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Burma New Leaders: Intel Chief Becomes PM

Burma New Leaders

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Reeling from bomb blasts, U.S. sanctions and demands to free Aung San Suu Kyi from detention, Burma has suddenly changed its secretive leadership, promoting its crafty intelligence chief to become prime minister.

Poverty-wracked Burma, the largest country in Southeast Asia, named Gen. Khin Nyunt as the new prime minister, crowning his past 20 years as head of the powerful and often sinister Defense Services Intelligence Directorate.

"In order to be able to carry out the interests of the state and the entire people more effectively, the State Peace and Development Council [junta] has appointed Gen. Khin Nyunt as the state prime minister with effect from today," the regime announced on local radio and television on Monday (Aug. 25) without elaborating.

Diplomats, investors and citizens were looking to see how Gen. Khin Nyunt, formerly the junta's "first secretary" and third-most powerful general, will manipulate the self-appointed regime.

Diplomats described Gen. Khin Nyunt as a somewhat politically savvy pragmatist who wanted to gradually liberalize Burma's ailing economy and internal political life while broadening international relations beyond Burma's tight links with China.

"At the very least, it may lead to Aung San Suu Kyi being released in the next few weeks," reported the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) which closely monitors the former British colony.

Gen. Khin Nyunt, born in 1940, is a familiar personality among Southeast Asian leaders and has visited Thailand and other countries to tamp criticism of the regime and probe for lucrative business for Burma, also known as Myanmar.

In 1998, Associated Press reported Gen. Khin Nyunt and his wife, Dr. Khin Win Shwe, shocked conservative Burmese society by signing an advertisement in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper announcing one of their sons, Dr. Ye Naing Win, "was disowned by the parents for his inexcusable deed."

The ad asked the public not to inquire about why they disowned him, but gossip in Rangoon revealed the son had recently married a Singaporean woman.

Under a law passed by the junta, a Burmese citizen married to a foreigner cannot hold government office. The stigmatized Burmese citizen's parents would also be immediately disqualified from any government position.

When the law was introduced, it was widely seen as aimed at disqualifying Mrs. Suu Kyi from ruling Burma because she was married to a British citizen who has since died.

To make way for Gen. Khin Nyunt's promotion, meanwhile, anti-U.S. hardliner Gen. Than Shwe stepped down from his post as prime minister, without any immediate public explanation.

Gen. Than Shwe was Burma's undisputed "chairman" of a regime scornful of Washington for allegedly goading and financing Burma's desperate, pro-democracy dissidents.

Gen. Than Shwe, in his late 60s, was said by some Burma-watchers to be ailing and possibly anxious to retire.

But Western analysts said he remained commander-in-chief of the military and may start orchestrating events away from the international spotlight.

The opaque political change in Burma will becoming clearer in the upcoming weeks when the new line-up displays its policies, makes speeches and meets delegations.

Other generals and ministers were slotted into various lower positions in the junta's reshuffle, while others retired.

Under Gen. Than Shwe's harsh leadership, the world's most famous political prisoner, Mrs. Suu Kyi, became trapped in "protective custody" because of a clash in northern Burma nearly three months ago. The junta and Mrs. Suu Kyi's supporters blamed each other for the violence which erupted on May 30 during her tour of northern Burma, which left several people dead and many of her supporters imprisoned.

Mrs. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party scored a landslide election victory in 1990 but the military rejected her attempt to rule.

During the past 14 years, she spent more than half that time under house arrest in her two-story home on the shore of a small lake in the capital, Rangoon.

Burma frequently accused the U.S. of propping up Mrs. Suu Kyi to destabilize the country in an effort to seize its vast, untapped natural resources.

"Even today, America has been conspiring against Myanmar," the regime's New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported on Friday (Aug. 22). America insisted Burma "is a country that is violating human rights, has no religious freedom and democracy, is using forced labor, has the largest number of human trafficking cases, is producing the largest amount of narcotic drugs, and has not cooperated with the U.S. in eliminating narcotic drugs. All the accusations are false," the government's paper added.

In recent weeks, meanwhile, bombs have exploded at various venues in Rangoon and elsewhere.

"The security personnel had exposed and arrested 12 terrorists from inside the country who had committed the bomb attacks, together with explosives," the New Light of Myanmar reported on Monday (Aug. 25).

"They had plans to contact the NLD [to help] in creating civil unrest, but I'm not sure whether the NLD leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, were aware of the plans," the military's deputy intelligence chief, Major-General Kyaw Win, was quoted as saying.

The alleged bombers reportedly possessed explosives concealed in lunch boxes and pencil cases, along with a mobile phone.

Amid the turmoil, Buddhist-majority Burma's fragile economy is melting under relentless U.S. and international sanctions, boycotts and other pressure.

"The economy is grim because of the sanctions," an Australian executive, who works for a Burmese company in Rangoon, said in an interview.

"My salary was cut 30 percent," he said. "Everybody is hurting." He said life in Rangoon was "seedy" with prostitution and poverty spreading while the government planned a Potemkin village facade of modern buildings along a highway linked to Rangoon's international airport, so arriving investors and other visitors would be fooled by the image of wealth.

In July, Washington clamped economic sanctions on Burma, and forbade remittances from the U.S. to the country.

This pulverized Burma's banking and international transactions because much of its import-export business was denominated in U.S. dollars and fed through U.S. bank transfers.

"By denying these rulers the hard currency they use to fund their repression, we are providing strong incentives for democratic change and human rights in Burma," President Bush said in July.

The Freedom and Democracy Act also allows President Bush to fund anti-government Burmese activists and hamper the regime's leaders by rejecting their applications for U.S. visas.

Critics said U.S. sanctions immediately hit poor textile workers whose jobs were slashed because Burma's biggest exports to America included garments and other cloth items.

The junta meanwhile indicated it would use euros, along with yen and other currencies for international deals to circumvent the ban on U.S. cash flows.

The military has ruled Burma since 1962 in one form or another, but in 1988 the current handful of generals gained power after crushing pro-democracy demonstrations in widespread clashes which left more than 1,000 people dead.

Unocal meanwhile spent much of August reacting to a Los Angeles court ruling which decreed the California-based U.S. oil corporation must stand trial on Sept. 22 in California for allegedly allowing troops who were protecting its Yadana pipeline to kill, rape and enslave villagers during the 1990s.

"Prior to its involvement in the pipeline project, Unocal had specific knowledge that the use of forced labor was likely and nevertheless chose to proceed," Los Angeles judge Victoria Chaney reportedly stated in a court document released on July 31.

Unocal has denied any responsibility for such crimes.

***** Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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