a date. But the date will only be set after Than Shwe has decided whether to choose himself as the next country’s president and who to select to lead the army.

The decision may set off a course of events which could lead to Than Shwe losing his position to another dictator. He might then face the same fate as Gen Ne Win.

Holding proper talks with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would certainly have been a better path to choose for himself, his military clique and for the country as a whole.
Khin Maung Tint and Aung Moe Zaw are the general secretary and chairperson of  the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS), which is a Burmese political party based in exile.

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