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Myanmar's front pages dispel rumors, confirm Than Shwe remains chief of military junta

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A message from Myanmar's junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe appeared in state media Tuesday, dispelling reports that he had stepped down from the army as part of a major military reshuffle ahead of elections.

The message was a typical note of congratulations to Malaysia on its Independence Day and made no reference to the military reshuffle — the largest in more than a decade. But it was carried on the front page of the country's three official newspapers and the subtext was clear: Than Shwe is still in charge.

The military reshuffle that occurred Friday retired more than a dozen senior leaders, though it has yet to be officially announced by the highly secretive junta. It was an apparent move to prepare for Nov. 7 national elections, the first in two decades.

Than Shwe has ruled the country since 1992. The rumors of his retirement, along with that of his second-in-command Maung Aye, suggested they were being groomed for roles as president and vice president in the new government after elections.

Since military reshuffles are often never formally announced, when rumors of such shifts spread through Myanmar society, citizens carefully follow television and news reports to see if leaders are referred to with new titles.

"Senior General Than Shwe, chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, has sent a message of felicitations" to the king of Malaysia to mark the country's Independence Day, the New Light of Myanmar and other newspapers reported.

The message referred both to Than Shwe's military rank and his title as head of the ruling junta's government, known as the SPDC, effectively putting to rest reports by several media outlets that had reported his resignation last week.

The elections are portrayed by the regime as a key step to shifting to civilian rule after five decades of military domination, but critics call them a sham and say the military shows little sign of relinquishing control.

Friday's reshuffle included about two dozen officials, notably the junta's third- and fourth-ranking generals, Thura Shwe Mann, who served as Joint Chief of Staff, and Tin Aung Myint Oo, who was the army's Quartermaster General, according to officials who are close to the military but could not be named because the reshuffle was not formally announced.

It was the second since April, when 27 senior officials, including Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein, retired from the military.

Under the country's new constitution, 25 percent of the seats in Parliament will go to military representatives. If retiring generals run for Parliament they would not be counted in the military's quota although they are likely to enhance the army's influence.

The polls will take place without the country's leading opposition party, headed by detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, which says the elections are unfair and is boycotting them.