Cracks emerge in Myanmar military unity
By Larry Jagan
BANGKOK – 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 demonstrations.
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 the warning.
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 unrest.
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 gain.
Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.