Cracks in junta a growing threat to corrupt old guard

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am

When Myanmar's commander-in-chief Than Shwe delivered his closely watched speech on Thursday to mark the nation's Armed Forces Day, it included plenty of the usual hardline rhetoric.

But underneath the pronouncement of military resolve, a new battle for Myanmar's future is emerging that threatens to split the junta.

This time it is not between the monks and the military, as it was during last year's mass protests, but between two factions in the army.

In the past few months a major rift has emerged within Myanmar's military government over the country's political future. At the centre of the conflict is who should control the country's so-called road map for political change.

In his speech, Senior General Than Shwe vowed to hand over power to a civilian government within the next two years. But this claim is viewed with suspicion, both by critics of the junta and some members of the military itself.

A confrontation is beginning to take shape within the armed forces, between those who are currently in control of the government and the country's economic wealth on the one hand and, on the other, those who see themselves as the nation's true guardians and wish to protect it from unscrupulous officials.

On one side there are the ministers and members of the State Peace and Development Council who have major business interests and are associated with General Than Shwe's brainchild, the mass community-based Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

On the other side are the top-ranking generals - loosely grouped around the second in command, Vice-Senior General Maung Aye - who want a professional army and see the military's main role as protector of the people.

They have become increasingly dismayed at corruption within government and believe it is undermining the army's future role.

A referendum in May on the newly drafted constitution and a general election in two years will radically change the country's political landscape. The USDA, which is organising both the referendum and the elections, will significantly increase its power and control over the country's emerging political process.

The content of the constitution has not yet been made public.

Senior members of the army are increasingly resentful of the growing dominance of the USDA and the likely curtailment of the army's authority after the May referendum.

These ministers and former military commanders have all amassed huge personal fortunes from smuggling and kickbacks.

'They are known as 'the Nazis' within the top ranks of the army,' according to a Myanmese businessman with close links to the military hierarchy. 'They have the money and they have their own militia.'

But many junior officers are alarmed at the way in which the USDA is growing in influence at the expense of the army.

'They are watching their unscrupulous colleagues, hiding behind the uniform, building up massive fortunes from corruption in government, and they are worried that this tarnishes the image of the army,' said a source in Naypyidaw, the capital.

One member of the military said: 'The 'real' army is the only institution that can bring genuine democracy to the country in the future. The next generation of officers represents the real hope for the country.'

They would be open to a political dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, he insisted.