Internal dynamics during the August–September 2007 demonstrations

Amid the demonstrations, General Shwe Mann, who is Chief of Staff of the Army, Navy and Air Force, chaired most of the National Security Council meetings, without the presence of Than Shwe or Maung Aye (Jagan 2008a). The National Security Council is tasked with managing the country’s day-to-day security operations. Shwe Mann had maintained a low profile until September in order not to be seen as a threat or rival to Maung Aye. He has become more prominent in his new role as the acting chair of the National Security Council meetings. The new arrangement could be another attempt by Than Shwe to reduce the power of Maung Aye by limiting his day-to-day management of security operations. In future, Maung Aye might be able to intervene in security affairs only in emergency cases. In such instances, however, there could be a problem of overlapping orders from Maung Aye and Shwe Mann. By delegating regular security operations to Shwe Mann, it is also likely that Than Shwe and Maung Aye will focus more on how to deal with international pressure on Burma in the future, since this pressure is likely to increase.

Asking Shwe Mann to serve as the acting chairman of the National Security Council could also signify that Than Shwe does not completely trust Maung Aye to be tough in quelling demonstrations. The new situation will give Than Shwe the opportunity to bypass Maung Aye and go directly to Shwe Mann with certain orders. There have been reports that Maung Aye did not support the idea of using pro-military mass organisations, such as the USDA and the Swan Arr Shin (Masters of Force) militia, to crack down on protesters.[17] According to sources close to the military, he even pushed for the release of a detainee whose leg was broken but who was denied medical treatment after being attacked by the USDA and Swan Arr Shin in August 2007.[18] He also appeared to disagree with the use of large-scale violence against unarmed civilians, especially the beating and shooting of monks as well as causing bloodshed when raiding the monasteries at night.[19] Sources close to the military also said that the army’s standing orders for suppressing the demonstrations were to use firepower as little as possible.[20] This is in direct contrast with the orders issued in 1988 when the troops were told to shoot indiscriminately, and killed thousands of demonstrators. This time, Maung Aye told the regional commanders to use as little violence as possible.[21] Sources close to the military said that, in contrast, after 25 September, Than Shwe encouraged the regional commanders to use violence decisively.[22] This contravened the army’s standing orders.

Regional commanders also appeared to respond differently to the army’s standing orders. This is seen in the varying levels of violence used in different regions. This could be due partly to the competing commands from Than Shwe and Maung Aye. The worst violence—including the shooting and killing of demonstrators and raids on monasteries—happened in Yangon, although a curfew was imposed in Yangon and Mandalay. Soldiers shot directly at the demonstrators on the streets of Yangon on 26 and 27 September. Although the government admitted that 15 people, including a Japanese journalist, were killed in Yangon, the real numbers could be much higher than that. More than a dozen monasteries in Yangon were violently raided during the night of 27 September. Ngwe Kyar Yan Monastery in South Okkalapa township in Yangon was the worst hit, with video footage showing smashed windows and blood stains on the floor.

The mother of the Yangon Regional Commander, Major-General Hla Htay Win, used to regularly visit Ngwe Kyaw Yan Monastery. This could have influenced Hla Htay Win, who is considered to be close to Maung Aye, to avoid resorting to the use of violence against the monks in that monastery. The Bureau of Special Operations chief for Yangon region, Lieutenant-General Myint Swe, who is close to Than Shwe, is likely to have been under great pressure from Than Shwe to use violence decisively. Myint Swe is the nephew of Than Shwe’s wife. Myint Swe led the command centre established at Kone Myint Thara at Eight Mile, in Yangon, together with the Yangon Regional Commander and the Deputy Home Affairs Minister, Brigadier-General Phone Swe. The commander of Light Infantry Division (LID) 77, Brigadier-General Win Myint, based in Bago (Pegu) but assigned to Yangon during the crackdown, appeared to have been lenient towards the demonstrators on 25 September, the first day of the curfew, since there was no shooting or raiding of monasteries by the military on that day. Tens of thousands of people continued to march on the streets in Yangon on 25 and 26 September. The relative lack of shooting into the crowds by the military on 26 September could also be because LID 77 did not have enough troops to deal with many demonstrators. On the evening of 26 September, LID 66, based in Pyay (Prome), was called into Yangon. The pre-dawn raids of the monasteries and serious shooting began on 27 September.

