/ 30 March 2011

Burma military rule ends, but army retains grip

Burma Military Rule Ends

Burma’s military handed power to a nominally civilian government after almost half a century of army rule on Wednesday, as the junta was disbanded and a new president appointed.

But the army hierarchy retains a firm grip on power in the resource-rich South-east Asian country, and many analysts believe Senior General Than Shwe will attempt to retain some sort of control behind the scenes.

The handover came after controversial elections last November — the country’s first in 20 years — which were marred by the absence of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and claims of cheating and intimidation.

Quoting an order signed by strongman Than Shwe, Burma state television reported the junta’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) “has been officially dissolved”.

Than Shwe, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1992, is apparently no longer in the hitherto most powerful position of head of the army.

But Burma analyst Aung Naing Oo said: “Everyone will be required to report to him for quite some time.” He added the handover was similar to the slow withdrawal of Than Shwe’s predecessor, late dictator Ne Win.

“We have not had any kind of democracy in the past 50 years so it is more like an experiment,” the Thailand-based analyst said. “There are more questions than answers.”

Presidential inauguration
The SPDC, previously known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, seized power in 1988, but Burma has been under military authority since 1962 and the generals continue to dominate the impoverished nation.

Former prime minister Thein Sein, a key Than Shwe ally, was sworn in as president on Wednesday.

He is among a slew of generals who shed their army uniforms to contest the elections last year and are now civilian members of Parliament, which also has a quarter of its seats kept aside for the military.

An official said Wednesday’s presidential inauguration was attended by General Min Aung Hlaing in a new guise as armed forces commander-in-chief, implying Than Shwe no longer holds the top military job.

But the official added that “it’s not clear yet” whether Min Aung Hlaing has officially taken over the army.

“Altogether 58 new Cabinet members including the president, two vice-presidents, officials and ministers were sworn in this morning at the Union Parliament” in Naypyidaw, the official added.

The apparent new army chief, 54-year-old Min Aung Hlaing, is part of a younger generation of Burma generals.

He was head of the Defence Services Academy and a commander in the so-called Golden Triangle, a region near the country’s borders with Laos and Thailand notorious for drug-trafficking.

Changes to reflect the new political system
Ceremonies were held across the country as the names of government offices were changed to reflect the new political system, which came into effect after an election that critics decried as a sham to entrench military power.

Across Burma, “Peace and Development Council” offices that evoked the name of the junta were renamed “General Administrative Departments”, officials said.

The signs are now a slightly lighter shade of green, similar to the colour used by Thein Sein’s junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which claimed an overwhelming majority in the November poll.

The formation of a National Assembly in Naypyidaw, convened for the first time at the end of January, takes the country towards the final stage of the junta’s so-called “road map” to a “disciplined democracy”.

USDP lawmakers bagged 388 of the national legislature’s 493 elected seats.

Suu Kyi has no voice in the new Parliament. Her National League for Democracy party was disbanded for opting to boycott the vote because the rules seemed designed to bar her from participating.

The election, and Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest a few days later, have reignited a debate about economic sanctions enforced by the United States and European Union because of Burma’s human rights abuses. — AFP