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by Larry Jagan

Burma Public Stands up to Junta With Letter-Writing Campaign

(IPS) BANGKOK -- Burma's top generals have just finished their quarterly meeting in the country's new capitol of Naypidaw. As usual there was no official announcement following the meeting, but there are signs that the regime is about to ditch its roadmap to democracy in favor of a Chinese-style system of government.

"No change seems to be the order of the day from the meeting," says independent Burmese analyst Win Min, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. "The generals are in a quandary about the future, and they just do not know what to do."

Already the meeting was three months late -- the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) last met in January.

The National Convention (NC), which is drawing up the guidelines for the new constitution, is due to reconvene in the middle of July. The man heading the process, Gen. Thein Sein, has already announced that there will be significant changes incorporated during the NC's final meeting.

Although the NC is set to resume discussions, there appears to be a gridlock in Burma's roadmap to democracy -- announced by former prime minister Gen. Khin Nyunt in August 2003. Under the proposed plan, the NC would draw up a new constitution; put it to a referendum; and then fresh, free and fair elections would be held to elect a new civilian government.

The NC, which has only met intermittently for more than 14 years, went into another prolonged recess last November.

"So far, step one on the roadmap -- drawing up the constitution has been dragged out, giving the distinct impression that the generals are simply playing for time with no intention of introducing a genuine multi-party democracy," said Win Min.

In the past few months it has become clear that the country's top five generals -- all of whom are suffering from different illnesses, including heart problems, prostate cancer, leukaemia and lung cancer -- are desperately concerned about the future.

They understand that their grasp on power is being continually weakened by the country's growing economic problems. And as a result they have been exploring ways to reduce the country's international isolation and attract foreign investment, according to a senior government official who has recently briefed the top two generals on the outlook for the future.

"The top generals are considering all their options," said a western diplomat based in Bangkok, who has dealt directly with the regime for more than a decade. There are even suggestions that the regime might consider restarting talks with the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party in their search for a new strategy to preserve their power.

Top general Than Shwe told a senior visiting Chinese official in February that he and Aung San Suu Kyi have been writing to each other.

Western diplomats in Rangoon though remain extremely skeptical. "There does not seem to be any percentage in it for the junta, since I believe the regime is quite content with things as they are -- they have China, Russia and India in its corner, massive amounts of money are about to flow in from gas, and they have the opposition on its knees," said one diplomat.

In fact, the evidence is that Burma's military leaders may be about to abandon the roadmap altogether. "Nothing is moving on the political front, and the top two generals -- Than Shwe and Maung Aye -- now fear the roadmap is really Khin Nyunt's and not necessarily in the interests of the army as a whole," said a western diplomat who closely follows Burmese affairs from Bangkok.

Certainly the regime has begun to realise that the process of drawing up the new constitution is not without its fair share of problems. Already there is growing friction with the ethnic groups who have ceasefire agreements with Rangoon and are attending the NC. "We've been told that if we do not agree to the constitution they want -- that is with very limited autonomy for the ethnic minorities -- they will simply push it through anyway," a representative of the Kachins told IPS.

As part of the preparation for the planned referendum and elections those ceasefire groups would also be expected to surrender their weapons. Initial attempts recently to get the Kachins to lay down their arms were rejected out of hand, according to ethnic sources.

"It's not clear where things are going on the roadmap now -- having pushed it forward with renewed vigour, the regime now appears to have cold feet about moving onto potentially trickier phases," said a western diplomat based in Rangoon. "They seem paralysed. They are facing a number of important challenges, but lack the will or capacity to do anything.'

While most observers agree that the roadmap is currently stalled, some feel that this may be the prelude to a new era of political activity. "It's all at an impasse as they look for new strategies -- nothing has been decided and I believe all options are still open," said an Asian diplomat based in Rangoon.

A cabinet shakeup seems to be in progress and Thein Sein may soon cease to be acting prime minister. Than Shwe does not want him as premier as he is a loyal supporter of the number two general -- Maung Aye. A Than Shwe loyalist, Myint Swe, is now tipped to become the new prime minister.

The cabinet changes will be a prelude to a referendum that will come after the NC completes the constitution. Already the mass, community-based organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, has stepped up welfare work in an effort to garner public support for the government.

China has been advising the junta behind the scenes for some time on their vision of democracy and development. A very senior party advisor has been in Burma for more than two years training the generals in political economy.

Recently the Chinese have been educating the Burmese leaders on their approach to democratic government -- and shown them how the National Peoples' Congress works -- an indirectly elected parliament that only meets once a year. It approves the country's president, prime minister and cabinet that are all nominated by the party.

To ensure that the regime maintains the support of most of the ethnic minorities, the junta may follow the Chinese constitutional model and grant some states and local areas autonomy in name, but be effectively governed by the party.

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Albion Monitor   July 3, 2007   (

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