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Interview With Dr. Steinberg On Burma Cabinet Reshuffle - 2003-08-26

Q: Dr. Steinberg, what do you make of this cabinet reshuffle in Burma, as appeared on Burma TV and on the wires today?

A: Well, there are certain conclusions that I draw from this that they must be tentative at this time. The first is that the appointment of General Khin Nyunt as prime minister is, I think, significant. Of all the leaders of the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council or military government), at any level, General Khin Nyunt is the one most conversant with foreigners with foreign information and has access to more foreign material and the attitude of foreigners toward that country. So, he has been more sensitive to these issues than any other person in the top leadership, as far as we know.

Therefore, his appointment seems to indicate that we can expect a greater sensitivity, on the part of the administration, to foreign affairs. The same time, the elevation of General Soe Win to Secretary One from Secretary Two seems to indicate that General Than Shwe (now President) has placed him there because his loyalty is to General Than Shwe. And General Than Shwe will not simply be a figurehead but will continue, I think, [to take] a very active role.

Q: What sort of influence will it have upon the political impasse in Burma?

A: Well, General Khin Nyunt, of course, has been the person under whom contacts have been carried out with Aung San Suu Kyi more than any other individual within the military, I mean, at that level and this would seem to indicate that, under his authority, there will be more dealings with her and more sensitivity to how to handle her and some of their--both for the internal needs and for their external needs as well.

Q: If you equate (Deputy Senior) General Maung Aye's (Second in Command in the military government) visit to China, with the changes going on here, how would you interpret it?

A: Well, I think, General Maung Aye's visit was to shore up the agreement that General Than Shwe had made with the Chinese in January when he received 200 million in dollars in assistance--promised assistance--from the Chinese. Of course, one assumes that the trip now was in response to the sanctions issue which means that, as the Burmese themselves have said, it will continue to rely more on their own resources and their allies in the region such as China.

However, I think while it may rely on China, their reliance on their own resources--once possible--is no longer the same. [The] country has grown in population, forests have been depleted, demographics have changed with urbanization and, I don't think that the country can continue in an old manner of isolation. Relying on China, on the other hand, has its own set of dangers--the growing increase in Chinese population and obvious wealth in the conspicuous display of consumption mean, I think, that the Chinese may be very vulnerable. The economy gets worse if people feel resentment that the Chinese are controlling their economy. It could see some dire consequences.