Friday, 11 July 2008

Rise of Factions Roils Relations within Burmese Junta

The Irrawaddy News

On the surface, the high-ranking generals in the Burmese military junta appear to be united. But since a reshuffle in early June, speculation has been rife that the regime is undergoing a major realignment, with competing forces jostling for influence.

There are persistent rumors that several of the former Bureau of Special Operations heads who were sacked in June are now under investigation on corruption charges. Some are even believed to be under house arrest, facing charges of high treason.

Although international news agencies reported that around 150 officers were reshuffled, well-informed observers say the number who were reassigned or removed outright was probably closer to 400.

It is believed that three powerful factions have now emerged, all of them loyal to Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who remains the commander in chief of the armed forces.

The three factions are led by Gen Thura Shwe Mann, Lt-Gen Myint Swe and Lt-Gen Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo.

Thura Shwe Mann, 60, is the third-ranking general in the military hierarchy, holding the title of joint chief of staff. He has been groomed to take over as commander in chief of the armed forces when Than Shwe sees fit to step down.

Shwe Mann also has the lofty title of “Coordinator of the Special Operations, Army, Navy and Air Force”—a position that allows him to oversee all the main branches of the military, including the powerful Bureaus of Special Operations.

Shwe Mann is seen as a protégé of Than Shwe. He is also close to several businessmen and scholars who have recently been involved in getting humanitarian assistance to cyclone-affected areas of the Irrawaddy delta.

Shwe Mann’s son, Aung Thet Mann, is involved in the fertilizer and rice mill business in the delta. The Shwe Mann camp has recently been releasing news that the general is business-minded and in favor of cooperating with the United Nations and the international community. His close friend and former classmate, Lt-Gen Soe Thein, was recently removed from his position as navy chief and named minister for industry (2).

Another rising star is Lt-Gen Myint Swe, 59, who heads Bureau of Special Operations 5 (BSO-5).

Myint Swe is an ethnic Mon who has played a key role in controlling security in Rangoon since the early 2000’s. He is a distant relative of Than Shwe’s wife, Kyaing Kyaing, and is known to be close to the senior leader. He was involved in several important operations against top leaders, including the arrest of former Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt, who was ousted in October 2004.

Myint Swe has been seen in the state-run media more frequently since Cyclone Nargis slammed into Burma in early May, prompting observers to wonder if he is in line to assume a top commander position.

Lt-Gen Tin Aung Myint Oo, the quartermaster-general who was named secretary-1 of the State Peace and Development Council in 2007, is the putative leader of a third faction.

Burmese observers believe that Tin Aung Myint Oo was one of the regime’s main opponents of foreign assistance and UN involvement in the Cyclone Nargis relief effort. He recently visited the Irrawaddy delta and was named deputy head of the National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee.

All three powerful generals have visited the affected area. Shwe Mann accompanied Than Shwe, while Tin Aung Myint Oo went with Maung Aye, the deputy commander in chief of the armed forces and army chief, along with other powerful commanders, including air defense department and intelligence chiefs. Myint Swe toured the affected area alone, giving “necessary instructions” to officials.

Insiders have noted that all three are close to Than Shwe and his family, removing any likelihood of a coup against the top commander.

Meanwhile, Maung Aye, the army chief, remains the second-most powerful military leader in the armed forces. Maung Aye was locked in a bitter fight with Gen Khin Nyunt, and Than Shwe benefited from the power struggle between the two. Now Maung Aye, who has little political ambition, is not a threat to Than Shwe.

But if speculation about the emergence of three powerful factions within the top command turns out to be true, it is likely that further purges and changes at the top are in store.

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