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INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS -
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Myanmar's junta goes for the kill

Posted in the database on Thursday, May 04th, 2006 @ 16:21:25 MST (1059 views)
by Larry Jagan    Asia Times  

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BANGKOK - Myanmar's military rulers have launched a major new crackdown on the country's main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, fueling widespread speculation that the hardline State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) intends to eliminate its harassed and beleaguered rival completely within the next 12 months.

According to Burmese-language notes from a January meeting between Myanmar's police chief Major-General Khin Yi and top commanders across the country reviewed by Asia Times Online, the national police corps was specifically instructed to undermine the NLD using stealth and intelligence rather than their traditional use of brute force.

That message hasn't completely trickled down, however. Young NLD activists and students have been detained and questioned, while others have even been sentenced to several years' imprisonment on trumped-up charges. Some key leaders of the student movement have also been attacked and one recently died from the injuries sustained during a particularly brutal battering.

In the past, Myanmar's police have been accused of planting drugs, especially heroin, on young activists and students, then arresting them and sentencing them to several years of imprisonment. These tactics are being complemented with a more subtle strategy aimed at crippling the NLD's ability to operate and recruit, according to the recent police meeting notes.

The junta has recently stepped up its pressure on the NLD, harassing more than 50 members into resigning from the party, including a senior member of the Mandalay branch. "The authorities have put immense pressure on them to resign, and they have succumbed to it," a senior NLD party member said in an interview. "It is one of the key ways the SPDC is trying to weaken the party."

Information Minister Brigadier-General Kyaw Hsan last month warned the NLD that it could be "outlawed" on charges of cooperating with so-called terrorist organizations. "The government has strong evidence that the NLD was involved with anti-government groups as well as terrorist organizations that would justify it being declared illegal," he recently told a press conference.

A Western diplomat based in Yangon said, "This threat in intended to keep up the pressure on the NLD's leaders." For now, the diplomat said, "it suits the SPDC to have the NLD registered, but impotent".

Myanmar-watchers contend that the junta's long-term aim is to marginalize charismatic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently under house arrest, and move to eliminate her party as part of its so-called "national reconciliation" process. To some degree, the junta has successfully portrayed Suu Kyi, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent approach to political confrontation, as part of the problem because of her unwillingness to compromise in some diplomatic quarters.

The SPDC-led National Convention, which the NLD has boycotted and the junta has stacked with pliant representatives from the country's many ethnic-minority groups, is set to resume drawing up principles for a new constitution in November. The junta is expected to hand power to a civilian incarnation of itself after the constitution is finally promulgated.

Foreign Minister Nyan Win told his counterparts at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) retreat in Bali last month that Myanmar's new constitution should be completed by the end of next year.

"[Senior General] Than Shwe's strategy is clear, before the constitution is drafted and put to a referendum, all the pro-democracy parties and ethnic groups - both those with ceasefires and those who haven't - will be targeted and eliminated, or at the very least made impotent," said Win Min, an independent Myanmar analyst based in Thailand.

If so, it's not an altogether new tack. Two years ago, SPDC leader Than Shwe ordered the junta's Union Solitary Development Association (USDA) - the junta's national grassroots organization, which is tipped to become the SPDC's political arm after the new constitution comes into force - to harass NLD members violently across the country.

In a confidential government document obtained by Asia Times Online, Than Shwe ordered the USDA to "eliminate the activities of the opposition; destroy the opposition's business so that they lose their property and market; create splits among opposition family members; get opposition members to sever their relationship with the group; and frighten and intimidate the most stubborn members of the opposition to flee from its membership".

That hard-knocks plan was hatched soon after the savage May 2003 attack on Suu Kyi's traveling caravan, where USDA thugs killed scores, if not hundreds, of her supporters. The NLD leader had been traveling in the northern region of the country to reinvigorate her party, and massive crowds had gathered to hear her speak.

Aung Lynn Htut, Myanmar's ambassador to Washington, defected to the US this year. He has since spoken out about Than Shwe's plan to obliterate the NLD by the end of the year. After his defection, the former top SPDC diplomat told opposition scholars based in the United States and the United Kingdom that he had received reliable information that the junta had ordered the "routing" of NLD members and their families.

