By Roland Watson
January 17, 2010

Than Shwe’s goal is to stay in power, even if and when he relinquishes nominal control. To achieve this he must quell all threats to his rule, both internal and external. It is apparent that he has thought through this challenge very carefully. He has plans in place to counter all such threats, including by recruiting allies and other types of support.

Having said this, his efforts have failed to achieve several specific objectives. While it is true that military rule in Burma is now completing its fifth decade, his hold on power is actually quite weak. It could collapse at any moment, and, with the correct prompting, it would.

The internal opposition to Than Shwe and the other top generals of the SPDC comprises: the people of Burma, who through a variety of avenues are pressing peacefully for freedom and democracy (significant subsets within the popular movement include the National League for Democracy, students, and Buddhist monks); the ethnic and student armed resistance groups that have not accepted ceasefires; and the ethnic groups that have signed ceasefires. (For the last, the ceasefires are only a temporary peace: the groups - if only in theory - could renounce them at any time and return to active armed resistance.) Externally, the opposition comprises Burmese expatriates, including refugees (most refugees, though, are not politically active, due to their need to concentrate on survival), and their international activist backers.

Than Shwe’s internal support comes from the Armed Forces; the family members and related businesses of senior officers; and organized support groups including the USDA, police, fire brigades, and the paramilitary Swan Arr Shin. External allies include direct supporters such as China, Russia, North Korea, Singapore and India (anyone who provides arms to the SPDC is a direct supporter); Thailand, which is also a direct supporter due to its role as customer of Burma’s natural gas, and because of its repression of Thai-based pro-democracy groups; and indirect supporters including the other nations of Asean as well as the multi-national corporations that are active in Burma (which are largely from these countries and also South Korea and Japan).

For the popular resistance inside Burma, Than Shwe employs a variety of tactics. In general terms, the people of the country are being kept poor, hungry, and with inadequate medical care and education, as it is extremely difficult for such a population to rebel. (Such conditions would remain the norm even were international sanctions to be lifted.) While it is likely not an explicit goal, it is not an overstatement to say that the SPDC aspires for Burma to have one of the world’s highest rates of child mortality, and HIV transmission, and lowest life expectancies.

For Burma’s ethnic minorities, Than Shwe has additionally engaged in the crime against humanity of ethnic cleansing.

Specific tactics include psychological warfare, disinformation and propaganda, foremost of which is the Seven Step Roadmap, which is intended to signal a seeming willingness to accept democracy, and which comprises associated sham events such as the drafting of and then referendum on a new constitution, plans for a “democratic” election, etc.; infiltration of both above and underground pro-democracy groups; arrest and torture of dissidents; violent suppression of protestors (e.g., the attacks on monasteries following the Saffron uprising); the “Four Cuts” scorched earth offensives against the minorities (first implemented by Ne Win in the 1960s against the Kachin); and assassination. For the last, assassination has been a tactic of choice by pro-dictatorship parties in Burma since independence, reflecting the belief that the easiest way to defeat or at least disrupt the opposition is to kill its leaders.

For the active armed resistance groups, the Burma Army launches military offensives, especially during the dry season, and assassination plots. For the ceasefire groups, the leaders of such groups are tamed through corruption – the offering or acceptance of lucrative business dealings, usually for the extraction of natural resources or the production of narcotics; and the groups are systematically restricted and weakened, at the same time Army units in their vicinity are increased. Than Shwe’s ultimate goal is to disarm such groups, but as this has proved unachievable he has substituted a program of reorganizing them as Border Guard Forces (BGF) under Burma Army command. As last summer’s attack on the Kokang illustrated, he is even willing to terminate the ceasefires unilaterally and resort to military action in an attempt to bring such a group under his direct control.

Than Shwe has further committed the war crime of using chemical weapons in offensives against both non-ceasefire and ceasefire groups. It has been reported that the Burma Army now has significant supplies of chemical weapon artillery shells distributed throughout Shan State for use in future offensives.

