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Burma's Power Change Causes Concern About Progress Toward Democracy - 2004-10-20


The dismissal of Burma's Prime Minister Khin Nyunt is causing concern that it may set back efforts to move the country toward democracy after more than 40 years of military dictatorship. The development represents a victory of hard-liners over more pragmatic government members.

The Burmese government says General Khin Nyunt retired for health reasons, but political analysts say his departure is more likely the climax of a long-standing rivalry.

Part of the rivalry was institutional. Khin Nyunt, the third-ranking member of the ruling military junta, headed military intelligence.

The number two member of the junta - the State Council for Peace and Development or S.P.D.C. - is General Maung Aye, who heads the army.

Aung Zaw is the editor of the Burmese community magazine Irrawaddy, in neighboring Thailand. He says the top leader, General Than Shwe, played a balancing act between the two subordinates.

He said, "The real reason behind this (dismissal) is there have always been problems between the intelligence and army. Army leaders were uneasy with the growing power of Khin Nyunt and MI (military intelligence)."

There also were tensions over how the government should respond to international pressure for political reform.

General Khin Nyunt was appointed prime minister last year and announced a road map for a National Convention to draft a constitution.

However, the National League for Democracy, which won elections in 1990 but was never allowed to govern, boycotted the convention because its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains in detention. And ethnic minority groups slowed the proceedings with demands for greater autonomy.

The convention was suspended in July.

Trevor Wilson, the former Australian ambassador to Burma, says this weakened General Khin Nyunt's position in the S.P.D.C.

He said, "It may be that the process that had gone on between May and July in the convention caused the leadership group in the S.P.D.C. to have second thoughts about the National Convention."

Ron May, a professor of Asian studies at Australia National University, says Khin Nyunt's dismissal represents a victory for conservatives who want the military to remain in power.

He said, "There was not a great deal of progress being made on the road map in any case, but this doesn't seem likely to speed up any progress."

The experts note that hard-liners also oppose any role in the reform dialogue for Aung San Suu Kyi. As a result, they say, the prospect of her release from 18 months of house arrest is more remote than before.

The dismissal of Khin Nyunt also embarrasses Burma's neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which holds its annual summit next month in Laos.

Professor May notes that ASEAN nations favor engaging Burma to encourage reform, but are under increasing pressure from their Western trading partners to press for change.

Last year, ASEAN leaders voted to give Burma more time, after Prime Minister Khin Nyunt presented the road map to democracy. Asian observers are wondering what their reaction will be when they meet in Vientiane with the new Burmese prime minister, General Soe Win, considered a hard-liner.

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