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Burma Names Intelligence Chief as New Prime Minister - 2003-08-26

Burma's military government has made major cabinet changes, including naming the head of military intelligence to the post of prime minister. But, the full implications of the cabinet reorganization are unclear.

In the most significant change, the government's leader, General Than Shwe, hands over the post of prime minister to military intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt.

Analysts say the move marks a consolidation of power by General Than Shwe, the most senior member of what is called the State Peace and Development Council. He will remain the council's chairman and the commander of the armed forces.

Diplomats view General Khin Nyunt as a moderating influence within the governing council, which came to power in 1988 and has brutally suppressed pro-democracy activists.

Analysts are divided over the full implications of the changes. It remains unclear whether General Khin Nyunt retains his post as intelligence chief.

Professor of politics at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, Chaiyachoke Chulasiriwong, says Khin Nyunt's position has been strengthened after a power play among senior members of the government.

"Khin Nyunt, luckily he has retained, or he has reclaimed his power," he said. "Therefore he is being selected as chief of the government or head or prime minister. That shows that his power has been reclaimed."

Professor Chaiyachoke says Khin Nyunt will need to revive Burma's desperately poor economy and end its international isolation, which has increased since the government arrested opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in May.

Australian Defense Force Academy Political Science Professor Carl Thayer says Burma's weak economy is increasing the pressure for change from the military's lower ranks.

"The large picture is one of pressure from below, by colonels, brigadier generals from 1997 onward, because of the dire straits that Burma's in," he said.

Aung Zaw, editor of the Burmese opposition newspaper, the Irrawaddy, says Khin Nyunt's move to the prime minister's post is a demotion.

"But again in Burma everything is controlled by the SPDC and the armed forces, which all the power lines rest on Than Shwe, so he is still the man that calls the shots," he said.

Burma faces tough economic sanctions from the United States and the European Union, as well as pressure from many of its neighbors to free Aung San Suu Kyi and resume reconciliation talk with the opposition.