Wednesday 1 September 2010

US rues ‘dictators in civilian clothes’

Merely “civilianising” Burma’s current situation will do nothing to transform the country, Washington has said in an apparent rebuke to rumours of a major reshuffle at the top of the Burmese army.The retirement from the military of the country’s three top generals, Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Shwe Mann, is seen by observers as a pretext for their role in the new civilian government that has been promised after elections, slated for 7 November.

The elections are Burma’s first in 20 years, and only the second since a coup in 1962 heralded the start of military rule. Than Shwe has resided over the country since 1992, but details of his role beyond the elections remain unclear: a foreign ministry official told DVB last week that he was retiring to become a patron of the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), while other sources have said the move is a forewarning of his switch to the presidential role.

Not surprisingly, the news has not been welcomed by much of the international community who predict that the same military men will continue to pull the strings, despite a cosmetic change having taken place.
“A dictator in civilian clothing is still a dictator. The fact that they are moving out of uniform but still constricting the political space within Burma is a problem for Burma,” said US State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley. “And we haven’t changed our view. Just taking the current political challenge and civilianizing it is not the answer.”

The Obama administration earlier this month gave its backing to a UN commission of inquiry on Burma, the first step in investigating whether the ruling junta is responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, as senior UN officials and top international jurists have suggested.

Crowley reiterated calls for the junta to take steps to “allow for an effective and viable political opposition and have a real competition within civil society in Burma” by opening political space and dialogue with ethnic groups.
He warned that if this does not occur now, “future elections, whether they involve military figures or civilian figures, will not be viewed as credible, free, or fair”.
The country will head to the polls in just over two months, but conditions in the run-up to the date appear to favour the likes of the USDP over the small faction of opposition and ‘third force’ parties who have been permitted to run.

Many have been forced to significantly reduce the amount of candidates they can field due to financial and political constraints – each candidate must pay a 500,000 kyat (US$500) fee, which is beyond the reach of most parties but manageable for the wealthy USDP.
Two of the most prominent opposition parties, the National Democratic Force and the Democratic Party, have said that together they will only field 200 candidates, while the USDP has put forward around 1000.

Generals in reshuffle buying diamonds, gold

Rangoon—Family members of recently retired top military officers and government ministers in Burma have been collecting diamonds, gold jewelry and solid gold, according to business sources.Diamond and gold traders in Rangoon said family members and relatives of those who have been recently removed from their top military posts and who will have to resign ministerial posts after the election, appear to be transforming their property into diamonds and gold.

“Ministers and generals don’t keep money in cash,” said a businessman in Rangoon. “They have converted it into strong and valuable items such as diamonds and gold. They don’t need to buy land and cars anymore because they already have as much they want. Those things are not as valuable and as movable as diamonds and gold that they can carry along with their families wherever they go.”

A number of jewelery dealers told The Irrawaddy that the generals’ family members did not come to the market to buy diamonds and gold, but instead send their close business associates and brokers to take care of it for them.

The current price of solid gold is 652,500 kyat [US $665] for one kyat-thar [approximately 0.015 kg].
A gold trader close to the regime’s top generals said gold bars and gold have been purchased in visses [one viss is approximately equivalent to one kilogram].

“It is really difficult to estimate the amount of gold they have,” said a gold trader. “For many years they have bought it, and they are still buying it.”
Family members of the generals are reportedly buying more diamonds than the ministers themselves.
“Diamonds are everyone’s fancy and can be worth millions or billions. Although it is small, it is a treasure that makes the possession stronger and more valuable. Families of top generals are particularly buying expensive diamonds,” said a diamond shop owner in Rangoon.

According to military sources in Naypyidaw, Snr-Gen Than Shwe is well known as the richest of the generals followed by the family of his deputy, Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye.
Ministers Aung Thaung of the Ministry of Industry No. 1 and Htay Oo of the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation are said to be the wealthiest among government ministers.

Almost all the important positions in the army have recently been filled with a new generation of army officers. The state-run media has been silent on the reported resignations of top military officials in the Burmese leadership structure.