Internal dynamics after the August–September 2007 demonstrations

A hardline faction under Than Shwe organised USDA rallies to regain some legitimacy after losing much of what it had through its violent crackdown on the monk-led demonstrations. Although Shan State was the most favourable place to start organising the rallies, since there had been no significant demonstrations there, the first rallies to denounce the 2007 demonstrations and to support the junta and its road-map took place in Kachin State on 29 September. It appeared that the northern regional commander, Major-General Ohn Myint, was aggressive not just in the use of force against the monks, but in forcing people to come to mass rallies in his region. Ohn Myint is also known to be close to Than Shwe. Maung Aye wanted to take action against Ohn Myint because of his corruption, but Maung Aye could not do this since Than Shwe protected Ohn Myint. Ohn Myint also pressured the ethnic cease-fire groups in Kachin State, including the Kachin Independence Organisation, to join the mass rallies. In fact, the mass rallies frustrated many people as they had to wake up at five in the morning to be prepared for the marching.

Later, the USDA’s mass rallies were organised in different cities and towns throughout most of the country. The junta used these mass rallies to prove to the international community and military personnel that the SPDC had the support of the majority of the people and that the people were against the 2007 demonstrations. General Than Shwe used to tell world leaders, including then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, that the USDA rallies showed how the people of Burma were supporting the junta and its road-map. For the same reason, when the UN Secretary-General’s special advisor, Ibrahim Gambari, visited Burma from 29 September to 2 October, right after the demonstrations were suppressed, he was taken to Shan State for a day to witness the USDA rallies. At the 2007 UN General Assembly meeting, the Burmese delegation also referred to the USDA rallies, claiming that the majority of the people in Burma supported the SPDC and its road-map, and opposed the 2007 demonstrations.

The USDA rallies denounced the 2007 demonstrations saying they were instigated by the United States and the NLD. This appeared to be one of the signs that Than Shwe, also the patron of the USDA, did not recognise people’s survival problems after the fuel-price hikes or their demand for national reconciliation, which were the main underlying causes of the 2007 demonstrations. This indicates that Than Shwe is unlikely to move forward towards a substantive dialogue for reconciliation between the junta and the opposition, although the junta appointed a liaison minister to hold preliminary talks with Aung San Suu Kyi to reduce increasing international pressure. Major-General Aung Kyi, who was appointed the Minister for Relations in October 2007, appears not to be close to Than Shwe. Before this, Than Shwe also sought to appease the International Labour Organisation (ILO) by appointing Aung Kyi as Labour Minister. The ILO had been displeased with the former Labour Minister, U Thaung, a hardliner who was also close to Than Shwe. Maung Aye and Shwe Mann prefer Aung Kyi to U Thaung, and he has subsequently had a good relationship with the ILO.[25] Aung Kyi has talked to Aung San Suu Kyi a few times, although no results have come out of the meetings yet.

After the demonstrations, Than Shwe did make some changes inside the military, including in its economic bodies, in order to provide some hope that things would improve and to buy more time. Only the personnel, however, were changed—not the policies. In early November, Maung Aye’s protégé, Lieutenant-General Tin Aung Myint Oo, was appointed to take up the chairmanship of the Trade Council, the position formerly held by Maung Aye. In fact, Maung Aye had agreed to give up this position only if someone loyal to him was appointed in his place, and Maung Aye remained the army chief. Tin Aung Myint Oo demonstrated his hardline attitude when managing the aftermath of the banking crisis in 2003 and the construction of the new capital. Tin Aung Myint Oo is also one of the richest generals in the SPDC. Many businesspeople feel that his appointment as chairman of the Trade Council will not result in any needed policy changes.

