Power transfer confirmed but squabbling on political dividend might have just begun
In the aftermath of the elections, the issue of political power transition from the quasi-civilian Thein Sein regime to the landslide winning, Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) government-in-waiting has been dominating the Burma’s political arena, punctuated intermittently with news of armed ethnic conflict, human rights violations and the troubled government-initiated nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) process, which is duly in need of public endorsement and legitimacy in a broad sense.
However, the most talked about news in between is the meeting of Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior-General Than Shwe, who is retired but still an influential father figure within the government as well the military.
First, let’s look at the latest development of the political power transfer. On 2 December, both President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing met Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, in meetings described as productive and cordial, according to U Ye Htut, the information minister.
While nobody is doubtful that the meeting atmosphere is friendly and cordial, particularly seen from the video clips of Min Aung Hlaing beaming while receiving Aung San Suu Kyi and personally seeing her out after the meeting, the productivity and priority setting of crucial political points concerned with the transition are less clear, as negotiating parties have yet to make the content of the talks public.
Indeed, the lack of transparency regarding the meeting has irked the media and the people at large, but the NLD side reasoned that during this precarious transition period, it is handling the situation with a knitted gloves.
Thus, suffice to say from the President’s perspective that power transfer will definitely happen and it will seal his reform process as a “final victory”, which he had initiated in 2011.
“Both leaders discussed the smooth and peaceful transfer of power, to relieve public concerns over the transition,” Ye Htut, the information minister, said, adding that Thein Sein had “already told the world and personally promised” that he would work towards such a goal.
“During the meeting, our president highlighted the need for a tradition of peaceful power transfer from an elected government to the next elected government, which we have never had in place since Myanmar’s independence” – an objective Aung San Suu Kyi agreed with, he said.
In the same vein, elaborating to the media as he departed from his one-hour, closed-door discussion with the NLD leader, Min Aung Hlaing said the two had “agreed to cooperate in the interest of the country,” adding that their meeting had “yielded positive results.”
A press statement released by the office of the commander in chief shortly after the two met said they had “agreed to work together for peace and stability, the rule of law and the development of the country, in accordance with the people’s wishes.”
The recent meeting between Senior-General Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi, in which the former explicitly endorsed and praised her as the future leader of the country – a far cry from the position he had taken to contain Suu Kyi for decades when he was in power – also plays an ensuring role that the ex-strongman, who is very much a father figure of the military, is willing to comply with the people’s wishes that have been denied for so long.
In other words, the loud and clear message of this meeting on 4 December is that the military (Tatmadaw) would cooperate and won’t be a spoiler this time like in 1990, where the political power transfer is concerned.
Armed ethnic conflict
The war in Shan and Kachin states continued on and off, before, during and after the general elections.
The summary of the armed conflict situation for November in Shan and Kachin states is documented by Alternative Asean’s Burma Bulletin as follows:
The day after the 8 November elections, the Tatmadaw resumed offensives against the Shan State Army-North/Shan State Progressive Party (SSA-N/SSPP) in central Shan State, which have been increasing in intensity since 6 October. On 9 and 10 November, the Tatmadaw attacked the SSA-N/ SSPP headquarters at Wan Hai Village, Khesi Township, Shan State, with three helicopters, two fighter jets, and heavy artillery. Fighting also broke out in Monghsu Township and Khesi’s Mongnawng sub-township. Helicopters sent by Operation Command No. 2 (Za Ka Ka) attacked a nearby IDP camp on 10 November.
During 16-18 November the Tatmadaw reinforced its ground assault on Wan Hai in tandem with aerial attacks by six helicopters and two fighter jets. Lt Col Sai La told press on 18 November that the Tatmadaw had attacked SSA-N positions “about every two days since 29 October,” when they had begun aerial bombing and strafing campaigns.
From 19-24 November, the SSA-N/SSPP sent various delegations to Naypyitaw and Yangon to negotiate temporary ceasefires. Six points were agreed upon by both sides by 24 November, including a cessation of hostilities, troop rotations, and cooperative resettlement of IDPs, though the terms must be finalized by senior members of the SSPP.
