The Next Leader of Myanmar?

Former Philippine president and four-star general Fidel Ramos knows a thing or two about regime change. He was the military architect of the peaceful people-power revolution in the Philippines that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a bloodless coup in 1986.

For his moral courage, President Corazon Aquino rewarded Ramos with the job of chief of staff of the armed forces and defense secretary. In these positions, he worked with the golf-crazy top brass of the Association of Southeast Nations or ASEAN. After leaving office in 1998, Ramos regularly teed-off with Myanmar’s strongman Senior General Than Shwe.

When in Washington, DC recently, Ramos was asked about the seeming illogicality of Than Shwe’s maneuver to crush the recent revolt by Myanmar’s monks. Ramos, a West Point graduate, explained that the crisis should be understood in the context of territorial integrity. The military in Myanmar, he noted, is fearful that the unitary state could break up into 17 different parts, each led by a predominant tribe. Indeed, the Myanmar military’s counter-insurgency operations have lasted for 60 years.

Yet, the military’s “balkanization” theory could prove a myth. Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, is just as ethnically diverse as Myanmar. But it did not splinter after general Suharto’s 32-year grip on power loosened. East Timor’s separation from Indonesia was largely a political aberration, and the Indonesian military, in fact, learned the hard way to make peace with the rebels in Aceh.

Ramos also predicts that Myanmar’s intelligence czar, Khin Nyunt, is “the probable successor to Than Shwe.” Myanmar’s democracy icon and leader-in-waiting, Aung San Suu Kyi, he said, is “worthy of respect,” but Ramos’s prognosis is drawn from his own experience. To be number two in a political hierarchy, he observed, is to be “powerless or powerful at the same time.” Ramos defeated seven coup attempts during the Aquino administration, two of them serious, and that helped him succeed President Aquino in the 1992 elections.

Lieutenant-general Khin Nyunt, Myanmar’s ousted prime minister and chief of military intelligence, is currently under house arrest. As the ex-spymaster of the Orwellian state, he negotiated a series of ceasefires with Myanmar’s ethnic rebel leaders between 1989 and 1990 when the communist insurgency collapsed. What also makes him a “probable successor” is that he mediated between Aung San Suu Kyi and General Than Shwe when dialogue was still on the cards. The talks were always a non-starter, but Khin Nyunt at least reached out to Suu Kyi, establishing a possible future role for himself.

Khin Nyunt, 68, was on his way up when Than Shwe, 74, cut him down. In 2004, the government charged Khin Nyunt with insubordination and corruption and gave him a 44-year suspended sentence. His wife and son are also under house arrest. In a move that might come back to haunt them, the generals briefly allowed him out of detention last year to attend the Yangon funeral of a famous anti-junta abbot, Sumangala Lankara. Khin Nyunt’s close ties to the community of monks or sangha show him to be the dark horse, the general with the moral authority.

Than Shwe not only purged Khin Nyunt. To stave off possible coup, he saw to it that senior officials linked to Khin Nyunt – the brigadier-generals, the lieutenant-colonels, and the colonels – would all be purged. They are serving lengthy sentences in jail. Khin Nyunt’s intelligence network is eviscerated. Khin Nyunt’s number two in defense intelligence, major-general Kyaw Win, and another top-ranking subordinate, brigadier-general Kyaw Thein, are the only two Khin Nyunt acolytes not in jail. They apparently didn’t go along with Khin Nyunt’s plans to investigate government corruption and abuse of power, and therefore escaped Than Shwe’s wrath. They’re probably under surveillance.

Khin Nyunt is a force to be reckoned with but not under the current conditions of a lockdown and a news blackout. The junta appears to have won momentarily by closing ranks quickly and repeating the 1988 formula of using hard power. Three thousand people died in that failed 1988 revolt. This time though, the junta is making grave tactical errors, like killing the monks – a sacrilege – and raiding the monasteries. Sources say the junta miscalculated that the first wave of errant monks would lose steam. The army hesitated to decisively quash the nascent protests sooner, resulting in an all-out war with the young monks. The government has since blamed “political opportunists” and “neo-colonialists” for exploiting the situation.

What now for the generals? They are likely to prevaricate and stall for time. Regime change could come as a surprise. No one predicted that Indonesia’s Suharto or the Philippines’ Marcos would go the way they did. Generals like Fidel Ramos played a key role in the transition from authoritarian and civilianized military rule. Will Khin Nyunt be Myanmar’s Ramos?

Haseenah Koyakutty is a freelance journalist, Southeast Asia specialist, and contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org). She covered Indonesia