The Look of Burma's New Government

As Burma's top general Than Shwe finally steps down as commander-in-chief of the country's armed forces to hand over power to a younger generation of military men in a putatively elected government, the new ministers have their work cut out for them.

All of Burma's ministry coffers are dry, according to government officials – with the possible exception of the Ministry of Defense. The outgoing ministers were encourage to spend everything last year, especially on election campaigning, so one of the new government's first actions is likely to be to introduce a system of taxation. Most of the new ministers, as expected, are former military men. Of the 58 ministers, all but four are generals or retired military officers. Most are well under 60 years of age.

In his first major address to the parliament, the new President Thein Sein, a former general himself, promised to increase spending on health care and education, which he says would also be brought up to international standards. Labor rights supposedly would be guaranteed. The government says it is also committed to fighting bribery and corruption Thein Sein stressed.

Setting out the government's agenda is a new turn for a regime which in the past was highly secretive and coercive. But few in Burma feel the new government was any difference from Than Shwe's military dictatorship. It is the result of sham elections last year in which the military-sponsored party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party won a landslide victory that has been roundly condemned by the international community and the pro-democracy opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi as a farce.

"Petrol prices are crazy and the cost of food is going through the roof," complained a taxi driver, Maung Maung. "These are the things that really matter to the people," he added. "We starve while they plunder the country."

"Corruption is rampant in this country. If the president is serious about stamping it out he has to start with Than Shwe's wife and the rest of the cronies," said a Burmese businessman who declined to be identified. "She has bought up properties and land all over Rangoon after the existing residents were evicted."

The former fisheries minister is part of that mafia, he told Asia Sentinel, costing the country more than US$7 billion annually. The police and top generals know, but have done nothing so far, he complained. "We really cannot expect them to change now – they are all taking a piece of the cake."

Before the new government was sworn in, Than Shwe told the out-going ministers and the new ministers that from now on he was to be known as U Than Shwe – which term of address that signifies his civilian status. But he told the ministers that he would happy to meet them – if they so wished – in a personal capacity.

While public perception remains skeptical, the swearing in of the new government and parliament at least ends the state of limbo that has crippled the country for the past two months. The uncertainty is over – a new civilian government of sorts has been installed. But have the old guard really retired, or simply retreated to the backroom to control things from there?

While it now seems clear that Than Shwe is relinquishing day-to-day control of government and taking a back seat, he will not completely hand over power – he will certainly still try to manage things from behind the scenes. That much was also clear when he invited the ministers to come and see him in the future.

"Than Shwe has no plans to switch state power to the president or parliament," said Aung Lynn Htut, a former Burmese military intelligence officer and diplomat who defected a few years ago after he was posted to Washington. "He will continue to control things from behind the curtain."

In recent weeks there has been widespread speculation that Than Shwe plans to set up a State Supreme Council – which according to some military sources in Naypyidaw was intended to be the top body in government, with allegedly an advisory role to the new civilian government. The eight member council reportedly includes Than Shwe, General Maung Aye – until this week vice senior general and officially number two in the regime – the Lower House [Pyithu Hluttaw] Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, the President Thein Sein, the speaker of the upper house former General Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo, former Lt. Gen Tin Aye and two other senior military generals – presumably the top generals in the army who replaced the two senior generals this week.

"Than Shwe wouldn't dare to relinquish complete power as events could turn against him and he would end up in jail," said Justin Wintle, a British writer and Burma specialist. "The State Supreme Council seems a pretty real option to me – more like the Thai Privy Council than the UK Privy Council, with a strong and sometimes effective military presence."

But while this would certainly be an influential body at the top of the government structure, it would in fact be unconstitutional. So far there is no evidence to suggest Than Shwe has opted for the formula. Many analysts believe Than Shwe is going to rely on personal loyalties and connections.

"Than Shwe is not able to set up the state supreme committee officially," said Aung Lynn Htut. "But he will control the president and commander in chief. He may transfer the commander in chief position, but he cannot take off his senior general rank and army uniform for at least a year."

It is important to understand that Than Shwe has a fail-safe, according to the independent Burmese analyst, Win Min, based in the US. "The military auxiliary law, promulgated a few days before the elections last year and recently passed by the parliament is his back-up strategy if things go wrong."

Under the law, senior officers keep their rank as reservists and can return to the army within the next five years in their current position. "This is clearly meant to allow Than Shwe to return to lead the army and country if he feels he needs too," Win Min told the Asia Sentinel.

But Than Shwe has nevertheless tried to engineer a political system that will cascade down from his position at the top of the political pyramid. A triumvirate controls the ruling party – the USDP. As the three patrons – Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Thura Shwe Mann – will exercise control of the party. Interestingly the new USDP office has been built near Than Shwe's house in Naypyidaw.

In the meantime the top generals including Than Shwe and Maung Aye for all intent and purposes have retired. Both have moved to their luxurious mansions outside the military compound but inside the capital city, Naypyidaw. Curiously Maung Aye has had solar panels built into his roof to provide an extra energy source, according to someone close to his builders.

But change is unlikely as the military mind remains entrenched even in the new political system which pretends to be a civilian administration, according to activist and academic Maung Zarni of the London School of Economics. The army is incapable of change. Even if the top generals have retired to the back room, the new crop of officers are effectively clones. "The officer corps are a sub-class of society that has come to view themselves as the ruling class, feeling they are eternally entitled to rule," Zarni said.

"Whoever takes their places [Than Shwe and Maung Aye] will not be more enlightened or more progressive – simply because they have all been inculcated with thuggish, racist, sexist and neo-totalitarian leadership values – and only junior generals who are their mirror image have been promoted."