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Ehrlich: A Sudden Change In Juntas In Burma

A Sudden Change In Juntas In Burma

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Anti-American hardliners in Burma's military regime arrested Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who was also head of Military Intelligence, and locked him under house arrest for alleged corruption, according to conflicting reports from the secretive, repressive country.

Despite the crackdown by generals who are harshly critical of the United States, the move was not expected to threaten California-based oil firm Unocal Corp. which has investments in Burma's Yadana pipeline.

Burma's government-controlled TV and radio made no mention of any arrest and instead announced on Tuesday (Oct. 19) that Prime Minister Khin Nyunt retired for health reasons and was replaced by army General Soe Win in an appointment signed by Senior General Than Shwe, according to Reuters.

"Khin Nyunt was removed from his position," Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told reporters on Tuesday (Oct. 19).

"The person who signed the order said Khin Nyunt had been involved in corruption and not suitable to stay in his position," Thai government spokesman Jakrapob Penkair told reporters.

"It is still unclear who issued the order," Mr. Jakrapob said.

He said Khin Nyunt was consigned to house arrest.

Burmese soldiers took up positions outside Gen. Khin Nyunt's house in the capital, Rangoon, and increased their presence in front of Military Intelligence headquarters, witnesses told the British Broadcasting Corp.

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There were no immediate reports of unrest in Burma, also known as Myanmar and mainland Southeast Asia's biggest country.

Burma was expected to continue its friendly commercial and diplomatic links with China, Thailand, India and other countries willing to circumvent U.S.-led international sanctions.

Burma's military -- hardened by more than 50 years of battles with minority ethnic insurgencies along its borders -- was also expected to continue supporting hardline Gen. Than Shwe and his right-hand man, Gen. Maung Aye.

Buddhist-majority Burma's government is a military junta which included Gen. Khin Nyunt among the top three in power.

He achieved that level in August 2003 when he was appointed prime minister, crowning 20 years as head of the Defense Services Intelligence Directorate.

In July, Gen. Khin Nyunt led a high-profile delegation to China along with other junta members, and met Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing.

Gen. Khin Nyunt enjoyed vast internal power through his manipulation of Burma's secret police.

His son, Ye Naing Win, owned an internet server, Bagan Cybertech, in a country where internet use is severely restricted and censored.

Bagan Cybertech leased a satellite transponder from Shinawatra Satellite, a company controlled by the family of Thailand's Prime Minister Shinawatra.

Gen. Khin Nyunt's removal allows Gen. Than Shwe, in his late 60s, and other hardline generals to consolidate power.

Their domination heralds a grim fate for Aung San Suu Kyi, the world's most famous political prisoner, who has suffered more than seven years under house arrest in Rangoon.

Mrs. Suu Kyi had hoped to bring democracy to the troubled, impoverished country despite the junta blocking her National League for Democracy party from power after it won a landslide election victory in 1990.

The junta frequently criticizes Mrs. Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, as a puppet of the United States, Britain and other foreign powers interested in exploiting Burma's vast untapped natural resources.

Gen. Khin Nyunt met her at least twice, and said, "I think of her as a younger sister."

On Oct. 18, the regime's New Light of Myanmar newspaper prominently portrayed Gen. Khin Nyunt opening an HIV/AIDS exhibition in Mandalay the previous day, and visiting Buddhist shrines with other officials.

The paper, which frequently expresses the junta's anti-U.S. stance, also warned if John Kerry was elected president, "he would reduce the important role of democracy in the whole world."

Spreading its criticism to include Washington's current administration, an Oct. 16 commentary warned, "Economic sanctions which cause deterioration of the [Burmese] economy will not bring democracy," and it blasted America's military for "occupying Iraq illegally."

The newspaper also blamed the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, along with the BBC, for broadcasting the views of expatriate Burmese dissidents, and favorable describing them as democracy activists.

Burma's military has ruled through various juntas after a bloodless coup in 1962 brought the army's commander, Ne Win, to power.

Gen. Ne Win mired the country in poverty and human rights abuses, until younger generals shoved him aside in 1988 and locked him under house arrest in March 2002.

Simultaneously, Ne Win's daughter Sandar Win, along with her husband and their three adult sons, were arrested by the junta, charged with attempting a coup, and later convicted and sentenced to death.

Gen. Ne Win died in December 2002, aged 91.

In 1988, the military crushed pro-democracy demonstrations during widespread street clashes which left more than 1,000 people dead.

Earlier this year, Burma ordered about 1,000 delegates to start drafting a new constitution.

The move was criticized by Mrs. Suu Kyi and others as a charade to draw up a document which would give the military immunity for alleged crimes committed during its reign.


Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 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 www.geocities.com/glossograph/

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