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Burma's Military Leader Consolidates Power as Ministers Retire - 2004-09-19

Burma's military government, in a weekend move, reshuffled its cabinet, with the foreign minister and deputy foreign minister stepping down. The changes further consolidate the power of senior leader General Than Shwe.

Burma's state radio and TV announced the cabinet changes late Saturday. The foreign and deputy foreign ministers and the ministers for agriculture and transport all retired.

No official reasons were given for the retirements, which came on the 16th anniversary of the military's ascension to power after suppressing pro-democracy protests in 1988.

Diplomats and analysts were caught off guard by the retirement of long-time foreign minister Win Aung and his deputy Khin Maung Win. Both men had visible roles representing a military government facing international pressure to reform.

Military appointees, Major General Nyan Win and Colonel Maung Myint, neither with much experience in government, replaced them. General Nyan Win is also a member of the National Convention Commission.

Debbie Stothardt, spokeswoman for political rights group The Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, says the move consolidates the power of military leader Senior General Than Shwe.

"This is another disturbing development, which is a sign that Senior General Than Shwe [wants to] consolidate his hold in the military regime and get rid of moderates and people who are more open to reform," she said.

Burma is under international pressure to release opposition democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. She has been detained since May 30 last year, when a pro-government mob attacked her political convoy. The event froze progress on easing tensions between the government and the opposition.

Ms. Stothardt says both former foreign ministers had been pressing the military leaders to take some positive steps before an Asia Europe (ASEM) meeting scheduled in Vietnam's capital Hanoi on October Eight.

Analysts say the cabinet changes may be a sign of maneuvering ahead of the meeting. Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, says he hopes the reshuffle has no effect on the ASEM gathering, and calls the cabinet changes an internal matter for Burma.

Burma's Prime Minister, Khin Nyunt, last year announced a seven-point program for political reform. But despite reconvening a national constitutional convention, analysts say there are few signs of political reform.