Far Eastern Economic Review, 4 August 1988

Less than meets the eye

Ne Win replaced as party chief by hardliner By Bertil Lintner in Bangkok

When the emergency congress of the ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) began on 23 July, its chairman, founder and sold guiding light, Ne Win, surprised the delegates with an unprecedented opening speech. Not only was he going to resign, but five other top party leaders were going to as well: Vice-Chairman San Yu(who is also the president of the republic), General Secretary Aye Ko (also vice-president), Joint General Secretary Sein Lwin (secretary to the State Council), Kyaw Htin (minister of defence) and Tun tin (minister of planning and finance).

Far-reaching reforms were also suggested. Ne Win stated that "the current congress is requested to approve a national referendum ...[to answer] the question...[whether we should have] a multi-party or a single-party system." Moreover, it was proposed that the present state monopoly on trade and industry should be lifted, except in strategic sectors, such as arms, teak forestry, mining, and petroleum.

Most observers were taken aback, almost believing that the recent, widespread unrest in Burma had forced an end to 26 years of one-party rule.

But when the three-day congress was over on 25 July, surprisingly little remained of all these revolutionary proposals. The congress approved the resignation of Ne Win and San Yu -- but the other four leaders were requested to stay on. The plan to hold a referendum was scrapped, since, in the words of one delegate, "the 1974 referendum already has approved the present constitution," whose Article 11 stipulates that the BSPP "is the sole political party and it shall lead the state." The emphasis will be on economic reforms so "we need national unity" which only "the one-party system can guarantee."

As for Ne Win's own future position, analysts recall the speech he made in November 1981 when he relinquished the presidency in favour of San Yu, but retained his post as BSPP chairman. He said then: "Though I will not be in the Pyithu Hluttaw [parliament] or the council of state, I shall be watching from the party and when I give advice where needed, do things with discretion. I shall continue to do things, but all those who would be directly concerned with the practical aspects of the work should exercise utmost caution."

Today, Ne Win holds no official position, but his stature in Burmese society is still strong enough to "give advice where needed." there is actually no indication that he has finally given up the absolute power he has exercised since his coup in 1962. "When the smoke has cleared again, we'll probably find that Ne Win is still there, powerful as ever, but ruling from behind the scenes," commented one diplomatic source.

Another observer compared Ne Win's new role with that of Deng Xiaoping in china, who maintains a similar, hazy role as a senior adviser, above both the state and the party. On 26 July, in a surprise announcement, the congress appointed hardliner Sein Lwin as the new party chairman. Ne Win will be able to manipulate the new chairman from behind the scenes, as both are of the same mold and will resist political liberalisation.

Among the heads that actually had to roll at the congress in addition to that of San Yu -- who, despite his high position, was never considered strong enough to succeed Ne Win in any case -- were those of: prime minister Maung Maung Kha and attorney-general Myunt Maung. The purged prime minister had earlier been considered by analysts as a likely successor to Ne Win.

On the eve of the congress, Min Gaung, the minister of home and religious affair, and Thein Aung, the head of the People's Police Force (PPF) in Rangoon were also dismissed in connection with the officially admitted deaths by suffocation of 41 people who had been kept in a police van for several hours during the March riots.

However, observers point out that the PPF was hardly involved in the suppression of these riots -- a task which was delegated to the lon htein, or the riot police -- and Min Gaung's role in the same affair was also negligible. The main culprit, according to Rangoon based diplomats, was Sein Lwin. Analysts seem to agree that both Min Gaung and Thein Aung were little more than scapegoats for the bloodshed during the recent unrest.

In a reference to possible future disturbances, Ne Win said in his opening speech: "I have to inform the people throughout the country that when the army shoots, it shoots to hit: it does not fire in the air to scare .. therefore, I warn those causing disturbances that they will not be spared in the future when the army is brought in to control disturbances."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the congress was unanimous in denouncing former brigadier-general Aung Gyi, an outspoken critic of the government's policies. His open letters to Ne Win are widely believed to have inspired the protest movement which preceded the congress and indirectly influenced the recently announced reforms.

Ne Win, in his speech, accused Aung Gyi of being responsible for the blowing up of the Rangoon students' union building in 1962 -- an act most historians say the strongman himself ordered. Other delegates said that Aung Gyi was "disloyal" and they even questioned his patriotism -- an important issue in xenophobic Burma.

So what does all this amount to? There seems to be little doubt that the congress was carefully orchestrated. Cautious observers say BSPP meetings always are little more than rubber-stamp functions approving decisions Ne Win has already made -- and the proposals and counter-proposals were part of the show, with the delegates simply reading out speeches which had been written for them beforehand.

Analysts seem to agree that the final outcome of the congress was in tune with Ne Win's old policy of wielding both the stick and the carrot. He promised economic reforms to please the public. At the same time, he made it clear that if people still want to protest, there will be no mercy. And there will be no fundamental change in the top leadership of the country.

What remains is the promise of economic reforms, and even here here are several question marks, according to observers in Rangoon and Bangkok. In order to implement these reforms efficiently, competent and experienced personnel are needed; it is not enough just to legalese and collect taxes on the already existing black market, which the congress recommended.

Burma's best economists and technocrats today are living abroad, in Thailand, Australia, the US and Britain. Most of these exiles left for political reasons and many of them are organised along political lines in the countries where they now reside. Unless the present political system is also radically liberalised, there is little prospect of them showing any interest in returning and participating in the task of rebuilding the crisis-ridden country.

Therefore, analysts say, it is doubtful whether the officially announced measures will produce any reals solutions to Burma's problems, unless there are similarly far-reaching political reforms. There is a widespread belief among observers that Ne Win's real reason for announcing the changes was to consolidate his power while courting international sympathy, in the hope of preserving his place in history, which has always been his main concern. The ruthless suppression of the recent riots, which severely tarnished both the image of Ne Win and Burma abroad, it is argued, forced him to act.

But by announcing the reforms, Ne Win may have initiated a movement he is unable to control. Neighbouring Thailand usually refrains from commenting on internal developments in Burma, but a surprisingly strongly worded editorial in the Bangkok Post said on 26 July: "The winds of change have struck Burma with seemingly hurricane force. It remains to be seen whether the old-guard leadership will be left intact, or, succumbing to the laws of evolution, be blown away."


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