Has Myan­mar come to a com­plete stop? We look at the frag­ile re­la­tion­ship be­tween Aung San Suu Kyi and the Gen­er­als.

Norway-Asia Business Review - - Contents - LARRY JA­GAN

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.


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