Also, for all opposition groups, including peaceful pro-democracy and both non-ceasefire and ceasefire armed resistance, Than Shwe has employed a variant of the aforementioned infiltration, by recruiting traitors within the groups to help with assassinations and offensives and more generally to foment division. (This too was evidenced most recently with the Kokang.)

Externally, the SPDC uses the same divide and conquer infiltration with expatriate pro-democracy organizations. The junta will also engage in assassinations on foreign soil, although to-date this has been limited to border areas in Thailand. Than Shwe apparently does not yet have the ability or the willingness to commit assassinations in such places as Chiang Mai and Bangkok, much less Europe, Australia and the United States.

With the International Community, he has followed a strategy of isolation, continuing the policy of Ne Win, together with the unlikely combination of stonewalling – complete intransigence, and a false openness to negotiation. Maintaining this charade has only been possible with the support of international parties – China, Russia, Singapore and the United Nations have been the most vocal – which have claimed again and again that such openness is sincere. (The U.N., though, clearly has a different agenda – to put a positive spin on its efforts, than the former, who are dedicated SPDC allies.)

For his internal support, Than Shwe has constructed a fine balance within its foundation, the Armed Forces. The loyalty of senior officers is secured financially, duplicating the corruption of the ceasefire group leaders. Officers are also routinely reassigned or purged. Rank and file troops are kept in line with brutality (many are press-ganged child soldiers), and also restrained by sub-subsistence pay and rations. While the SPDC has engaged in a massive modernization program, which includes the acquisition and/or production of a wide range of arms, it further has denied front-line troops their use, for fear that the weapons would be turned against the officers or given or sold to the resistance.

The other internal foundation of the SPDC’s rule, its supposed backing by the country’s religious leaders – Buddhist monks, was revealed to be the farce that most independent observers had already concluded, as a result of the Saffron crackdown.

External support from allies such as China and multi-national corporations is secured by business relationships, focused on the extraction of natural resources or the acquisition of arms, and, for Thailand, the supply of exploitable migrant workers. Thailand, and perhaps India as well, are also believed to be the subjects of diplomatic extortion, for Thailand, over the natural gas supply, and for both through the threat of the SPDC’s increasingly sophisticated arsenal. Certain national allies, including China and North Korea, further cooperate because of their shared fear of democracy. Freedom for one would lead to exponentially increased pressure for change against the others.

Lastly, Than Shwe has embarked on a nuclear weapons program, as a defense against the most severe international threat to his rule, a foreign military intervention, and also to satisfy his vanity that he is Burma’s latest King.

The House of Cards

Even with this complex strategy, and as noted at the beginning, Than Shwe’s hold on power is fragile. It could be broken at any time, as a result of internal disputes within the Tatmadaw. Moreover, by acting wisely and with decisiveness, we, Burma’s pro-democracy movement, can make it fail.

The SPDC, notwithstanding its natural gas revenues, appears to have a significant funding shortfall. The economic sanctions are having a big impact. Also, it is possible that a large amount of the junta’s money is tied up: by unannounced sanctions implementation steps against foreign bank holdings and funds transfers; for weapons systems already paid for but not yet delivered – e.g., for the weapons on the North Korean cargo flight that landed, or was forced to land, in Bangkok; etc. (One wonders how the junta has agreed to compensate Russia for the new MIG-29s?)

This shortfall is causing severe hardship within Burma Army units, which have inadequate pay and provisions. There is now a regular stream of desertions, and not only from the Tatmadaw’s ethnic allies such as the DKBA. The soldiers are unhappy, and increasingly they are expressing this, by disobeying orders, by defecting, and by refusing to return from leave.

These conditions in turn appear to have forced the junta to postpone planned offensives against the ethnic resistance groups.

The strongest ceasefire groups further refuse to transform into BGF, meaning that they will remain outside of the SPDC’s control. Most of these groups are preparing to resume active armed resistance, if attacked by the Burma Army.

