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The Emperor’s New Clothes?

By Burma Partnership  •  August 30, 2010

In the latest of a series of resignations in the military, reports emerged on Friday that eight top military officials resigned from their military posts, possibly including Senior General Than Shwe and his deputy, General Maung Aye. The reports have yet to be confirmed. However, if accurate, Than Shwe would remain the head of state until the end of the 2011 financial year, at which point he is expected to hand over power to the incoming elected government.

The reshuffling has been largely viewed as a premeditated move, with former generals poised to take on leading posts in the yet-to-be-elected government. Former General Shwe Mann, Than Shwe’s third-in-command, is widely tipped to take on the role of president, a role reserved for ‘civilians’. Notably, the 2008 Constitution stipulates president and vice president “shall be well acquainted with the affairs of the Union, such as…military”. As such, candidates must have intimate knowledge or experience serving in the military, rendering most civilians ineligible for the post.

Parallels have been drawn to former dictator Ne Win’s resignation from the army in 1974, when he subsequently declared himself to be the president of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. However, the move also calls to mind the classic children’s fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes. In this real life version, Than Shwe may believe that he is pulling the wool over our eyes with his new civilian clothes, but his real military colours will still be visible underneath.

The military shake up, only months ahead of the elections, further serves to bolster the popular belief that the junta is attempting to consolidate power under a civilian guise through the elections. The constitution grants the military full independence and impunity, as well as the ability to reassert full power in a “state of emergency”. This reshuffling allows the regime to also retain control over the supposedly civilian government, as outlined in the 2008 Constitution.

The former military officials’ shift into civilian garb is also an attempt to gain greater domestic and international legitimacy. The regime is well aware that people both inside and outside Burma will balk at the appointment of military officials to the presidency and other leading governmental roles. However, the regime is operating on the belief that some governments may see this civilian guise as an opportunity to engage with Burma without having to suffer criticism for supporting an oppressive military dictatorship. The international community must not accept the regime’s maneuverings; a change of clothes is not a change of heart.

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