Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Burma -- Hanging on to power at all costs

Yesterday's Bangkok Post has an article on Burma. It's helpful to be reminded that not only is greed a motivating factor for hanging on to power, but also fear, fear of being brought to justice for all the atrocities they have perpetrated on the peoples of Burma for so many years. The wealth of those in power (and their families) is obscene! People starve and suffer while the privileged few have boxes of gold bars, imported cars, palatial homes with jade studded walls... etc and so forth.

Bring it to an end! Set the people free! Release the captives! Stop the dishonourable behaviour!Burma

Bangkok Post News: Hanging on to power at all costs:
Burma's generals celebrated this year's Armed Forces Day yesterday in the country's new capital, Pyinmana Nay Pyi Daw, some 400km north of Rangoon. The military regime began moving the country's government and war office there last November. The new capital has been renamed for the occasion the Royal City, in keeping with the monarchist pretensions of Burma's top general, Than Shwe.

For most of the last 50 years, Burma has been ruled by military dictators. The current crop of generals seized power in a military coup nearly 18 years ago, brutally suppressing the massive pro-democracy demonstrations which had brought the capital Rangoon to a virtual standstill for months.

The military regime continues to insist it is preparing the way for the introduction of a multi-party democracy. But greed and fear of possible Nuremberg-style trials have made Burma's top generals increasingly xenophobic and intent on hanging on to power at all costs.

Burma's military rulers ignored the results of national elections in May 1990 which the opposition National League for Democracy _ led by Aung San Suu Kyi then also under house arrest _ convincingly won.

Since then the generals have clung on to power despite international isolation and increasing pressure, including sanctions imposed by Europe and the US. Fear and greed seem to be the main reasons why they are reluctant to step down.

In fact Burma's reclusive generals are tightening control on military and administrative power for fear that if they stepped down they would face Nuremburg-style trials. The country's top military leader, General Than Shwe has often told the former Malaysian prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, that was what he was most concerned about.

The top generals have been preoccupied with control ever since they seized power. Almost every aspect of Burmese life is dominated by the army. Economic activity is tightly controlled by the army and the media is rigidly censored.

"Power motivates the generals above all else," according to the independent Burmese analyst Win Min based in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. "If they have power, they can do and get whatever they want _ money, jewellery and cars," he said. In fact they operate with impunity. When Than Shwe's tailors tried to collect what they were owed for clothes they had made for the women of the household more than a year ago, they were paid a fraction of the bill. The next day the tax inspectors were sent round to the shop to audit their accounts.

Over the past two years the army has been centralising authority in the hands of a few generals. Burma's generals are grouped around the country's top two military rulers _ Senior General Than Shwe, the head of state, and deputy Senior General Maung Aye, who is effectively in charge of the army.

The country is managed through a system of patronage and corruption. Greed and fear are the main motivations of the men in green who run Burma.

"The military leadership has rewritten and reinterpreted history to reinforce their belief that only they can save the country, and have done so to a degree that they believe it," the Burma specialist, Professor David Steinberg told the Bangkok Post. "They have a profound, but misguided, sense of nationalism, which they have used to attempt to legitimise their actions. This includes the belief that all foreign governments have attempted at one time or another to divide up or otherwise undermine the state."

The top general, Than Shwe, who sees himself as the country's new monarch, has a passion for luxurious and grandiose houses. "He needs to feel that he lives in a palace," according to a Burmese businessman who knew Than Shwe well. He had massive pillars coated in jade in his recently built new home in Rangoon, before deciding that it was not regal enough. He then spent millions of dollars on importing Italian slate before finally deciding that the pillars needed to be of Chinese marble, according to a Burmese building contractor. Grandiose dwellings were also built for all his children.

Money, jewellery and fast, expensive, imported cars are all accumulated by the top military leaders and their families. When the former agriculture minister, General Nyunt Tin, was arrested last year, five boxes of gold bars, diamonds and other precious stones were confiscated. Four large diamonds alone were worth six million dollars, according to a Burmese police source. Gold and jewellery were plastered into the walls of his new house that was built last year, according to the neighbours.

Imported cars _ often smuggled in from Thailand or shipped up from Singapore _ are also very popular. The agriculture minister's family also had more than 30 expensive imported cars in their possession when the minister and his son were arrested.

"In Burma, power relates to whether you're in the military or not. There is a saying in Burma that when you have stars on your shoulder, you have power and you're a big thing, but once you have no stars on your shoulder, you've no power and you're nothing," according the analyst, Win Min.

This is another reason that the top generals are hanging onto power _Than Shwe should have retired more than 10 years ago.

Four years ago when the generals moved against the grandsons of the former dictator General Ne Win, the top three generals _ Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt _ slept for nearly a week in the heavily-guarded, downtown War Office, as they feared that Ne Win's son-in-law had hired a foreign assassin while he was in Thailand.

The generals are extremely chauvinistic and xenophobic.

Over the past two decades, Burma's generals have used nationalism to justify their actions. "Nationalism is a justification, not the motivation, for them to hang on to power as they can no longer use socialism, as Ne Win did," said Win Min.

"They don't like democracy or federalism either _ as these are seen as foreign concepts. By promoting Burmese nationalism, the junta also hopes to be better placed to attack Aung San Suu Kyi for marrying a British man and marginalise the ethnic groups along Burma's borders," he added.

The generals only understand authority. Their allegiance is to their superiors; they have been trained to obey orders implicitly. "The generals do not discuss issues _ they only bark commands to their subordinates," said a retired military officer.

The former prime minister and intelligence chief, General Khin Nyunt, who was purged from power in October 2004 and later given a suspended sentence of 44 years in prison, told the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi that the army never negotiated.

Burma's top general, Than Shwe, insists on being called "king". When Than Shwe visited the Burmese embassy in Delhi during his official visit to India two years ago, everyone had to sit on the floor in deference to his royal position, according to Indian diplomats.

The way he dealt with the former prime minister and intelligence chief was more like a former monarch than military leader. Thousands of Khin Nyunt's supporters in the military and government were purged. Hundreds of the senior military intelligence officers were sentenced to hundreds of years in prison.

He has recently become so preoccupied with the possibility of a foreign invasion, especially by the US, that he moved the capital 400km north of Rangoon, into the hills in central Burma to make it safer in case of an attack.

The problem is that the next generation of generals already in the process of being promoted into the ruling SPDC, is likely to be just as uncompromising as their superiors. "They are just clones," said Win Min. "Their children are already corrupt and dominating the country's businesses."

So greed and fear is likely to fashion their outlook as much as it has Burma's present military leaders. And any likelihood that they may be encouraged to hand over power to a democratically-elected civilian government is extremely remote.

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