Also, the junta still does not know what to do with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Daw Suu and the NLD remain the primary legitimate source of power in Burma. Were she to be freed, the popular movement could re-ignite at any time. An election with her participation therefore effectively spells the doom of the SPDC. However, without her it will be meaningless.

All of these issues have led the top generals to postpone announcing the date of the 2010 election. Than Shwe is actually trapped by the election; it is a trap of his own making. There is no way that he can hold it where the result will help cement his control.

These problems, which are of the utmost severity, and together with heavy international pressure, have likely caused significant disagreements within the SPDC. After all, a split between Than Shwe and Maung Aye has been rumored for years. Now is the time to do everything possible to increase this division and uncertainty. The SPDC is a House of Cards. It is ready to fall.

It is within our power to make 2010 the year of freedom for Burma.

Specific steps

We need to attack the Tatmadaw in as many ways as possible, and at all levels. Appeals should be posted or painted on walls throughout Burma for ordinary soldiers to desert, and even to turn their guns on their officers.

As an example of such an appeal, this is a flier that we helped distribute inside Burma a couple of years ago while the national convention was being held. Statements such as this should be seen everywhere, and also the Fighting Peacock image.

Similarly, someone should write an appeal to Burma Army officers not to follow the orders of their superiors when such orders contravene international law and even the Tatmadaw’s own military regulations. In this document it should be made clear that to act on such orders exposes the officers to international prosecution for war crimes (which prosecution has already been found to be justified by legal scholars at Harvard Law School). This appeal should then be broadcast into Burma on as many of the international TV and radio media outlets as possible.

Indeed, the time is long overdue for a United Nations investigation of the SPDC’s war crimes, as the recent demand by a large group of British MPs underlines. The UN promptly completed such an investigation for the murderous crackdown last year by the government of Guinea on unarmed protestors. There is no reason that an investigation should not be launched immediately for Burma, where the military government’s crimes against humanity are now in their fifth decade.

(One wonders: Is the U.S. also holding up this investigation, not only China and Russia, because it has not joined the International Criminal Court and because of concerns that Bush Administration officials may some day be charged for committing torture in Iraq? The U.S. may be taking the view, the fewer war crimes prosecutions, the better.)

Simply launching an investigation would have a profound effect on the officers of the Tatmadaw, likely causing many to defect or otherwise to act to protect themselves – by turning against their superiors. As we have suggested before, the NLD should consider making an offer of amnesty to officers and other soldiers who turn against the top generals.

Internationally, we need to mobilize funding sources to offer financial inducements to Burma Army soldiers who desert, with the payments based on the number of weapons that they bring. Such an initiative would be extraordinarily effective. If you have any ideas about funding, please get in touch.

Next, if the Burma Army is delaying offensives against the ethnic groups, this is a good time to turn the tables. The KNU should do everything humanly possible to reunite with the DKBA, or otherwise recruit large numbers of DKBA soldiers, even entire battalions. All of the members of the Military Alliance should launch a general and coordinated offensive, with attacks against Burma Army camps and outposts, columns, etc. Finally, the ceasefire groups including the Wa, KIO, NMSP, Mongla and the remnants of the Kokang should not only continue their rejection of BGF, they should attack as well.

These groups are prepared. Please see the accompanying photos, and also an SPDC document describing the BGF plan.

Accompanying this, we need as many underground activities inside Burma as possible, from agitation, to small strikes and demonstrations, to more aggressive action. As an example of the first, this is another flier that we distributed in Burma in the run-up to the 2007 Saffron Uprising. Again, such statements should appear on walls and buildings throughout the country.

When Burma Army soldiers see increasing signs of unrest, they will have a great temptation to change sides and join the people. Moreover, if this plan is implemented in its entirety, it means that everyone in Burma outside of the SPDC will have participated. Everyone will have played a role in winning the country’s freedom. Not only is this right and just, it would further set the stage for the cooperation that will be necessary to establish a functioning federal democracy.

Than Shwe may be acquiring an atomic bomb, but this is no defense against the people of Burma!