Monday, March 30, 2009

General’s Promotion Signals Power Struggles at the Top

The Irrawaddy News

Burma’s top-ranking generals know that they must hang together or risk hanging separately. But that doesn’t mean that there are no real rivalries among the men who rule the country with an iron fist.

When Snr-Gen Than Shwe promoted Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo to the rank of four-star general last Wednesday, two days before Armed Forces Day, he was not just rewarding a junior colleague for his loyal service: he was undercutting potential rivals for power.

Burma’s three four-star generals: Shwe Mann, Thein Sein and Tin Aung Myint Oo (Photo: AP)

Tin Aung Myint Oo, who is now one of only three four-star generals in the country, is reportedly close to the regime’s second-most powerful figure, Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye. By promoting him, however, Than Shwe has ensured that Tin Aung Myint Oo’s first loyalty will now be to the senior general.

“This is a power struggle between Than Shwe and Maung Aye,” said an observer in Rangoon.

Tin Aung Myint Oo’s promotion comes as no surprise. He was often seen accompanying Maung Aye and powerful commanders, including the air defense department and intelligence chiefs, on trips around the country.

Burmese military observers suggest that Tin Aung Myint Oo’s promotion marks the rise of a third powerful faction to rival those led by Gen Thura Shwe Mann, the coordinator of Special Operations, Army, Navy and Air Force, and Lt-General Myint Swe, chief of the Bureau of Special Operation No 5.

All three groups now vie for Than Shwe’s favor, even as they seek to keep each other from rising any higher within the inner circle.

Tin Aung Myint Oo, who is in his early 60s, is the fifth-ranking general in the military hierarchy. More importantly, he holds the title of Secretary 1 of the ruling military council and has long been groomed for a prominent position in the junta.

In 1995, he was appointed head of the No 1 Military Operation Command, based in Kyaukme Township in northern Shan State, as a brigadier-general. He became commander of the Northeast Military Region in Lashio in 1997. Ten years later, when Gen Thein Sein became prime minister, Tin Aung Myint Oo took over as Secretary 1.

Burmese observers say that Tin Aung Myint Oo is a hardliner who is skeptical of offers of foreign humanitarian assistance and UN involvement in the Cyclone Nargis relief effort. He recently visited the cyclone-hit Irrawaddy delta and has been named deputy head of the National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee.

According to these observers, Than Shwe watches Shwe Mann, Tin Aung Myint Oo and Myint Swe closely to decide who will become the next Burmese military chief.

Sources inside Burma have noted that all three are close to Than Shwe’s family and loyal to the top commander, making it unlikely that any one of them would stage coup against him.

But Than Shwe doesn’t just prize loyalty towards himself: he also likes to cultivate mutual mistrust among his protégés.

At the moment, the most noteworthy rivalry is that between Tin Aung Myint Oo and Shwe Mann, another Than Shwe favorite who is said to be close to several businessmen and scholars involved in getting humanitarian assistance to the cyclone-affected areas of the delta.

Nyo Ohn Myint, head of the foreign affairs office of the National League for Democracy (Liberated Area), said that Tin Aung Myint Oo’s promotion was a classic Than Shwe maneuver.

“He wants to make competition between Shwe Mann and Tin Aung Myint Oo,” said Nyo Ohn Myint. “Than Shwe doesn’t want to rely on just one person, Shwe Mann.”

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