- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

BANGKOK — Reeling from bomb blasts, U.S. sanctions and demands to free Aung San Suu Kyi from detention, Burma has shuffled its leadership and promoted its intelligence chief to prime minister.

The largest country in Southeast Asia named Gen. Khin Nyunt as the new prime minister earlier this week, capping his 20 years as head of the Defense Services Intelligence Directorate.

“In order to be able to carry out the interests of the state and the entire people more effectively, the State Peace and Development Council [the junta] has appointed Gen. Khin Nyunt as the state prime minister with effect from today,” the regime announced Monday.

Diplomats describe Gen. Nyunt, formerly the junta’s first secretary and third-most-powerful general, as a politically savvy pragmatist who wants to gradually liberalize Burma’s ailing economy and internal political life while broadening international relations beyond tight links with China.

To make way for his promotion, hard-line Gen. Than Shwe stepped down from the post of prime minister.

In his late 60s, Gen. Shwe is believed to be ailing and possibly anxious to retire. But Western analysts say he remains commander in chief of the military and chairman of the junta and may continue orchestrating events out of the spotlight.

The political change will become clearer in coming weeks as the new lineup reveals its policies. Several other generals and ministers were appointed to various lower positions, and others retired.

Born in 1940, Gen. Nyunt is a familiar personality in the region, having visited Thailand and other countries to temper criticism of the regime and probe for investments in Burma, formally known as Myanmar.

According to news reports, Gen. Nyunt and his wife disowned one of their sons in 1998, apparently for marrying a Singaporean woman. Under a law passed by the junta, a Burmese citizen married to a foreigner — and his parents — cannot hold government office.

The law has been widely seen as an attempt to disqualify opposition leader Mrs. Suu Kyi from holding office because she was married to a British citizen, who has since died.

Mrs. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy scored a landslide election victory in 1990, but the military rejected her attempt to rule. She has spent more than half of the past 14 years under house arrest in the capital, Rangoon.

The junta has been maintaining pressure on the opposition, trying to link a series of bombings in recent weeks in Rangoon and elsewhere to Mrs. Suu Kyi’s party.

On Monday, the New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported the arrest of “12 terrorists from inside the country” for the bombings, and said the 12 planned to contact the NLD to help in creating civil unrest.

Meanwhile, the nation’s fragile economy is melting under U.S. and international sanctions.

“The economy is grim because of the sanctions,” said an Australian executive who worked for a Burmese company in Rangoon. “My salary was cut 30 percent. … Everybody is hurting.”

In July, Washington imposed economic sanctions on Burma and forbade U.S. payments to the country. This nearly crushed the country’s international transactions because much of its trade was denominated in U.S. dollars and fed through U.S. bank transfers.

Burma’s biggest exports to the United States include garments, and critics say the sanctions led to a number of textile workers losing their jobs.

The junta has indicated it would use euros, Japanese yen and other currencies to circumvent the ban on U.S. cash flow.

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