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Land of Wiles

A crackdown on the family of dictator Ne Win is good news to many, but does little for democracy.

By Leo Dobbs/HONG KONG and Bertil Lintner/DHAKA

THE BURMESE JUNTA'S crackdown on the family of the architect of military rule, Ne Win, came as a pleasant shock to Burma's long-suffering populace. But the apparent house-cleaning is unlikely to be followed by any major movement in the democratic process in the immediate future-despite the cautious hopes it has raised-because of the Ne Win clan's known antipathy to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The unexpected March 7 arrest of the 90-year-old former dictator's son-in-law and three of his grandsons, and the house arrest of Ne Win and his powerful daughter, Sandar, marks the most public split ever in the ranks of the ruling elite. Its full impact has yet to be felt, but it has been welcomed by some as a possible opening for political change.

"Nobody here knows what it means, but many, many people are glad to see Ne Win and his family take a fall," says one Western diplomat in Rangoon. There had long been an aura of invincibility around the ailing Ne Win, "a sort of Deng Xiaoping factor-as long as he was alive, no one would move against his family," the diplomat says, referring to the late supreme Chinese leader.

That myth evaporated with news of the arrests of Sandar's husband, businessman Aye Zaw Win, and their three sons, some of whose antics as leaders of a criminal gang called the Scorpions had embittered Rangoon residents and officials. They were arrested while apparently waiting to meet a military commander in a Chinese restaurant.

More than 20 other people have been detained for their participation in what Maj.-Gen. Kyaw Win, deputy head of military intelligence, said was a conspiracy to abduct the country's top three leaders and form a military government loyal to Ne Win.


Diplomats say the head of the air force, the national police chief and a regional commander had been sacked prior to the arrests. All three are said to be friends of Aye Zaw Win. Diplomats expected more sackings to be revealed and more arrests made in the coming days.

Kyaw Win said Ne Win's relatives told interrogators they made their plans because they had lost money due to the government's economic policies, and because they no longer enjoyed special privileges.

That may well be so, but diplomats say it would not be sufficient in itself to take on the first family while Ne Win was still alive. Moreover, few believe those arrested were actually mounting a coup. They note the calm in the streets of Rangoon, and the fact that key regional commanders were going about their business as usual as evidence that the government feels secure.

The most likely motive, analysts say, is that the junta itself has been preparing for a post-Ne Win era. "It was a very, very clever move trying to break up Ne Win's family. They don't want them to become another force," says Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy magazine, which covers Burmese affairs from Thailand.

Most analysts believe the arrests were backed by the three top leaders of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, who were allegedly the targets of the coup plot. This would rule out suggestions that the arrests represent an escalation in the rumoured power struggle between army head Gen. Maung Aye and military intelligence chief Lt.-Gen. Khin Nyunt. Analysts say the arrests suggest the elite felt secure enough to weed out what they saw as an internal problem, and that they could conceivably take action against their mentor, Ne Win.

The development is unlikely to speed up democratization by unblocking Ne Win's opposition to talks with Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, says Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw. Others believe the move could instead be used to stall the process on the ground that the government must first address grave new internal matters.

But there will be little sympathy for Ne Win, an independence hero who seized power in a 1962 coup before leading the country to ruin and repression over the next three decades.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, March 21, 2002

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