Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Coup Against Than Shwe

The Irrawaddy News

Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s hold on power in Burma is turning the country into a gulag. Even members of the armed forces, including many young officers rising in the ranks, know that Burma would be better off without him. But are they prepared to act on the growing dissatisfaction they feel as they watch the country slide into a black hole?

There is no doubt that many soldiers and officers believe that removing Than Shwe and other junta hardliners from power is the only way to end Burma’s misery. Members of the military have watched the gap between rich and poor widen to a chasm even within their own ranks, with ordinary soldiers struggling to survive while corrupt generals grow obscenely rich.

It is entirely possible that some unknown faction within the armed forces is plotting the overthrow of Than Shwe and those loyal to him. We don’t know who they are or when they will strike; but we can be sure that if they did turn on their supreme leader, many others within the military would likely join forces with them.

If some bold young officers did decide to take matters into their own hands, it wouldn’t be the first time in Burma’s recent history. In 1976, Capt Ohn Kyaw Myint, a staff officer serving under Gen Kyaw Htin, then commander in chief of the armed forces, plotted to assassinate state leaders, including Ne Win and San Yu.

Along with other young officers who graduated from the Defense Services Academy, Ohn Kyaw Myint held clandestine meetings in the War Office to discuss the assassination of Ne Win, the strongman who first placed Burma under military rule.

Burma’s secret police eventually uncovered the plot and immediately set out to discover who the ringleader was.

On the evening of July 2, Ohn Kyaw Myint decided to seek asylum at the US embassy in Rangoon. Although he appeared at the US ambassador’s residence and explained his abortive coup plan, his request for asylum was rejected. The secret police finally caught him.

When Ohn Kyaw Myint and several other officers were put on trial, they became national heroes overnight. Army soldiers and officers who were interrogated in connection with the coup plot told Ohn Kyaw Myint and his group how much they admired them. The open trial in Insein was attended by many ordinary citizens who also expressed admiration for the young rebel officers.

The accused army officers openly attacked Ne Win’s “Burmese Way to Socialism” when they were placed on the stand. They lashed out at corrupt cadres and criticized the regime’s policies, which they said were driving the country into economic ruin.

Their testimony turned out to be quite prophetic: A little more than a decade later, the collapse of the economy triggered massive social unrest and led to Ne Win’s forced resignation. (Ironically, Capt Win Thein, one of the accused officers who lambasted Ne Win’s disastrous economic policies, is now a millionaire with close business ties to the current military leaders.)

Many junior officers were apprehended and jailed or forced to resign. Hundreds of army officers at the War Office were removed from their posts and regional commanders implicated in the coup plot were forced to step down. Gen Tin Oo, the former armed forces chief of staff who is now the chairman of the National League for Democracy, was among those who were thrown into prison for having knowledge of the coup plan.

Than Shwe, who was then a colonel and a loyal follower of Ne Win, escaped the purge.

Ohn Kyaw Myint was hanged for his part in the plot, but his name is not forgotten in Burma. Many still applaud his heroic attempt to get rid of the men whose stranglehold on power had slowly squeezed the life out of the country.

Why did the plot to assassinate Ne Win fail? Most have blamed it on the would-be coup leaders repeated postponement of their plans to carry out the plot. On one occasion, they called off their mission as they drove their army jeep on A.D. Road, where Ne Win and other top leaders lived, because they saw bird droppings on their windshield. They thought it was a bad omen and decided to abort at the last minute.

Today, activists say there is no shortage of young officers like Ohn Kyaw Myint in the armed forces. But many Burmese ask: Where are they? Perhaps past experience has taught them to be cautious (although Ohn Kyaw Myint’s case would seem to suggest that an excess of caution can prove to be deadly).

It is probably fair to say that these moderate forces within the military, whoever they are, are not necessarily supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi or the democracy movement. But they probably want to restore the army’s honor by doing its duty instead of trying to run the country.

Burmese in the past looked to the armed forces for protection from external threats, such as a possible invasion by the Kuomintang in the years after the Communists won the civil war in China, and from the multi-colored insurgents who threatened Burma soon after it won its independence from Britain.

The Burmese armed forces are now regarded with fear and contempt by ordinary people, a fact that troubles many officers who believe they are working in the service of their country.

But many Burmese know that there are still some genuine patriots within the ranks of the military, and believe that the only hope for their country is for one of them to finally break Than Shwe’s hold on power.

It may seem a remote possibility, but you can’t blame people for wanting to believe that there are still some within the ranks of the armed forces who understand the meaning of courage and decency.

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