Cracks emerge in Myanmar military
by Larry Jagan
www.burmanet.org/, October 1,
Myanmar's protests have lost steam as
security forces clamp down, killing over a dozen and arresting
as many as 1,000 people involved in the recent street protests
that have grabbed global headlines. Now there are indications
that the ruling State Peace and Development Council's (SPDC's)
top two generals are at loggerheads over how to proceed in the
aftermath of the crackdown. __
SPDC second-in-command General Maung Aye
reportedly opposed using force against the tens of thousands of
monks who took to the streets, bringing him into conflict with
Senior General Than Shwe, according to sources close to Maung
Aye. Some soldiers in the old capital of Yangon and the city of
Mandalay last week reportedly refused to obey their senior officers'
commands to attack or shoot at protesting monks, according to
diplomatic sources in Yangon. Several aid workers in Mandalay
reportedly witnessed soldiers there refusing to open fire when
ordered by commanding officers. __
General Than Shwe, the SPDC's top general,
personally gave the orders to the local commanders in Yangon to
shoot into the crowd, a military source told Asia Times Online.
"The two main commanders in Yangon have told their subordinates
that the senior general directly ordered the attack last week,"
he said. That shoot-to-kill policy has backfired on the junta,
with international condemnation coming from the West as well as
neighboring countries included in the 10-member Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member.
United Nations special envoy to Myanmar
Ibrahim Gambari met with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu
Kyi on Sunday and is reportedly now pressing to meet with both
Than Shwe and Maung Aye. So far the SPDC leadership has declined
to meet with the UN envoy, perhaps, some analysts speculate, precisely
because the top two generals now view the next steps in dealing
with the crisis differently. __
There are unconfirmed reports that Than
Shwe's wife and one of his daughters, as well as his top business
associate, Tay Za, flew out of the country on a Air Bagan flight
to Singapore last week and have since traveled on to Dubai in
the United Arab Emirates. Their apparent flight came against the
backdrop of growing questions about troop loyalty due to orders
to shoot at monks and the possibility that they could have broken
rank and joined with the street protestors. __
"If the current crackdown results
in more bloodshed, a mutiny within the 400,000-strong armed forces
is a distinct possibility," said Win Min, a Myanmar analyst
based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. "Family members of the grassroots
soldiers are suffering from increasing food and fuel prices like
the people who are demonstrating, though top level officers are
getting amazingly rich." __
Indeed, there have already been notable
instances of a breakdown in the chain of command, according to
diplomats. On September 20, for still unclear reasons security
forces positioned at the barricades blocking access to Aung San
Suu Kyi's house allowed marching monks to pass and pray in front
of the house, an episode that was widely reported worldwide. The
following day, however, another group of monks bidding to pass
her compound was turned away by a larger number of security personnel.
On Saturday, Maung Aye personally took
control of the operations in Yangon and he reportedly posted soldiers
with sub-machine guns at the entrance to University Avenue where
Suu Kyi is under house arrest. __
It is unclear if the apparent divergent
views between the SPDC's top two generals have resulted in a full-blown
rift. But there are signs that Than Shwe fears a possible internal
military power play, similar to the one in 1992 that resulted
in his rise to power. __
Maung Aye apparently believes the use
of the civilian organization, the Union Solidarity and Development
Association (USDA), to control the crowds is damaging the army's
authority and threatens even broader instability, according to
a source close to his family. Plainclothes USDA members have used
crude weapons and taken the lead in brutally assaulting and detaining
protestors. Notably, the organization is the brainchild of Than
Shwe, which he helped to establish in 1993 to create the illusion
of grassroots support for the military's civilian programs and
has relied on in the past to crack down on political opposition.
Curfews and detentions_
After detaining key members of the 88
Generation Student Group that started the protests on September
19, military authorities have apparently been at a loss in identifying
who is leading the protests. They have recently swooped on Yangon's
Buddhist monasteries and temples, arresting hundreds of monks,
in an Apparent effort to locate the protest leaders and halt the
Key opposition figures, among them actors,
artists, journalists and writers, including even the renowned
comedian Zargana, have also been detained. Most of the leading
members of Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party, the National League
for Democracy (NLD), have likewise been arrested in recent days.
While there is a lull in the street protests
at present, with both the military and protestors apparently regrouping
and reorganizing, there is little doubt that a major movement
to overthrow the military regime is in the making. While the monks
were the leading force in recent weeks, former and current activists
and student leaders are now reportedly organizing behind the scenes.
Senior monks and students recently formed
a joint "strike committee" to lead future demonstrations.
"We are going for it, this is our time. We have to take this
chance now as there may never be another one," a senior former
student leader recently told Asia Times Online from hiding inside
the country. "The students will support the monks' peaceful
protests," he said.
After weeks of mainly peaceful protests
led by the monks, the regime finally dropped their policy of restraint
last week and hit back, killing at least 13 and injuring many
more. Dusk-to-dawn curfews are now in place in Yangon and Mandalay
and more than 20,000 troops have been deployed in the former capital.
Soldiers are stationed outside Buddhist monasteries and temples
to prevent the monks from returning to the streets and they have
reportedly been warned that they would be shot if they ignored
Up until a week ago the monks had been
primarily protesting against the local authorities' use of violence
to quell an earlier march near Mandalay, where several monks were
badly beaten by violent vigilantes wielding sticks. All along,
though, the monks have also been calling on the government to
reduce prices, supporting the first of the public protests that
broke out more than a month ago after the government raised certain
fuel charges by up to 500%.
"They know better than anyone the
impact the rising fuel and food prices is having on the people
at the grassroots," said Myanmar analyst Aung Naing Oo, noting
that monks rely on the donation of daily alms for their survival.
"They understand that this has become harder and harder,
especially over the last two years. What they used to collect
from four or five houses, now takes more than 30," he said.
But Buddhist monks are now clearly in
the political vanguard, depending on which monks you listen to,
alternatively for national reconciliation, dialogue between the
military and the political opposition National League for Democracy,
or outright regime change through popular protests. The fact that
the Buddhist clergy has recently taken on such an overt political
role is exceptional.
After the military first assaulted monks
near Mandalay, a new group emerged known as the All Burma Monks
Alliance, which represents a younger, more radical segment of
the Buddhist clergy. They have since urged ordinary people "to
struggle peacefully against the evil military dictatorship until
it is banished from the land".
"Normally monks are not political,"
said Win Min, based at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand.
"They focus on their individual enlightenment according to
traditional Buddhism. What is happening now shows that the situation
has reached the point where they can no longer tolerate it."
So far Suu Kyi's NLD has been a bystander
and her members seemingly uninvolved in organizing the spontaneous
monk-led marches. But the charismatic leader is known to have
strong support among the protesting monks and she would seem to
be the key to any potential political settlement to the recent
Than Shwe is known to harbor a strong
personal grudge against her and he would likely be unwilling to
enter into any compromise that shared power with her NLD. The
wildcard is whether another military faction inside the SPDC views
things differently and might be willing to take the chance of
trying to remove their recalcitrant leader for their own political
Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar
politics for the British Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a
freelance journalist based in Bangkok.