The level of force used in Mandalay (under the Central Regional Command), unlike in Yangon, was modest. In Mandalay, a curfew was also imposed on 25 September, but almost no monasteries were raided during the nights of 26 and 27 September. Also, there was no significant shooting (mostly warning shots above people’s heads) or beating of demonstrators on the streets. According to an eyewitness, on 26 September, soldiers in Mandalay paid their respects to the monks by worshipping them and requesting them to disperse, rather than beating or shooting at them (Gray 2007). On the evening of 26 September, troops from LID 99, based in Meiktila, were moved into Mandalay. Still no significant shooting occurred. Although troops were posted around the perimeter of the monasteries, the monasteries were not violently raided during the night. Troops asked the monks not to come out of their monasteries, telling them that they had been ordered to shoot if the monks did come out (Hlaing 2008). As a result, the monks decided to stay in. Although the Bureau of Special Operations chief for Mandalay, Lieutenant-General Ye Myint, and the Central Regional Commander, Major-General Khin Zaw, are close to Than Shwe, they appeared to want to use as little force as possible in controlling and stopping the demonstrations in Mandalay. The troops in Mandalay could also have been worried about a backlash if they used excessive violence since the strength of the monks there was greater than in Yangon. (Mandalay has the highest number of monks studying at teaching temples.)

Although there was no curfew and relatively fewer demonstrations in Kachin State, the northern regional commander, Major-General Ohn Myint, responded very harshly. He ordered troops to raid the monasteries in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, and in Bamaw on the night of 25 September. These were the first night-time raids in the country. More than 200 monks were arrested during the raids and more monks were detained the next day (Saw Yan Naing 2007). Ohn Myint, who is close to Than Shwe, is considered to be one of the most hardline regional commanders. His response seemed out of proportion with the situation, as there were only a few hundred monks and people on the streets in Kachin State, while there were thousands of demonstrators on the streets in different towns in upper Burma.

For instance, in the upper Burma town of Pakokku, where the first beatings of monks by the security forces occurred, there were thousands of demonstrators on the streets. The brutal treatment of monks in Pakokku sparked demonstrations in other cities. In Sittwe (Akyab), the capital of Rakhine (Arakan) State, where the monks started the demonstrations, there were also thousands of demonstrators on the streets. The military authorities did not, however, order the shooting of demonstrators or the raiding of monasteries in either Pakokku or Sittwe to stop the demonstrations. As in Mandalay, troops in Pakkoku and Sittwe could have been worried about the relatively greater strength of the monks in those towns. Pakkoku has the second-highest number of monks studying after Mandalay. Sittwe has a history of activism by monks, starting with Burma’s struggle for independence, during which a famous Arakanese monk, U Ottama, took the lead. In Sittwe, when demonstrators surrounded their compound, the authorities even made a concession and released two people who were arrested in late August and had already been sentenced to two years in prison for providing water to the marching monks. The authorities appeared to make this concession in order to defuse the protestors’ anger and prevent the situation getting worse.

During September, the SPDC’s four-monthly meeting was postponed at the last minute, with some of the commanders already on their way to Naypyitaw. General Maung Aye also postponed his scheduled visit to Bangladesh for the third time. Although it was apparent that Maung Aye needed to supervise the security operations in case even bigger demonstrations broke out, he also appeared to be worried that he might lose more authority if he were away. After being removed from the chairman’s position of the Trade Council, Maung Aye appeared to be worried that the person replacing him might be a Than Shwe loyalist rather than someone loyal to him. Than Shwe had previously promoted his own supporters and placed them in important positions while Maung Aye was away. For instance, Than Shwe’s special military advisor, Major-General Nay Win, and the Defence Headquarters Security Commander, Major-General Hla Aung Thaung, were both promoted from brigadier-general to major general while Maung Aye was away a few years earlier. In fact, Maung Aye had opposed their promotions while he was at the military headquarters.

During the demonstrations, family members of the hardliners were sent abroad. They might have been worried that a faction in the military would stop listening to Than Shwe’s orders and remove him. According to a businessman close to a few regional commanders, this could have happened if the demonstrators had continued their marches despite the threat of being shot.[23] In 1988, none of General Ne Win’s family members left the country, since Ne Win and his family appeared confident that the whole of the military was united behind him. This time, however, it seems that Than Shwe and his family did not have the same degree of confidence as Ne Win had in 1988, although the demonstrations in 2007 were smaller than those in 1988. Than Shwe’s closest crony, Tay Za, arranged for his airline to send Than Shwe’s family abroad and for their stay outside the country. Another crony, Zaw Zaw (the owner of Max Myanmar Co. Ltd), who is close to General Shwe Mann, also helped Than Shwe’s family during their stay abroad.[24] In a snowball effect, other hardliners’ immediate family members also flew out to Singapore. For instance, hardliner U Aung Thaung’s son, Nay Aung, left for Singapore during the demonstrations. U Aung Thaung is not just close to Than Shwe, he has a family connection to Maung Aye; one of U Aung Thaung’s sons, Major Pyi Aung, married Maung Aye’s only daughter, Nandar Aye.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Interview with a businessman close to the military, 21 September 2007.

[19] Interview with a senior diplomat who had close connections with the generals, 29 September 2007.

[20] Interview with a businessman close to the military, 30 September 2007.

[21] Interview with a businessman who is close to a few regional commanders, 10 October 2007.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Interview with a businessman close to few regional commanders, 30 September 2007.

[24] Interview with a businessman close to the military, 29 September 2007.