On 7 and 8 December, Union Peace-making Working Committee (UPWC) and the SSPP again met in Naypyitaw, but said to be struck at the point of Tatmadaw’s insistence that Shan troops moved up to the north of the Monghsu-Mongnwang motorway, which they said is impossible as it has been their settlement areas since decades, if not immemorial.
During 14-16 November, the Tatmadaw unleashed heavy artillery and bombing campaigns on Kachin Independence Army (KIA) positions close to the town of Mohnyin, Kachin State, in what KIA leader Na Lan called the “fiercest in the history of fighting between the Burmese army and KIA.” On 19 November, Information Minister Ye Htut justified the Tatmadaw attacks on the KIA in Mohnyin Township as crucial for public safety and said the government does not intend to end them.
Complicating the already precarious ethnic conflict pattern, Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) clashed between 27 – 30 November.
At least four battles broke out in an area between the towns of Namhkam and Mongton in northern Shan State, with casualties sustained by both sides, according to each army. The TNLA said that Burmese army troops had fought alongside the SSA-S.
The SSA-S, while rejecting the accusation that Burmese troops were involved, returned the blame. Spokesperson Col. Sai La told DVB that the TNLA launched an ambush while their troops were returning to Namtu from the SSA-S headquarters in Loi Tai Leng, in the south of the state.
“Our troops were ambushed by the TNLA on the way back from attending a training course on policies and the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Three of us were killed and five others were injured – with two remaining in the serious condition. The TNLA released a report claiming they also abducted and executed three villagers in Namhkam who they believed helped our troops. They published photos of the dead men with their hands tied but we have not yet been able to identify them,” said Col. Sai La.
US on military atrocities
On 4 December, the United States called for a credible, independent investigation by Burma‘s government of reports of military atrocities in Shan State, saying they were reprehensible, if true.
Some 12 Shan community-based organizations, spearheaded by the Shan Human Rights Foundation, accused the Tatmadaw last week of bombing schools and Buddhist temples, firing on civilians and rape during an offensive against SSA-N/SSPP that has uprooted more than 10,000 people. The activists claimed that the Burmese military has shelled six villages, shot and injured three people, and fired on 17 villagers who are now missing, since 6 October.
The Shan Human Rights Foundation said it had documented eight cases of sexual violence since April 2015, including a 32-year-old woman gang-raped by 10 soldiers on 5 Nov while her husband was tied up under their farm hut in Khesi Township.
“We are concerned by reports of Burmese military atrocities, including allegations of indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations and infrastructure, rape, and other acts of sexual violence,” said Katrina Adams, a spokeswoman for the US State Department.
She urged the regime to undertake a credible, independent investigation into the allegations, and to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. However, to date whether the Thein Sein government has responded to her request is still not known.
The Thein Sein government is more of a mediator in the negotiation process between the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and the Tatmadaw, rather than the actual key negotiating partner with the EAOs, for it could do nothing without its agreement, according to Si Thu Aung Myint, a well known political commentator.
A four-step road map was agreed to between negotiators: the signing of NCA, drawing a framework for political dialogue (FPD), convening a political dialogue (PD) and agreeing upon a Union Accord that in turn would be endorsed by
The NCA structure is again divided into a Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) that is to oversee the military code of conduct (CoC) and demarcation zones, while the Union Political Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) is to draw up FPD, get approval from a Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting (JIMC) – the highest level in the NCA setup – and convening a political dialogue leading to the attainment of a Union Accord.
The JMC is less problematic as it involved military matters and only the EAOs and the Tatmadaw, while the UPDJC has three components - EAOs, regime and the political parties, each with 16 representatives, 48 altogether.
Here again the EAOs and the regime roe is quite clear, if only the recently signed eight EAOs are taken into account, although the choosing of the 16 political parties representatives becomes a big problem between political parties.
