Burma After Ne Win
The Asian Wall Street Journal
November 15 , 2002
Friday/Saturday/Sunday, November 15 – 17, 2002
Burma’s military rulers have stunned the world again in recent days. This time not by massacring thousands of innocent democracy protesters, as was the case in 1988, but by announcing the arrest of members of the nation’s reviously untouchable elite-the family of former Burmese strongman Gen. Ne Win.
Ever since the arrest began on March 7, events have unfolded almost like a strange magic show in which the puppets suddenly turn on their master. The puppets in this case being members of the country’s ruling State Peace members of the country’s ruling State Peace and Development Council, who owe their positions to Ne Win, the former dictator who ruled Burma for 26 years until stepping down in 1988.
Those arrested and accused of plotting to overthrow the government so far include Aye Zaw Win, husband of Ne Win’s ambitious “favorite daughter” Sandar Win, and their three sons. At a press briefing on Tuesday, the outhorities even displayed some credible vidence to support their accusations of a coup attempt, including unlicensed guns and communication equipment confiscated by security officials.
Many remain skeptical, especially given the junta’s track record in propagada and heavy censorship. There is also good cause for doubt whether the former dictator, now 92 years old and apparently bed-ridden, is still in any fit state to participate in such a plot. Even if he is, Ne Win would have been unlikely to make the mistake of so baby underestimating the strength of Burma’s pervasive intelligence system and power of its armed forces.
Bur whether or not he was involved in a coup attempt, there seems little doubt that the era of “the Old Man” –as he is known in Burma-is now finally over. Few of his countrymen are likely to regret its passing. Certainly not those who recall the thousands of people he sent to prison during his rule, or the shoot-to-kill orders he gave in August 1988, which sent many democracy p rotestors to an early grave.
Instead the arrests have proved a boon for Burma’s military leaders. Not only have they foiled outside speculation that Ne Win continues to exert tremendous influence on the government from behind the scenes, but they have proved popular with many ordinary Burmese.
Just as relatives of former Indonesian dictator Gen. Suharto are widely disliked in Jakarta for their alleged involvement in corruption, cronyism ans assorted other misdeeds, so there are similar sentiments towards Ne Win’s family in Rangoon. For years, his three – now arrested-grandsons have been seen as notorious exploiters of influence for advantage and responsible for numerous ferocious gang-related crimes.
Until now, the Burmese authorities have turned a blind eye to what effectively amounted to a stste within a state. But it is no secret that Ne Win’s family had nonetheless become displeased that they were no longer receiving the same privileges and economic concessions as in the past.
That is because they are no longer the only kids in town. As the size of the military elite continues to grow, more and more influenti al families are competing for a slice of the same pie. In some cases, they behave even worse than the former dictator’s family, robbing Burma of its remaining natural resource through shady business deals. And as this era of the new econimic elites has taken root in Rangoon, it has left the Ne Win clan boiling with jealousy at seeing their former silver spoon taken away. Perhaps the last straw was the conflict over a $144 milion cellular phone contract that went to Sandar Win and her family, but was never implemented.
It was only after realizing that the Ne Win clan had become so dissatisfied as to become a threat that Burma’s rulers finally moved against the atste within a state they had tolerated for so long. It is a crackdown that had more to do with business than politics, with the crushing of Ne Win’s empire a necessary step for those syndicates linked to today’s rulers if they want ever to truly control the country’s business sector.
But Rangoon has also sought to portray the arrests as having political implications with Major Gen. Kyaw Win, the deputy head of military intelligence, telling Tuesday’s press briefing that Ne Win’s family was not happy with the ongoing political and economic reforms. He also used this opportunity to reassert the government’s commitment to ongoing reconciliation talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, apparently in the hope of haining approval from the international community.
Ne Win has long been known to hold a grudge against Ms. Suu Kyi. Since she criticized him in public when she entered politics 12 years ago, leading manr Burmese to conclude that real change would only come after “the Old Man” finally passed from the political scene. Now that has finially happened, it remains to be seen whether the post-Ne Win era will bring real change.
One test will be whether UN special envoy to Burma Razali Ismail’s seventh visit to Rangoon later this month yields any progress on the political front. Though Mr. Razali has maintained an optimistic stance, many at home and abroad are showing increase impatience and skepticism as the reconciliationgible results while nearly 2, 000 political prisoners remain incarcerated. On the economic front, the situation in Burma is also worsening. With high inflating and rapidly rising prices, the country could face serious social unrest in the coming months.
All this points to Burma’s desperate need for leaders who can feel the country’s sense of the ball is firmly in the junta’s court. Courageous decisions cannot be delayed if Burma is ever to get back on track.