Burmese junta leaders 'step down' from military posts

Gen Than Shwe
Image caption Gen Than Shwe has ruled Burma since 1992

Leaders of Burma's junta are reported to have resigned from their military posts, days before the deadline to register candidates in the country's first general election in two decades.

Some reports said junta leader Gen Than Shwe was among those to have stepped down, but other reports denied this.

Observers believe he may want to become civilian president after the election on 7 November.

Critics say the election is a sham designed to entrench military power.

But the junta has said the election is a crucial step in transferring power in Burma from the military to civilians.

Burmese officials told journalists on Friday that there had been a major reshuffle in the military hierarchy.

News organisations run by Burmese exiles, including the Irrawaddy and Mizzima, reported that Than Shwe had relinquished his military role, but would remain as head of the government until the election.

The Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) quoted sources at the country's Foreign Ministry as saying Than Shwe and his deputy Gen Maung Aye were preparing to step down, but had not yet announced their retirement.

The DVB said the two men would become president and vice-president of the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

A junta official also told AFP news agency that Than Shwe and Maung Aye were not among the senior military figures who had stepped aside.

The junta's reshuffle comes after 27 senior officials retired from the military leadership in April. Those officials are widely expected to stand for election in November.

State media reported that the deadline to register candidates was 30 August.

Than Shwe, 77, has ruled Burma since 1992.

The last election, in 1990, was won by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), but the military junta never let the party take power.

The NLD, which had refused to take part in the forthcoming election, was recently disbanded.

Under a recently adopted constitution, Burma's president is due to be chosen through a vote taken in the newly elected parliament, in which a quarter of the seats will be reserved for the military.

The BBC's South East Asia correspondent Rachel Harvey says the latest moves appear to reinforce the view held by many democracy activists and Western governments - that even if the election shifts political rule from military to civilian, real power will lie in the same hands that it does now.

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