Analysts say the increased harassment and intimidation of the NLD are being driven by both internal and external factors. "Than Shwe has become increasingly concerned over the last months of the possibility of pro-democracy demonstrations erupting, especially in Rangoon [Yangon]," Win Min said. "That's one of the reasons for retreating to the new capital, Pyinmana."

Sources close to the SPDC's top leadership say that Than Shwe has apprehensively monitored recent international and regional news from his fortified bunker in Pyinmana, including the street rallies that last month drove Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to abandon his political post, and Nepalese King Gyanendra's recent acquiescence to more violent street protests where demonstrators called for a return to democracy.

These events have "rocked the old man, who now more than ever fears a repeat of the mass pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988 which forced Ne Win to stand down", said a close confidant of Than Shwe. In response, the SPDC leader has reportedly ordered police to crack down on even the faintest signs of political ferment.

Than Shwe, whom the confidant said surfs the Internet every morning in his military headquarters, had been particularly piqued by the NLD's new initiatives and renewed assertiveness. The NLD has increased its political activities coinciding with SPDC Prime Minister General Soe Win recent telling Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Alber that Suu Kyi was now "irrelevant" to Myanmar's political future.

According to NLD leaders, the party has recently come around to the idea that Myanmar's often splintered pro-democracy groups need to present a much more united front against the SPDC. As such, they have recently made overtures to other democratic groups, including student- and ethnic-minority-led political parties that operate along the country's war-torn border areas, according to diplomatic sources in Yangon.

In recent months, the NLD has held a series of grassroots meetings across the country and the party's senior provincial officials recently traveled to Yangon for high-level consultations. One new move: policy review committees were recently established as the NLD looks for ways to press its agenda more effectively while highlighting the SPDC's many policy failures.

"Our latest policy is focusing on how to solve the country's humanitarian crisis through dialogue and compromise," NLD spokesman Myint Thein said in an interview.

Indeed, the NLD in February offered the SPDC a sort of olive branch through a press statement released to coincide with Union Day, which offered to recognize the military regime as Myanmar's "de facto" government on the condition that the junta eventually allowed a "people's parliament" to convene.

"The SPDC would be in charge of the transitional period until a government was formed by the parliament made up of the representatives elected in the national elections held on May 27, 1990," the statement said. The NLD won more than 80% of the vote in that election, which the junta declared null and void.

Typically, the SPDC at first ignored the NLD's compromise. Last month, Information Minister Kyaw Hsan flat out rejected the fig leaf, saying that the SPDC would not hold any dialogue with the NLD outside of the national convention, which the NLD has boycotted as undemocratic. "The NLD no longer enjoys the support of the people and it does not represent them anymore," Kyaw Hsan said.

The NLD's new drive to reassert itself has reportedly enraged Than Shwe, who has sanctioned an all-out campaign to crush the party. "There is a definite trend here: when the NLD confronts the junta and reminds them that they are in effect the only legitimate government, the SPDC reaction is to pressure and further weaken the NLD," said political analyst Win Min.

He sees parallels to when the SPDC cracked down on the NLD in 1999 and 2000 after the opposition party established the Committee Representing the People's Parliament and moved to convene the body on the authority of the SPDC-annulled 1990 election results.

Then, many NLD members of parliament and senior members were arrested or forced to resign their positions in the party, and many fled the country. NLD offices were raided and shuttered, with SPDC officials seizing the party's internal documents.

"We expect worse to follow as the military authorities go all-out to eliminate us by the end of the year," said a senior NLD official on condition of anonymity because of his fear of reprisals for speaking to the foreign media.

For the international community, any attempt to de-register and abolish the NLD would be widely condemned, even by the SPDC's erstwhile allies in China and Thailand. The SPDC's recent statements insisting that the NLD and Suu Kyi were irrelevant to the country's political future have gone over like a lead balloon inside the 10-member ASEAN.

More important, among Myanmar's people, judging by the increasingly disfranchised chatter of its population, the battered and bruised NLD remains the country's only legitimate political entity and real hope for democratic change. As the SPDC moves to eliminate the NLD forcibly, the ruling junta could cause itself more problems than it solves.

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the BBC. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.



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