Sources say the recent protests have tested unity among Myanmar's military rulers [Reuters]

From the outside, the crackdown by Myanmar's rulers against anti-government protests gives the appearance that the military is united in its response to dissent.

 

But Al Jazeera has learnt that a power struggle may be taking place at the highest-levels of the regime, between Senior General Than Shwe and his second in command, Maung Aye.

 

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Than Shwe has been head of state since 1992, but almost all of Myanmar's 50 million people have never heard him speak.

 

For years this shadowy leader has managed to neutralise all threats to his rule.

 

That aura of mystery and fear took a blow in 2006, when images of his daughter's wedding were leaked on the internet.

 

Video footage showed Thandar Shwe, the grinning bride, covered in glittering jewels and gold cloth, receiving gifts worth tens of millions of dollars.

 

Guests were seen enjoying champagne fountains and an elaborate feast - extravagant scenes in one of the poorest nations in South-East Asia.

 

Heavy pressure

 

Second-in-command to Than Shwe is General Maung Aye, vice chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, the military's self-styled government of Myanmar.

 

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Sources say his supporters wanted him to take direct control of Yangon, to crush the recent protests - effectively sidelining Than Shwe.

 

But Maung Aye is reported to have been "too hesitant".  In the end he didn't take action, despite heavy pressure.

 

Now Maung Aye is possibly in danger - as Than Shwe considers him a threat to his leadership.

 

In 2004 the then prime minister, General Khin Nyunt, was suddenly retired from office and immediately placed under house arrest.

 

What happened exactly is unclear, but Khin Nyunt was seen by some observers as among the more pragmatic figures in the military – a position that hardliners such as Than Shwe saw as a threat to the military's iron-grip on power.

 

'Insular regime'

 

Myanmar's government is a deeply secretive and insular regime – its officials clearly believe their own propaganda about self-reliance and rejecting foreign interference.

 

 

A leaked video of Than Shwe's daughter's 
lavish wedding damaged the regime
They blame the United States for Myanmar's problems and tend to see the United Nations as Washington's instrument.

 

"The United States of America interfered in Iraq's affairs by misusing the United Nations," Brigadier-General Kyaw Hsan, Myanmar's information minister told Al Jazeera, reading from a carefully prepared statement during a visit last year.

 

"The US is also trying to apply similar tactics in Myanmar," he said.

 

The ruling generals want their legacy to compare with Myanmar's ancient empires.

 

But in the wake of the recent protests - the strongest challenge to the ruling generals in almost two decades - there are deep disagreements within the bureaucracy over how to proceed.

 

Professor Bridget Welsh, an expert on Southeast Asian affairs at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the US, says that could be crucial.

 

"Not everybody in the military needs to be written off," she told Al Jazeera.

 

"There needs to be dialogue with different parts of the military and that's another key step as we move forward."

Source: Al Jazeera