Myanmar: Tick Tock


July 18, 2010: General Than Shwe has run the country for 18 years and is facing the end (of life, or his dictatorial rule). Holding elections, that he hopes to control, would, if successful, give the 77 year old dictator legitimacy and an opportunity to gracefully retire. That's something his two predecessors were not allowed. Both were forcibly removed by fellow generals, who believed their boss had lost control. This is what Than Shwe is dealing with. It's unlikely that there will be a violent civil war within the military, but subordinate generals are talking, and complaining, and, as Than Shwe fears, plotting. Than Shwe's predecessor held elections in 1990, which would have replaced the military government. The generals overruled the voters, and two years later, Than Shwe and his friends eased out the ruling general (who appeared to be going insane) and did whatever he needed to do to stay in power.

Burma spends over 20 percent of its budget on the military, and Than Shwe has doubled the size of the armed forces, to about half a million, since he took over. The additional troops were needed to insure control of the 50 million Burmese, most of whom are poor and lacking in much economic opportunity. The problem with running a dictatorship is that you need a lot of control over the economy, lest potential opponents arise among the economically successful. But by running the economy, the generals have stunted it. Per capita GDP is less than $500, and most Burmese don't even have access to electricity. Large raw materials operations (gas and oil fields and mines) have helped keep the dictators afloat. But it's not been enough. Unrest continues to grow.

The army has even had trouble getting sufficient, reliable, new recruits to maintain army strength. The trouble with an army career is that you don't start making impressive money until you become an NCO, and that can take years. During that time you can find yourself chasing tribal rebels through the jungles up north, or confronting urban mobs. So the army have taken to kidnapping homeless teenagers, or deceiving poor kids (about getting some other kind of training), and putting them through the four month basic training. Most make it. Others die or run away, showing up in Thai refugee camps, or back home, with the same horrific story. The government would like to introduce conscription, so there would be many more potential recruits they could evaluate, and convince to join the military dictatorship. But conscription is known to be very unpopular, and being a soldier means being hated by most Burmese. Members of the army, from the lowest recruit to the top generals, are seen as a bunch of greedy, nasty and violent thugs. Fewer Burmese want anything to do with the dictators and their minions.

The government has negotiated a deal with India whereby both nations would share information on each other's rebel groups that cross the border and try to establish bases next year. This is mostly a problem for India, but the Burmese military dictatorship finds it useful to be ready in case local rebels try and establish sanctuaries in India's northeastern tribal lands. Burma also wants good relations with India, especially since India is not happy with the growing economic and military relationships Burma has forged with China. But the Chinese are willing to do business in Burma, and help keep the tribal rebels on the Chinese border quiet. China is also a major source of weapons for the Burmese armed forces.

The Burmese generals also recently revealed that they had secretly reestablished diplomatic relations with North Korea in the early 1990s, after  Than Shwe took over. Relations had been cut after 1983, when North Korean agents set off a bomb that killed visiting South Korean officials. The renewed links with North Korea were kept quiet for over a decade because Burma was trying to establish economic ties with South Korea and Japan. That has not worked out as expected, because of growing sanctions. So now, the North Korean links are admitted.



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