The Generals Who Would Be Kings

By Bertil Lintner
Sunday, September 30, 2007

CHIANG MAI, Thailand To understand the unrest wracking Burma, consider a new town built in the lush hills northeast of Mandalay. It's near the British-built hill station of Maymyo, where Burma's old colonial masters went to escape the heat and dust of the plain. Maymyo still boasts red-brick mansions covered in ivy and pleasant gardens with roses, which flourish in the almost alpine climate of the hills.

The new town is also a kind of refuge -- but for the Burmese military. Instead of the British Victorian-style mansions of the old Maymyo, you'll find gaudy luxury villas in the new one. The town is also home to the Defense Services Academy, Burma's West Point, which trained many of the generals who ordered last week's crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations led by saffron-robed Buddhist monks. When construction on the officers' town began in late 2005, the Irrawaddy, a magazine published by Burmese exiles in Thailand, reported that "no expense has been spared to allow the generals to live in what basically is a resort, complete with an artificial beach and a man-made stretch of water to lap onto it." The theme-park retreat will also include replicas of a famous pagoda in Rangoon, the old royal palace in Mandalay and a popular beach resort -- which, the magazine dryly noted, "is probably where the fake beach comes in."

Thanks to a newly upgraded airport, the retreat is a quick plane ride to Burma's new capital, Naypyidaw, built in the wasteland and jungle 200 miles north of the old capital, Rangoon. Naypyidaw means "Abode of Kings," and kings are precisely what the Burmese generals see themselves as -- even as they face the largest uprising in 20 years. On the capital's parade ground stand newly erected, larger-than-life statues of three famous pre-colonial warrior kings whom the junta's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, sees as his role models.

As such delusions of grandeur suggest, Burma is no ordinary military-ruled country. When the army first seized power in 1962, the country underwent a transformation entirely different from that of nearby countries such as Thailand, South Vietnam, Indonesia and Pakistan where the military was also in control.

That's because the Burmese army seized not only political but also economic power. What the generals branded "the Burmese Way to Socialism" meant that most private property was confiscated and handed over to military-run state corporations. The old mercantile elite, largely of Indian and Chinese origin, left the country -- as did many of Burma's intellectuals. Before the 1962 coup, Burma had one of the highest living standards in Southeast Asia and a fairly well-educated population. Afterward, its prosperity fled along with its best and brightest.

The Burmese military became a state-within-a-state, an insular society in which army personnel, their families and dependents enjoy far more privileges than their counterparts ever had in, say, military-ruled Thailand or Indonesia. In both those countries, some degree of pluralism hung on even during the darkest years of uniformed dictatorship. But in Burma, the military is the only elite.

The new generals' town and their heavily fortified new capital are only the most extreme examples of how isolated Burma's military men are from the population. The officers live in secluded, subsidized housing, and their families have access to special schools, hospitals and shops larded with goods unavailable in ordinary stores. An army pass assures the holder of a seat on a train or an airplane, and no policeman would ever dare report him or her for violating traffic rules.

The Burmese Way to Socialism was abolished after a massive pro-democracy uprising in 1988, following years of misrule. At the time, even larger crowds than last week's took to the streets in Rangoon and other cities to vent their frustrations with a cruel regime that had done nothing to improve the lives of ordinary people. Then as now, soldiers were sent out to disperse the demonstrators, but using far deadlier force than we've seen in the current crisis. At least 3,000 people were gunned down by an army bent not on seizing power but on shoring up a bankrupt regime overwhelmed by popular protest.

After the bloodshed of 1988, perhaps to appease the international community, which condemned the carnage, and perhaps because the military saw that there was money to be made, the junta permitted private enterprise and foreign investment. But in essence, there's not much difference between the Burmese Way to Socialism and the Burmese Way to Capitalism: The military is still involved in every aspect of the economy, and few enterprises escape the direct or indirect control of the men in green.

The rise of military power in Burma began soon after the country won its independence from Britain on Jan. 4, 1948. Burma's army was only 15,000 strong then. By 1955, because of an ongoing civil war with communist and ethnically based rebels, it increased to 40,000. The military was already involved in businesses such as shipping, banking and publishing. When the state-within-a-state finally gobbled up the state outright in 1962, it had some 104,000 men under arms. By the time of the 1988 uprising, that number had risen to nearly 200,000. And today, the monks and protesters backing the incarcerated pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi face a military whose total strength is estimated at 400,000.

This latest expansion comes at a time when the junta has managed to strike cease-fire agreements with most of the country's rebel groups, which, over the past decade, has meant only scant fighting in Burma's traditionally volatile frontier areas. The enemy now is the Burmese population at large. And the military is far better equipped now than at any time in Burma's modern history, mainly due to its massive procurement of arms from China.

Chinese fighter planes and frigates may be of little use in quelling the current urban uprisings, but the modernization of Burma's armed forces since 1988 was also intended to ensure the loyalty of the military, without which the present regime cannot survive. For all the monks' gallantry and Suu Kyi's heroism, nothing will change in Burma so long as the military remains united, and so far, no credible reports have emerged of splits in the ranks. The Burmese military, with its privileges and its history of atrocity, has everything to lose from more openness and transparency and nothing to gain. Foreign-based opposition groups like to talk about "dialogue" and "national reconciliation," but these buzzwords have little relevance inside Burma, where the military talks to no one but itself.

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