BANGKOK—Burma's new Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Soe Win has tried to reassure former ethnic insurgents that they will retain limited autonomy and support for economic development under his government, according a rebel spokesman.
"We believe that once they settle their internal affairs, the military will launch more offensives on the ethnic nationalities."
Soe Win, installed as prime minister this week after Gen. Khin Nyunt was removed from office, told former rebels in the northern Kachin state that the junta’s “policy toward the ceasefire groups will not change,” Ngu Yin Taung Haw, a spokesman for the New Democratic Army of Kachin, told RFA’s Burmese service.
Seventeen rebel groups have signed ceasefire agreements with the military government, and some fear Soe Win could back away from the positions and pledges made by his predecessor. In some cases, limited autonomy for the rebels has forced authorities to turn a blind eye to production of illegal drugs.
On Oct. 21, the Karen ethnic guerrillas returned to their jungle bases from a peace mission in the Burmese capital, Rangoon—cutting short their visit by five days and raising questions about future talks between the junta and the country’s ethnic minorities.
But while the Karen National Union are taking a wait-and-see attitude to the new premier but another group, the Shan State Army, believes the future is bleak.
“The generals are clinging to a military solution,” Shan spokesman Khur Hsen told the Associated Press. “We believe that once they settle their internal affairs, the military will launch more offensives on the ethnic nationalities.”
"They sacked Khin Nyunt because Khin Nyunt pushed for democracy and national reconciliation with ethnic minorities," he said.
Soe Win also said that a constitution-drafting body that met earlier this year as part of the military government’s “roadmap to democracy” would meet again, although he didn’t indicate when. Pro-democracy activists including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) have rejected the convention and refused to take part.
Khin Nyunt played a key role in achieving peace deals with rebel groups and in quelling unrest among Burma’s numerous ethnic minorities, which has plagued the country for decades.
Soe Win, 56, is believed to toe a hard line in dealing with the NLD and with Western countries that are pressing the junta to free Aung San Suu Kyi and hand power to an elected government.
The junta announced Oct. 19 that Khin Nyunt has been permitted to step down for health reasons, but officials indicated privately that he had been implicated in a corruption scandal and placed under house arrest.
RFA was unable to confirm reports that Khin Nyunt’s son, Ye Naing Win, has also been placed under house arrest. An official at Bagan Cybertech Co., owned by Ye Naing Win, said employees “are not allowed to say anything, except that business is open as usual.”
Burma’s ethnic minorities include the Shan, the Karen, the Rakhine, Chinese, Indian, and Mon—many of whom have chafed violently against the government since Britain withdrew as a colonial power in 1948.
Burma, a former British colony with a large and young population, has been under continuous military rule since Gen. Ne Win overthrew an elected civilian government in 1962 and replaced it with a repressive military government dominated by the majority Burman ethnic group.
In 1988, the military staged a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and a new junta calling itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took power and renamed the country Myanmar. The junta maintains tight control over the media, the judiciary, and all aspects of civil society.
In 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi won national elections by a vast margin but has never been permitted to take office. The SLORC changed its named in 1997 to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
Aung San Suu Kyi spent six years under house arrest from 1989-95 and was rearrested in May 2003 after gangs loyal to the junta staged a violent clash with her supporters. Members of her party are subject to routine surveillance and harassment.
Burma’s 42 million people are extremely poor, with an estimated annual per capita income of U.S. $300. International sanctions against the country remain widely in force, and existing health care, infrastructure, and education systems are poor. Burma’s ethnic minority populations include the Shan, the Karen, the Rakhine, Chinese, Indian, and Mon—many of whom have chafed violently for years against the military government in Rangoon.