Has Myanmar come to a complete stop? We look at the fragile relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Generals.
There’sno shortage of good intentions, according to most foreign and local businessmen. But nothing has yet been translated into concrete action, they complain. Even the recent peace conference – dubbed the 21st Century Panglong after an agreement signed between Myanmar’s nationalist leader General Aung San and leaders of the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic groups, some seventy years ago – failed to produce any notable breakthrough. But it has not been totally derailed as yet, and talks on changing the constitution continue, which will end in the formation of some form of federal state.
But in the last few months there has been growing speculation that Myanmar’s military leaders are planning a possible coup if the country’s new democratic government, led by the charismatic democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, continues to falter. Many Myanmar analysts and commentators are finding fault with the Lady -- as she is still known here – and there is increasing concern that this might provoke the country’s top generals into action.
The lack of reforms, broken promises and unexpected government appointments are seen as reflecting the government’s failure, and have in turn fuelled speculation of a possible military coup. Now that the peace process has stalled, analysts argue that this has further irritated the top army brass. Nothing could be further from the truth as the military leadership are realists, and understand the situation better than anyone.
The military do not want to be pitted against a popular civilian government. Although there are rumblings of dissatisfaction -- particularly businessmen and intellectual -- public support for the National League for Democracy (NLD) government remains strong. The recent by-election results reflected this: Aung San Suu Kyi remains hugely popular at the grassroots, although she has certainly lost support in the country’s ethnic areas. Since the prominent lawyer, U Ko Ni’s assassination in January there has been growing concern that internal elements are trying to destabilise the civilian government, with the firm figure being pointed at the military – or more precisely the former members of the military establishment.
These suspicions were further fuelled some time ago when the NLD spokesman, U Win Thein accused unnamed military sources of spreading rumours that the current President was about to resign due to ill health and that the former general U Thura Shwe Mann – who is very close to Aung San Suu Kyi – would replace him. Rumours in Myanmar abound – all fuelled by Facebook. But it is hard to believe that it is the current military leadership, which is undermining the government with the view to seize power.
For at the moment the military
are relatively content with the current state of affairs. Though the relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and the army commander in chief, Senior General U Min Aung Hlaing remains fragile. This is only to be expected. While the reigns of government may have been handed over, the power transition is still in the process of being informally negotiated. In fact both sides are treading carefully as they learn to co-exist in this new era.
“Trust has to be build between the two sides, which had had limited contact with each other before the NLD’s electoral victory,” said a former army officer – now part of a military “think-tank” network – on condition of anonymity. “So far so good,” he mused but it will take time, maybe another year before they fully trust each other,” he added. Most former military officers, and those close to them, believe Aung San Suu Kyi’s cautious approach since taking over the government has been well received by the army hierarchy, even though sometimes it seems the military members of parliament are critical of some of the government’s legislation program.
Sources close to Gen. Min Aung Hlaing believe he is committed to working with her for the good of the country. Many analysts believe this is essential. “Co-habitation is the only viable option, if the country is to move forward,” said U Zeya Thu a political commentator with the Voice magazine in Yangon. Senior sources in the NLD are certain Aung San Suu Kyi is committed to maintaining a good working relationship with the senior general, though sources close to the State Counselor – the position Aung San Suu Kyi holds as well as foreign minister in the government, which effectively make her the civilian head of the government – say she still does not trust Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. The relationship so far has been built on mutual mistrust. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has confided to officers around that he does not actually like the Lady – but understands there is no option but to work with her.
“The senior general knows that actually the Lady is a ‘fig leaf’, and is protecting and deflecting the military from domestic and international criticism,” according to Asian diplomats who deal with both Myanmar’s civilian government and the military. While there is a semblance of change – and civilian authority – the military are still effectively running the country, their position and authority are laid out in the 2008 Constitution. This was seen as laying the framework for a disciplined democracy. A transition to a more fullyfledged democracy in the long run – in the short run it would be a process of power sharing. General Khin Nyunt, the Myanmar’s prime minster and head of military intelligence – told me in 2003, that in his roadmap, the interim period before the military fully handed over power would take 15 to 20 years.
So while there is a transition to a more democratic system, Myanmar’s military are still the most powerful political force in the country. Under the constitution, they have a quarter of all seats in the national parliament and the regional parliaments. It directly controls three key ministries – border affairs, defense, and home affairs – and appoints one of the three vice presidents. As result, they effectively control the powerful National Defense and Security Council. And Myanmar’s economy and bureaucracy are still dominated by serving and former military officers – especially the home affairs ministry which effectively runs the local administrative authorities.
So it is unlikely that the current commander-in-chief is plotting behind the scenes to overthrow Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. In fact the military has much to loose if the thin veneer of civilian authority is swept away by a coup. Sanctions would surely return immediately – something that Myanmar’s military leaders do not want. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing is feverishly trying to increase the sources of military equipment, especially from the West as reflected in his relatively recent visit to Europe, particularly Germany, which has already sold Myanmar helicopters in the last few years, after bilateral relations were normalised following, when U Thein Sein was installed as a quasicivilian President, in the wake of the 2010 elections.
So far the commander-in-chief is getting most things all his own way: in Rakhine, in the peace process and in foreign relations, especially the warm rapport with Beijing. Economically the military’s are also prospering enormously in the new era. But the military will also have its own contingency plans in the event they feel the country’s national security is endangered. According to sources most of these scenarios are predicated on strengthening the formal relation between Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Suu Kyi – rather than discarding her and the NLD altogether. A more formal arrangement of political power sharing is contemplated, with the current commander in chief becoming president.
But in the end it seems certain Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has political ambitions and is forecast to make a bid for the presidency in 2020, when the next national elections are due. But this will not affect the position of the military – as they will decide collectively what is in the army’s best interest. And for the moment a coup is certainly not in their best interests.
Myanmar adopts a new constitution in 2008 that will allow “disciplined democracy” and multi-party elections.
The constitution preserves the army’s dominant role in politics: the military nominate 25% of the seats in all parliaments, the upper and lower houses and the regional assemblies; appoint one of the three vice presidents and three ministers – border affairs, defense and the home ministry.
November 2010, Myanmar holds the first parliamentary elections since 1961. The international community condemned them as a sham.
March 2011, former general Thein Sein becomes president.
Senior General Than Shwe stands down and General Gen. Min Aung Hlaing becomes commander-in-chief.
November 2015 the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi overwhelmingly wins the elections.
March 2016, the NLD forms the government with U Htin Kyaw as president as the constitution prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from being elected president. She becomes the State Counselor and foreign minister instead, but effectively is the country’s top civilian leader.
So begins a period of uneasy “cohabitation” between the army chief and Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.
On Martyrs Day, July 19, 2017 – which commemorates the anniversary of General Aung San’s assassination, the founder of modern Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi’s father – Gen. Min Aung Hlaing visits Aung San Suu Kyi in her home, marking a new era of cooperation.
Since then the stalled ceasefire talks and the troubles in Rakhine in western Myanmar have cause a of degree of friction between the two leaders.