March 13, 2008 / 12:10 AM / in 10 years

Gold has grip on Myanmar - in more ways than one

YANGON (Reuters) - There is an old joke in Myanmar that the country’s problems stem from two sources, and they are both called Shwe: junta supremo Than Shwe, and Aung Shwe, chairman of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).

<p>Pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is mobbed by supporters as she arrives at the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in Yangon in this in this May 6, 2002 file photo. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang</p>

Anger at 75-year-old Senior General Than Shwe is easy to grasp -- he sits at the top of a military machine that has run the former Burma with a mixture of brutality and incompetence for the last 46 years.

That “shwe” means “gold” in Burmese only sweetens the pun.

But the dig at Aung Shwe, a retired brigadier-general who will be 90 in May, reflects growing disillusionment with the top ranks of the NLD since last year’s monk-led protests against the junta and its handling of the economy.

With NLD figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and incommunicado for 12 of the last 18 years, the party that won an election landslide in 1990 has been in the hands of a grey-haired executive committee known semi-affectionately as “the uncles.”

As with Aung Shwe, who was purged from the army in 1961 before going into the diplomatic corps, many have a past in the military or as ministers in previous military governments.

They see themselves as caretakers in Suu Kyi’s absence, but diplomats and non-NLD activists say they are more an autocratic cabal that has suppressed new blood or ideas and that appears unable or unwilling to challenge the status quo of army rule.

“There’s tremendous frustration with the uncles. The younger ranks of the party want to do more but the uncles won’t approve it,” one Yangon-based diplomat said. “I would love to see them as some kind of solution to Burma’s ills, but they’re not.”

Exasperated by rules such as a ban on party members under 35 making policy suggestions, its lower ranks are defecting into a proliferation of splinter groups, non-NLD activists say.

“Most of the politically active people in the NLD, those who are politically interesting, have no power,” one leading member of the pro-democracy underground in Yangon told Reuters.

NLD spokesman Nyan Win denied any rifts, saying all party members respected the uncles, whom he described as “experienced.”

“The young members are very emotional,” he said. “But we all understand the situation so there are not too many differences.”

“SMALL PROTESTS?”

The uncles’ shortcomings were exposed most starkly in the fuel price protests last year that evolved into the biggest challenge to the junta since a 1988 student-led uprising.

In a radio interview in their early stages in late August, NLD secretary U Lwin -- a former deputy prime minister now well into his 80s -- highlighted how small the demonstrations were and declared they were no way to solve Myanmar’s problems.

His comments, and the NLD leadership’s refusal to take part even as its rank and file organized rallies in the provinces, sparked rare criticism from the usually supportive exile community.

“It’s odd and sad to hear negative and discouraging comments from the leadership of the NLD, which committed itself to restore democracy and work for the welfare of the people,” the Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine wrote in an August 29 editorial.

“Most of them are in their 70s and 80s. They have strong commitment to the movement. But to be frank, this does not qualify them to be seen as leaders of the party,” it said.

The magazine even broached the taboo of suggesting the party was nothing without Suu Kyi -- a Nobel peace laureate and, more important, daughter of independence hero General Aung San.

MONOPOLY ON OPPOSITION

Despite constant junta harassment, the uncles like to see themselves as having a monopoly on opposition, as shown by the cool reception they gave “88 Generation Students” leader Min Ko Naing on his release from 15 years in prison in 2004.

The party’s response to the junta’s surprise announcement in February of a referendum and election timetable also stood in stark contrast to that of the “88 Generation,” named after the brutally crushed 1988 uprising.

Even though most of its leaders are in jail, hiding or exile, the “88 Generation” managed to issue a call for a “no” vote in May’s constitutional referendum within 24 hours of its announcement.

By its own admission, the NLD was caught flat-footed and when Aung Shwe gave a big party speech two days afterwards he studiously avoided the subject.

NLD rank and file had to wait a full week for the uncles’ first formal response, and even then they failed to indicate clearly how people should vote in the referendum.

Editing by Michael Battye and Megan Goldin

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