After the death of Prime Minister Soe Win, General Thein Sein, who was considered to be loyal to Than Shwe, was appointed Prime Minister in October 2007. Thein Sein is not a hardliner, but he does not have the capacity to initiate policies and it is expected that he will simply follow Than Shwe’s orders. So, unlike former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, he will not take any initiatives for gradual economic or political reform. He is already 62 and has a heart pacemaker and appears not to have the energy to be a dynamic actor. Unlike Soe Win, however, he will not simply take orders from Than Shwe to implement brutal operations such as the 2003 Depayin massacre.[26] Although the Prime Minister’s post was taken by someone loyal to Than Shwe, Tin Aung Myint Oo replaced Thein Sein in the powerful position of Secretary No. 1 in the SPDC. Tin Aung Myint Oo could check the power of Shwe Mann and Thein Sein in the future. In October 2007, two former regional commanders—Mandalay Commander, Major-General Khin Zaw, and North-West Commander, Major-General Thar Aye, both of whom were close to Than Shwe—were also promoted to the SPDC as Bureau of Special Operations (BSO) chiefs. One other commander, the South-West Commander, Major-General Thura Myint Aung, who was considered to be neutral between Than Shwe and Maung Aye, was also promoted and replaced Thein Sein as Adjutant-General, another powerful position in the SPDC, bypassing other senior generals who were BSO chiefs. This appointment of a neutral figure indicates some resistance from Maung Aye to Than Shwe’s plans to put people loyal to him in all the important positions.

Since the 2007 demonstrations, which resulted originally from economic problems, there have been mixed signals with regard to military removals and appointments within SPDC economic bodies. While General Maung Aye was removed as chairman of the Trade Council, the hardliner who led the other economic body, the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC), was also removed. U Thaung, who is considered to be close to General Than Shwe, was replaced as chairman of the MIC by the Livestock and Fishery Minister, Brigadier-General Maung Maung Thein, who appears to be a pragmatist, and who has a good reputation among businessmen for listening to them relatively well. He is reputedly close to Shwe Mann, so the change of leadership of the MIC could benefit the latter.

After the changes in the economic bodies, the generals told businessmen that the main plan for new economic bodies was to give businesses more breathing space and to figure out how to change from euro-based trade to Chinese yuan-based and Indian rupee-based trade. They also warned them to be prepared for the worst in resisting Western pressure. This is another negative sign that Than Shwe is unlikely to negotiate seriously with Aung San Suu Kyi, since he and his hardliners have been determined to resist Western pressure for substantive negotiations. Businessmen were also given hints that there would be policy changes in the business bodies, including the Trade Council, after personnel changes were made, on the grounds that the former heads, including Maung Aye, had mismanaged the economy. Many businessmen are, however, frustrated with the continued mismanagement of the economy and do not expect the situation to improve with these personnel changes without a significant policy shift. They also do not feel much confidence about the possible switching of trade payments to the yuan and rupee. They have been worried about increasing US pressure on the financial transactions of Burmese businessmen, especially after these sanctions hit the banking operations in Singapore of the airline owned by Than Shwe’s closest business crony, Tay Za. As a result, Tay Za had to temporarily shut down the services his airline, Air Bagan, was flying between Burma and Singapore.

According to sources close to the military, the MAS submitted a confidential report that the Burmese people were facing a big gap between their income and their expenditure after the fuel-price hikes.[27] The report also suggested that this problem should be resolved immediately. Than Shwe, however, and his hardliners believed that this problem was not serious and did not need urgent attention. They even expelled the UN Development Program (UNDP) resident coordinator, Charles Petrie, in December 2007 for highlighting socioeconomic problems as the main cause of the 2007 demonstrations and asking the junta to address them urgently. Despite the hardliners’ position, some generals agreed with the MAS report. The MAS chief, Lieutenant-General Ye Myint, is closer to Maung Aye than to Than Shwe. It is likely that Maung Aye will agree with the MAS report and Shwe Mann could also be alarmed by the seriousness of Burma’s economic problems, since he has been listening to the views of businessmen. Apparently to overcome their internal differences about the assessment of the state of the economy and to divert attention from economic problems, Than Shwe announced a political initiative in October 2007, offering to meet personally with Aung San Suu Kyi if she agreed to dissociate herself from sanctions against the regime, which Than Shwe considers to be the main problem for the economy. Than Shwe seems to believe that Aung San Suu Kyi will not agree to give up sanctions and he can use this rejection to explain away the country’s economic difficulties.