NLD does not agree to the representation of the unelected parties, but U Aung Min and UPWC went on with their original plan of including eight unelected representatives, giving two representatives each for the NLD and UPWC; and the rest to some recently elected parties.
The President in his recent message to the people on 4 December also reiterated that the FPD will be drawn by the controversially elected UPDJC, which eventually was approved by the union Parliament on 8 December, amid protest by NLD’s MPs and ethnic representatives within the Parliament.
It should entrust NLD with the job but if it goes on as it is moulded by U Aung Min and company, the NCA process will become problematic, without major EAOs signing and the NLD only participating as an observer, according to Si Thu Aung Myint.
According to The Global New Light of Myanmar, on 3 December, non-signatory ceasefire groups have been invited to attend a meeting to approve the draft political dialogue framework slated for 14-15 December, according to a spokesperson of ethnic signatories.
But the overtures would like- ly be ignored, at least during the legislative period of the Thein Sein regime. The mostly non-signatories of the recent NCA, United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) meeting in Chaing Mai has indicated that it prefers to negotiate with the incoming NLD government, in an all-inclusive setting.
Wrap up and outlook
Regarding the power transfer, the two cordial meetings with the President and Commander-in-Chief were assurance that it would take place. The meeting with the Senior-General Than Shwe, the architect of the 2008 military-drafted constitution, buttresses that the whole military bloc would cooperate and accommodate, at least where the regime change is concerned.
As there have been no public clarification on the three meetings, analysts speculated that the talks could be a give-and-take deal of waiving the barrier of Section 59(f), which bars Suu Kyi from becoming president, apart from the inclusion of the defeated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) members in the future NLD-led regime, with guarantees of no retribution on human rights violations for serving as former generals.
Other than that, the Tatmadaw might also demand that a future peace deal with the EAOs should center on the country’s territorial integrity that could be translated to the United Wa State Army’s (UWSA) “a state within a state”, not yielding to the government’s sovereign power political posture and excluding the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in the all-inclusive NCA deal, for its loss of face to dislodge the renegade army from Kokang territory, aside from suffering a heavy human toll, said to be in the hundreds, during the conflict in February 2015 and a few months that followed. On top of that, the Tatmadaw considers the MNDAA and as well the UWSA as foreign proxies, even though it has only hinted that view on several occasions and never directly mentioned it as such.
The war in central Shan State is said to have lessened, even though clashes between the SSPP/SSA-S and government troops broke out again in Moemaik, northern Shan State, on November 28, forcing locals to flee their homes. The clashes that lasted for one hour left two SSA-S personnel dead, while there have also been casualties on the government side.
The ceasefire talks between the SSPP and UPWC on 7 and 8 December, particularly regarding the issue of demarcation – the demand of the military that SSA-N troops moved to the northern part of the Monghsu-Mongnwang motorway – still could not be agreed and resolved, at this writing. Thus it is likely that the war could resume in central Shan State, if the Tatmadaw chooses to do so for any reason.
Regarding the conflict between the TNLA and RCSS/SSA-S, the latter said that it prefers to solve the problem through negotiation, but no concrete proposal has been made so far. The clashes are due to the argument over territorial ownership, with the TNLA accusing the SSA-S of trespassing into its territory and fighting with the help of the Tatmadaw, which was categorically denied.
The future of convening political dialogue as formulated by the UPDJC is gearing up to start during the tenure of the Thein Sein regime. But whether the incoming NLD government would honour it and continue as it is with the process is an open question, as the NLD has openly said it will be led by Aung San Suu Kyi and would carry on with the points that are good and make changes where necessary.
To sum up the recent political development, it could be concluded that the political power transfer will happen as promised by the military clique, but on how the national reconciliation government would be formed and a Constitutional amendment to pave the way for Suu Kyi to become president are two crucial issues, which the movers and shakers of the country will have to determine in the shortterm, to be able to make linkage and connection to a long-term, viable goal of national unity and a federal form of government in a true sense.