Factions within junta draw battle lines

Tomorrow is Army Day in Burma _ the moment the country's military leaders show a united front in a pompous ceremony in the new capital, Naypyidaw, that is held every year. The junta chief, Senior General Than Shwe, has imported another new Mercedes Benz to stand in as he leads the parade. He brought a new one in last year for the same occasion.

But underneath this show of unity is the start of a new battle for Burma's future. This time it is not between the monks and the military, as it was last year, but between two factions in the army.

In the past few months a major rift has emerged within Burma's military government over the country's political future. At the centre of the conflict is who should control the roadmap _ Burma 's plans for political change.

The confrontation is now beginning to take shape _ between those who are currently in control of Burma's government and the country's economic wealth, and those who see themselves as the nation's guardians and wish to protect the country from unscrupulous officials.

The junta is no longer cohesive and united, as two major camps have clearly emerged. On one side there are the ministers and members of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) who have major business interests and are associated with Gen Than Shwe's brainchild, the mass community-based Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

On the other side are the top ranking generals _ loosely grouped around the second in command, General Maung Aye _ who want a professional army and see its main role as protector of the people.

They have become increasingly dismayed at the corruption within government and understand that it is undermining the army's future role in the country.

As the war between these two groups begins to escalate, Gen Than Shwe's rapidly deteriorating health has effectively left the country without a real leader. The result is total inertia in government administration and a growing fear that one of the contesting factions may launch a ''soft coup'' in the near future, according to Burmese military sources.

But the ''real'' army, as these officers under Gen Maung Aye view themselves, is going to have to act quickly if it is to remain a force to be reckoned with.

The planned referendum for May and the election in two years' time will radically change the country's political landscape.

The USDA, which is organising both the referendum and the elections, will significantly increase its power and control over the country's new emerging political process.

Senior members of the army are increasingly resentful of the growing dominance of the USDA and the likely curtailment of the army's authority after the May referendum. ''It will bring an abrupt end to the army's absolute power,'' said a Burmese government official.

At the centre of this emerging battle for supremacy is the growing division within the army between those who graduated from the Officers Training School (OTS) like Gen Than Shwe, and those who went to the Defence Services Academy (DSA) like Gen Maung Aye.

Many cabinet ministers associated with the USDA are from the OTS, as are several hardliners within the ruling SPDC, though some no longer have operational commands. These leaders are known to have the ear of Gen Than Shwe and have convinced him to take an uncompromising stand against detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

These key ministers, including Industry Minister Aung Thaung, Fisheries Minister Maung Maung Thein (who is also head of the powerful Myanmar Investment Commission), Construction Minister Saw Htun and Agriculture Minister Htay Oo (who is also a key leader of the USDA), are notorious hardliners and amongst the most corrupt members of the government.

They have all amassed huge personal fortunes from smuggling and kickbacks. ''These fellows are out of control and racking up the money from bribery and fraud _ not even Maung Aye, who despises excessive corruption, can touch them,'' a Burmese military source told the Bangkok Post on condition of anonymity.

Everyone seems powerless to stop them at present, according to Burmese government sources. ''They are known as 'the Nazis' within the top ranks of the army,'' according to a Burmese businessman with close links to the military hierarchy. ''They have the money and they have their own militia.''

Many in the army now fear that this group _ with some senior officers in the SPDC, current or former heads of the Bureau of Special Operations (BSO) _ are planning a grab for power using the USDA as a front. ''They are the real enemies of the people,'' said the Burmese businessman.

There are growing numbers within the army that are viewing these developments with increasing concern. There is mounting resentment and frustration amongst the junior officers in Naypyidaw. Many of the junior officers are divisional commanders, aged between 47 and 55. These are the army's ''young Turks'', who are alarmed at the way in which the USDA is growing in influence at the expense of the army.

''They are watching their unscrupulous colleagues, hiding behind the uniform, building up massive fortunes from corruption in government and they are worried that this tarnishes the image of the army,'' said a source in Naypyidaw.

''It's time to get rid of the OTS bastards,'' an officer recently told a visiting businessman. But so far there are no signs of a palace coup. Many officers may feel aggrieved, but there is no open discussion as yet about doing anything in practice. ''The climate of fear that pervades the whole country is also prevalent in the military,'' according to a Thai military intelligence officer.

This resentment is going to continue to simmer. They know that after the referendum in May their position will become increasingly less significant, as ministers and selected military generals move into the USDA and take up civilian roles in the future. At the same time they fear that widespread corruption will also destroy the country and its political stability.

''The 'real' army is the only institution that can bring genuine democracy to the country in the future,'' a military man told the Bangkok Post. ''The new generation of officers represent the real hope for the country.'' They would be open to a political dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, he insisted, as they see themselves as the real guardians of the country.

Bangkok Post.