Since November 2007, Than Shwe has also shown his lack of interest in serious dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi in various ways. First, in early November, he refused to see UN envoy Gambari, who hoped to mediate between Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi during his visit. Second, Gambari’s proposals to make constitutional compromises and set up a poverty-alleviation committee were rejected by the designated government spokesman, Brigadier-General Kyaw Hsan, who served as the Information Minister. Kyaw Hsan is a hardliner close to Than Shwe. In his meeting with Gambari, Kyaw Hsan also said that the opposition would be allowed to vote in the referendum for the constitution, but would not be allowed to participate in the constitutional drafting committee, which was set up in October and met for the first time in December. Third, at the last minute, Than Shwe ordered Prime Minister, Thein Sein, to block Gambari’s briefing at the 2007 November ASEAN summit in Singapore, although the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Nyan Win, had already agreed to Singapore’s proposal for the briefing. Fourth, in his address to the USDA annual conference in November 2007, Than Shwe reiterated that the government’s seven-point road-map was the only way forward, which seemed to reflect a rejection of any constitutional compromises with the opposition. To make matters worse, the junta had pro-junta political parties and ethnic cease-fire groups attack Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement, which was read out on her behalf by Gambari in November 2007. The groups issued public statements denouncing Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement and asserted that Aung San Suu Kyi could not represent them.

Although it appeared that Than Shwe wanted to use the road-map as a tool to buy more time and to maintain a distance from the international community, he had a contingency plan to expedite the process if necessary. Surprising many people, including many other generals, Than Shwe announced in February 2008 that the referendum on the draft constitution would be held in May 2008 and the elections in 2010 (Jagan 2008a). Than Shwe could have moved forward with the road-map because of increasing international pressure after the 2007 demonstrations and also because of a desire to avoid engaging in political dialogue and economic reform. He could have been worried when even China, which had traditionally insisted on non-interference in Burma’s internal affairs, signed off on the UN Security Council President’s statement criticising the junta for its brutal crackdown and demanding that it start talking to the opposition. China also sent a number of missions to Burma after the 2007 demonstrations to expedite the road-map and economic reform. By holding the referendum, Than Shwe could also have intended to reduce Maung Aye’s power by giving more authority to the USDA and transforming the USDA into a political party to contest the 2010 elections. Sources close to the military said that Than Shwe made it clear that he expected the constitution to pass in the referendum. Officials guaranteed that the constitution would be approved using various means, including persuasion, intimidation and donations to various communities (such as churches in Kachin State).

After the referendum, there was another reshuffle, in June 2008. Again, Than Shwe apparently tried to reduce Maung Aye’s power. Although the BSO chiefs, most of whom were close to Than Shwe, were retired, they were replaced with regional commanders who were closer to Than Shwe than to Maung Aye. Than Shwe’s loyalists, Ye Myint (BSO No. 1) and Khin Maung Than (BSO No. 3), and Maung Aye’s loyalist, Kyaw Win (BSO No. 2), were retired. Their replacements, Major-Generals Ohn Myint and Ko Ko, are both close to Than Shwe, while the other new BSO chief, Major-General Min Aung Hlaing, appears to be neutral. Although one of Maung Aye’s followers, Hla Htay Win, was promoted to the headquarters, his position is not that powerful as he is now the chief of military training. Maung Aye’s brother-in-law, Maung Maung Swe, also lost one of his two ministerial posts, as Immigration Minister. The Industry No. 2 Minister, Major-General Saw Lwin, who was close to Maung Aye, was also moved to a less powerful ministry, immigration.

[25] Interview with a businessman close to the generals, 5 November 2007.

[26] The village where Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters were attacked on 30 May 2003 by pro-SPDC elements while travelling through central Burma.

[27] Interview with a businessman close to the military, 2 December 2007.