Peter Popham: The only sure outcome: Burma's old generals will keep clinging on

Today's power struggles in Burma are less bloody but no less vicious – Than Shwe will clingfiercely to the power he has
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The Independent Online

Despite the election concluding yesterday, much mystery surrounds the nature and detail of the political transformation underway in Burma. In the run-up to the election, many senior generals in the junta exchanged their uniforms for shirt and longyi, the Burmese sarong. Than Shwe, the dictator who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1993, himself put on civvies, though continued to be referred to as "Senior General." And the sinister Union Solidarity and Development Association, a sort of civilian extension of the military with wide powers of surveillance and control, mutated into a political party. But what long-term effect these changes will have on the way the country is run, if any, remains unclear.

Than Shwe is 77 and walks with a limp, but it is far from certain that his days at the centre of power are over. There is no security for Burmese dictators who hang up their swagger sticks: Ne Win, who seized power in a coup in 1962, was omnipotent in Burma for a generation but ended his days under house arrest. Than Shwe, who became his gaoler, has none of Ne Win's charisma or popular esteem and can be expected to cling fiercely to his power and privileges. Under Burma's old monarchy, the end of a reign was a messy moment, with the new ruler having all potential rivals put to death. Today's power struggles are less bloody but no less vicious.

Whether Than Shwe fades away or hangs on, the top army officers will continue to exert huge and probably decisive influence on policy. The army has guaranteed 25 per cent representation in the People's Assembly (the lower house), the Upper House and the state and regional assemblies. The military will also decide who becomes home minister, borders minister and defence minister.

And although elected representatives will file into the new parliament, they may find that real power resides in another newly minted institution: the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC). Its eleven members will include the President, formally replacing the Senior General as head of state – which changes from being a Union to a Republic.