Irrawaddy Online, Saturday, January 26, 2008
Burma Under Siege
By MIN ZIN
After the September uprising, the Burmese junta regained control over opposition groups and activists, but whether it achieved a stronger strategic position remains doubtful.
A series of bomb blasts in the past two weeks demonstrates one of two things: the security issue is still potentially troublesome for the military or, if opposition charges are true, the junta itself was the source of the bomb blasts, which can be used to blame powerful, disruptive organizations.
There were four explosions within one week, killing at least three civilians and injuring five others. The first blast occurred on January 11 at the railway station serving the country's capital, Naypyidaw. It was the first incident of a bombing in the new capital.
As the bombs were going off, the regime and ethnic, armed opposition groups traded allegations.
The junta accused the Karen National Union (KNU) and an unspecified "foreign organization" of sending "terrorist saboteurs with explosives across the border to perpetrate destructive acts inside the country." Many observers believe the "foreign organization" was a reference to the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
"They are not making this allegation lightly," said a well-informed source inside Burma. "No matter whether the allegation is true or not, it’s a well-calculated charge that is being interpreted within the military establishment in the context of U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman's recent call for the US to use its military capabilities in Burma."
The influential senator wrote an opinion piece in October 2007, suggesting the Bush administration should actively investigate US military and intelligence capabilities could be used to put additional pressure on the regime. Lieberman said, "We should be examining how the junta's ability to command and control its forces throughout the country might itself be disrupted."
But opposition groups and the media dismissed the accusation of a "foreign organization" involvement as a ridiculous charge. The KNU also denied carrying out any attacks targeting civilians.
The opposition speculated that the regime itself could be behind the bombings in the hope of raising a perception of threat against the military, offering an excuse to continue its crack down against known democracy activists and the KNU.
Some exiled Burmese analysts even point to bitter military intelligence members who were purged in 2004 for orchestrating the bombings. Theories abound.
Meanwhile, security has been increased in Rangoon, Pegu and other major cities. Local authorities in some cities even reportedly detained and questioned residents who had recently returned from Thailand after working there as migrants.
In fact, the bombings underscore the vulnerability of the junta's leadership, no matter the source.
Even if the regime uses the bombings as a justification to continue its crackdown against opposition groups, it underscores its fear of the opposition. If the bombings were self-inflicted and meant to shore up unity within the Tatmadaw (armed forces), it’s a sign the junta is unsure of the loyalty of officers and soldiers.
"It is less likely that the junta orchestrated the recent explosions," said Win Min, a Burmese analyst who studies civil-military relations in Burma. "I don't think the military would stage an attack in Naypyidaw, the capital they extol and take pride in. In fact, it is not necessary for them to use bombings to justify their crackdowns on the oppositions."
In fact, since 1988 the military’s image, in the eyes of the domestic public as well as abroad, has descended to rock bottom, while the opposition, including the armed ethnic groups, is seen as democratic freedom fighters.
The September demonstrations again allowed Burmese society to witness mindless killing and brutality directed against Buddhist monks and civilians. As result, the morale of the military, including some senior officers, is at its lowest ebb in years.
Moreover, the generals have pushed the limit of the international community including their regional supporters.
Under the current circumstances, the last thing the generals want is to be seen as weak.
An unfortunate consequence of this deep sense of vulnerability is that it hardens Snr-Gen Than Shwe's thinking. Under the spell of a bunker mentality, the military leadership will continue to dig in their heels and new reforms are less likely.
Than Shwe's regime is now determined to entrench its power in non-negotiable terms.