Bangkok (AFP) Aug 29, 2010
The scale of Myanmar's secretive military reshuffle, its largest in decades, reveals the junta chief's determination to maintain his superiority as a rare election approaches, analysts say.
More than 70 senior military positions have changed, and top brass including the army number three have retired from their posts to stand in the November 7 poll -- the country's first election in 20 years -- unnamed officials said.
But uncertainty remains over the future of reclusive leader Than Shwe himself, who has controlled the country since 1992. Initial reports on Friday said he had stepped down from the army -- a move later denied by officials.
A source close to the regime has since said the 77-year-old and his deputy Maung Aye are "likely to retire soon", but it is not known when they will shed their uniforms, or what roles they will then assume in the political sphere.
"The country is awash with rumours," said Myanmar academic Aung Naing Oo, based in Thailand. "There are more questions than answers right now."
High on the list is whether Than Shwe will take on presidency of the country after the elections, which have been widely dismissed by activists and the West as a charade to legitimise military rule with a civilian guise.
"Until the day when we have the next president in the not too distant future, only then will it be clear what he will do. He has a lot of different stuff up his sleeve," said Aung Naing Oo.
"What he has created is a huge monster out of this system and he has to remain in some official position to control this monster."
Whatever his next formal role, the feared septuagenarian is moving carefully to maintain strong support in both the army and the new parliament, according to Win Min, a US-based Myanmar analyst and pro-democracy activist.
"In making this biggest reshuffle, General Than Shwe appears to believe that it is better that he hand-pick the new generation of military leaders whom he considers to be totally loyal to him before the elections," he said.
Win Min said the paranoid ruler could be sidelining officials who are more loyal to number two Maung Aye.
This would not be the first time he has manipulated his political and military rivals to maintain a stranglehold on power: in 2004 he sacked and then jailed his own prime minister, the reformer Khin Nyunt.
"By retiring many senior officers to run in the elections, Than Shwe also appears to believe that he can control the electoral process and its outcome in a way to make sure many of these retired officers will win," Win Min added.
Myanmar's all-powerful army is assured a quarter of the seats in the new legislature, in addition to the military retirees who will contest the vote as civilians in the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Prime Minister Thein Sein and other ministers stepped down from the military in April to contest the vote as the USDP, which does not face the financial and campaigning constraints that have hampered other parties.
Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the last election in 1990 by a landslide but was never allowed to take power, has been in detention for much of the last two decades and is barred from standing this year because she is a serving prisoner.
The Nobel peace laureate's National League for Democracy (NLD), which would have been the biggest threat to the junta, is boycotting the poll, saying the rules are unfair. The party was subsequently disbanded by the ruling generals.
So far more than 40 political parties have been allowed to stand in the election, but some pro-democracy groups have expressed concerns, including over intimidation of their members.
Junta-backed candidates who leave the army for the campaign trail have a massive advantage -- but there are still likely to be rising military stars who resent being forced to step across into politics with the recent reshuffle.
"It's a peaceful purge if you will because some of these people don't want to leave," said Aung Naing Oo.
Than Shwe's own retirement, therefore, could "ease some kind of discontentment within the military", where he has "overstayed his welcome" as chief, the academic suggested.
"We've had one man and one man alone since he came to power in 1992. He will leave a lot of unhealthy legacies," he said. "But if he leaves we should see changes in a few years."
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