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"Doveryai, No Proveryai"

 

SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, April 11, 2012 14:06
Tags : Aung Thaung | Burma | USDP | Htay Oo |Maung Maung Thein |
 

Last few months have been really eventful in Burmese political landscape and has thrown a few questions to grapple with. The primary among them all is to identify and confirm whether the political changes that we are seeing are genuine or a massive PR exercise that has been pulled off.

There are few indicators that can help us determining the same. The most important among them is to judge whether this political reforms will lead to political accommodation as well. The best idea is to judge how enthusiastic the regime has been in releasing the political prisoners who are really a force in the political landscape.

On the face of it, as many as 6500 prisoners were released in the last few months but most of them either are common criminals or people who were not trusted in general by the regime. There are extremely few political prisoners who have been released.

The primary problem is to identify and calculate how many political prisoners are still languishing. There are varied estimates. Our sources claim two widely varied figures. These range from 1200 to 2100 prisoners. But even if we take the lower figure, the number of prisoners released is far lesser than expected. It will be important to find out how many of them will be released in near future or will be held up for long.

Another area that needs to be focused on is to find out how internal power play in the regime in general and ruling Union Solidarity and Development (USDP) in particular will shape the reforms in the coming years. Most of the media organizations have taken the regime as a monolith in their assessments and have based their predictions on this assumption. This is not only simplistic but dangerous as well.  

One player who is extremely important and politically cunning is Aung Thaung, the former Minister for Industry, and close confidante of former Senior-Gen Than Shwe. More than anyone else, it is him that holds the key in the coming months.

It is evident that Thaung is bitterly opposed to incumbent President Thein Sein’s reform agenda. Sources confirm that he has confronted the president time and again in the party meetings and has gone on to suggest that any sort of political freedom is dangerous.

Sein on his part has expelled most of Thaung's men from the government but they still hold most of the key positions in the party and that are important in the game. The coming months will give us a clear idea as to how he perceives aspects of this reform, more so as it comes after party's defeat in the by-polls, and what aspects of these reforms is he pressurizing to roll back or sabotage.

Another aspect that most of the people are ignoring is the deep connection between civil agencies and institution and USDP that is extremely important in the game. This includes local arm of Red Cross, food supply agency, disaster management agency, child health department, women welfare institutions and government funded NGOs.

These agencies and institutions are very powerful in terms of reach within the population but have little political power of their own. They are very close to USDP. In fact they have become inter-wind in the last decade and lend succor to each other. The postings and jobs in these institutions are given to party loyal and that has created a strong bond. Don't expect this perfectly symbiotic relationship to melt overnight.

Another very important figure who is at odds with the government is Brigadier General Maung Maung Thein who was also a minister. Like Thaung, Maung Thein also has no love lost for Thein Sein’s reform agenda and has turned into his opponent but not vocal. Maung's closeness with Thaung has tilted the balance in the party towards the hardliner faction.

People like Maung have rose to the ranks as street fighters and know how to use muscle to browbeat the opponents. That makes him very very dangerous. His hold in the Dawei area is supreme. What makes the connection lethal is the fact that Dewai area is a known bastion of pro regime thugs and hoodlums. Maung's control on them makes the position of president slippery.

Aung Thaung and Htay Oo are also popular in their areas and are in their heart opposed to president's agenda. These two are force to reckon with. These two have also rose to ranks as street fighters and are closer to Maung and Thaung in their ideology and conduct.

On the other hand, one of the ardent supporters of the president is Lower House speaker Shwe Mann. Mann has little sway on the population in his region but he is a killer floor manager in the parliament and the party.

It is because of him that president has managed to beat the hardliner Thaung group in the regime till now. However, sources suggest that Mann might be nursing a dream to become president himself.

This theory needs to be further explored. Mann in his ideology is a reformist and his rise as president is not a bad scenario in itself. However, it is not very clear how much willing the incumbent president is to accommodate him.

But he has a competitor who is equally intelligent and equally ambitious if not equally cunning. Vice President Thin Aung Myint Oo appears to be the immediate challenger. The point is, compared to other hardliners, Myint Oo is a liberal but he falls sort of commitment when compared to people like Mann. Under the circumstances, it wont be a surprise that hardliners might prop him against Mann and will ask him to make his stand more hardline to win the support of the faction. Oo is slippery in ideology and might agree to that.

Economic reform is another area that needs focus. Businessmen are jittery and eager to know whom to do business with in a fluid political system like this. The current regime is willing to offer lots of soaps and tax holidays and are also willing to assure that there will be no nationalization should the situation change in the coming years.

Insurgency remains a big issue in post reforms Myanmar. The government signed ceasefire agreements with two ethnic minority armies, but fighting against other groups, including the Kachin Independence Army and the Shan State Army, has gone as before. It is not to say that the groups who have agreed for the ceasefire are minor ones.

However unless the above mentioned two come on board, the ceasefire will mean nothing. Jointly these two control an area similar to half of France. It will be difficult for the western businesses to operate in their territories if they fail to come on board. There are no signs of thaw in the near future as one of the key issue of contention, Myitsone Dam in Kachin State, is still on agenda and that is the thorn. 

 
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the blog are that of the author and does not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Sunday Indian)
 
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017