Than Shwe's empty well of purported democracy
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If you want to know what Senior General Than Shwe is thinking these days, I suggest you read his recent Armed Forces Day speech, which he gave in the new capital Naypyidaw.
There was nothing new in his annual speech, which contained an admonition that the democratisation process would be slow. Here is part of his speech:
"Democracy in Myanmar [Burma] today is at a fledgling stage and still requires patient care and attention," the general said.
"As a Myanmar proverb puts it, a recently dug well cannot be expected to produce clear water immediately; understanding the process of gradual maturity is crucial, as is contributing to it through concerted constructive efforts in an environment of peace and tranquility."
Phew. This is disappointing, indeed. How many times have we heard this nonsense over the past two decades?
After hearing about his speech, some Burmese joked that maybe Gen Than Shwe was digging his well in the wrong soil.
Clearly, it is Gen Than Shwe who is not ready for democracy, and not the people of Burma, who have often demonstrated that they are more than ready to return to life in a democratic society.
The general is not interested in amending the new constitution, and has shown no inclination to make his "road map" more inclusive, as the intentional community has repeatedly requested.
In his speech, Gen Than Shwe warned against efforts to undermine the constitution, which he said had been adopted by the people in last year's referendum.
He also warned potential participants in next year's planned election against engaging in personal attacks.
"I would like to request those who will be involved in organising work for parties to refrain from inciting unrest, to avoid personal attacks and smear campaigns against other parties and to find unity in diversity by practicing tolerance, forgiveness and understanding toward one another. Everyone following such ways and means of mature party organising work will receive the blessing of the government," he said.
It is obvious that Gen Than Shwe intends to plough ahead with his road map, even if there is good reason to believe that most people, including many in the military, are unconvinced that it will extract the country from its current quagmire.
Sources in Naypyidaw say that Gen Than Shwe and top leaders are having difficulty selling the road map, which will culminate in the 2010 election, even to soldiers and officers. The army is divided on the election issue and some senior army officers want the strongman to extend an olive branch to opposition leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the sources said. But the stubborn old general has shown no sign of backing down.
To Gen Than Shwe, the road map is his own personal exit strategy, which he hopes will enable him to relax his iron grip on power so that he can spend his dotage without fear of reprisal, either from his military successors or from some future civilian government.
Official sources said that Gen Than Shwe knows that he and his family are intensely disliked both in Burma and in countries where Burmese political exiles have largely succeeded in portraying his regime as the epitome of oppression.
The sources said that he has been closely monitoring news and criticism of his regime. What he sees when he holds this mirror to his face must indeed be truly frightening.
Gen Than Shwe knows that in the dog-eat-dog world of Burmese despotism, there is a very real danger that he could end up spending his final days as a prisoner, just as his own boss did.
General Ne Win, who ruled Burma for 26 years, spent his last days as a prisoner of the regime and died while under house arrest in 2002. This is not the fate that Gen Than Shwe wants to find awaiting him.
So does this mean that he could yet find it within his heart to make a compromise with the opposition and bend somewhat to international opinion?
Not likely. When United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently visited the region, Gen Than Shwe did not extend an invitation because he knew that he would be asked to make concessions that are anathema to him.
Officials close to the general say that he spends a great deal of time pondering the possibility of releasing prisoners, including Daw Suu Kyi, before the election, as a gesture to placate the international community. But at this stage, he still feels that such a move would be too risky.
Gen Than Shwe, a former psychological warfare officer who takes great care to anticipate his enemies' every move, is no gambler. He doesn't dare risk releasing Daw Suu Kyi even if it is a guaranteed way to win the world's applause.
Daw Suu Kyi, for her part, has shown no reluctance to discuss any issue on the table, including sanctions. She has signalled her willingness to meet with the regime's leadership through the junta's liaison minister, Aung Kyi.
The thought of such an encounter with his nemesis no doubt sends chills up Gen Than Shwe's spine. Better to break out the shovels and tell his minions to keep digging that well that could take forever to finally yield water fit to drink.
But the Burmese people are getting thirsty, and the soldiers are getting tired of the back-breaking labour required to keep a hated regime in power. Sooner or later, Gen Than Shwe will learn that one cannot keep people waiting forever.