Characteristics of the SLORC period (1988–92)

A different pattern of power dynamics can be seen in the first few years after the 1988 coup among the next generation of army officers, known at the time as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Unlike in the past, when power was concentrated in the hands of the top leader, until the mid-1990s power was shared among the SLORC members together with some residual influence from General Ne Win. In 1992, the top junta leader, General Saw Maung, was forced to retire by other SLORC members on ‘health grounds’, seemingly for his public promise to transfer power to the elected party.[4] Other SLORC members were opposed to transferring power to the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. This ended any remaining hopes for a democratic transition after the elections.

General Than Shwe, who replaced Saw Maung, and who has a background in psychological warfare, is considered to be a good tactician. He has regularly used divide-and-rule tactics to weaken not just the opposition’s power, but the power of other top generals. He has had huge statues of three prominent Burmese kings, who demonstrated great military might and held absolute power, erected in the new capital, Naypyitaw, which means ‘royal city’ in Burmese.[5] Besides desiring absolute control, he is known for being xenophobic and is influenced by astrology.[6]

In 1997, a group of SLORC members, including Lieutenant-General Tun Kyi, Lieutenant-General Kyaw Ba and Lieutenant-General Myint Aung, was sacked because of their growing power, which challenged the top three generals. After that, the SLORC renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and power was concentrated among the remaining top three leaders. The growing popularity of the third-highest ranking officer, Military Intelligence Chief and Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt, made Than Shwe uncomfortable. Khin Nyunt was a pragmatic leader who had subtly suggested to Than Shwe that the civil service and economic policymaking should be demilitarised in order to improve the administration of the country.[7] He also encouraged engagement with the international community and the opposition, including the NLD. Than Shwe, however, appeared to see the opposition as an enemy and an obstacle to his achieving absolute power. According to many reports, Than Shwe hates Aung San Suu Kyi and he does not even want to hear her name (Jagan 2003). In 2004, Khin Nyunt and his military intelligence officers were purged. The reason given was corruption and disobeying Than Shwe’s orders. In fact, they were purged because of their growing power and their attempts to push for gradual economic reform, which could lead to political reform. Than Shwe feared that he would lose his absolute control.

[4] Interview with a former military medical officer, 30 June 2007.

[5] It can also be translated simply as ‘capital’.

[6] Interview with a former military intelligence officer, 15 November 2007.

[7] Interview with an insider from General Khin Nyunt’s former military intelligence faction, 10 November 2005.