Myanmar’s military chief’s popularity on the rise

Myanmar’s military chief’s popularity on the rise

Larry Jagan,
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Myanmar’s military chief has become the crucial man in the country’s increasing political crisis. While he and the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, may not trust each other, he has become increasingly her indispensible ally amid the increasing international turmoil surrounding the government’s handling of the Rakhine crisis. As an indicator of the renewed partnership between the two, Aung San Suu Kyi has extended his term in office as commander-in-chief for another two years, till election year 2020, according to government insiders.

The growing international furor over the government’s handling of the violence in its strife-torn western region of Rakhine, the horrific condition of nearly a million Muslim refugees – who call themselves Rohingyas – who had fled across the border to Bangladesh, and the dilemmas of arranging their safe and voluntary return to Myanmar has left the country almost friendless. International human rights groups and the United Nations have accused the Myanmar military or Tatmadaw of conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine in the aftermath of militant attacks on border police posts in late August.

Aung San Suu Kyi – once Myanmar’s democracy icon and the darling of the West – has found herself increasingly isolated internationally. She has found herself with fewer and fewer friends, and Western nations – Japan, the EU and the US – appear to have turned their backs on her. Within Myanmar there is increasing disillusionment with the State Counselor’s vision and strategy.

The disaffection of the US senator Bill Richardson – asked to be part of the government’s carefully selected international advisory board to help with the return of the refugees, their resettlement in Rakhine and assist with the rebuilding and reconciliation process – has left the Myanmar government shell shocked. His tirade against the State Counselor in particular was devastating and will have enormous repercussions within the international community. It has thrown the government’s planned re-engagement with the international community and in particular to ease tensions with the West have been thrown into reverse gear.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has emerged as a rival leader, whose political aspirations are increasingly evident. “Min Aung Hlaing has become the man”, and he is hoping to capitalize on that in future. His popularity among the country’s population is rising, his stock within the army has increased and in the wake of Bill Richardson’s condemnation, Aung San Suu Kyi has little option but to turn to Min Aung Hlaing for support.

Aung San Suu Kyi – once Myanmar’s democracy icon and the darling of the West – has found herself increasingly isolated internationally. She has found herself with fewer and fewer friends, and Western nations – Japan, the EU and the US – appear to have turned their backs on her. Within Myanmar there is increasing disillusionment with the State Counselor’s vision and strategy. While she retains the loyalty of most Myanmar citizens, she has largely lost the support of the country’s ethnic groups, civil society and other activists. Her moral leadership, both inside the country and abroad, is being seriously challenged.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has emerged as a rival leader, whose political aspirations are increasingly evident. “Min Aung Hlaing has become the man”, and he is hoping to capitalize on that in future. His popularity among the country’s population is rising, his stock within the army has increased and in the wake of Bill Richardson’s condemnation, Aung San Suu Kyi has little option but to turn to Min Aung Hlaing for support.

The divide between the two remains wide, but the two leaders are beginning to cooperate on a number of crucial issues. On the peace process the two are working closely together, with Beijing being the necessary bonding agent. Their first meeting in nearly a year, last October was to discuss the political dialogue and agree on their joint opposition to any

Sources close to the Lady said she believed she could control the Tamadaw and its commander because she was General Aung San’s daughter – the founder of the Myanmar army and leader of the country’s independence movement. But the reality is increasingly that the military are running the show, and Aung San Suu Kyi has little alternative but to accept the army’s dominant position.

move to include a provision for secession. Since then it has been clear they are singing from the same hymn sheet, with Chinese support.

Their second meeting – after they both came back from separate trips to China late last year – was to discuss succession planning with the army, according to reliable sources within the military and the government. The result was Min Aung Hlaing’s extension – something the State Counselor had resisted since she extended his term for two years as part of the transition agreement in March 2016.

Sources close to the Lady said she believed she could control the Tamadaw and its commander because she was General Aung San’s daughter – the founder of the Myanmar army and leader of the country’s independence movement. But the reality is increasingly that the military are running the show, and Aung San Suu Kyi has little alternative but to accept the army’s dominant position.

When he visited India and Japan, and earlier several EU countries, she blamed the host nations for being taken in and boosting his credibility on international stage: in all these countries he was entertained by the respective heads of state. In India and Japan in particular, the civilian heads of state do not normally meet visiting military commanders – it runs counter to diplomatic protocol. But both India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi and Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe met Min Aung Hlaing and had substantial talks with him.

The undeclared “power struggle” between the two of them has been evident for most of the past year, as they endeavored to endear themselves to the country’s key allies and neighbours and present themselves as the country’s leader and international statesman. Min Aung Hlaing’s forays abroad in the middle of 2017 irritated Aung San Suu Kyi, according to sources close to her.

When he visited India and Japan, and earlier several EU countries, she blamed the host nations for being taken in and boosting his credibility on international stage: in all these countries he was entertained by the respective heads of state. In India and Japan in particular, the civilian heads of state do not normally meet visiting military commanders – it runs counter to diplomatic protocol. But both India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi and Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe met Min Aung Hlaing and had substantial talks with him.

This irked the Chinese leaders, especially their Generals, who regarded the Myanmar military and their commander Min Aung Hlaing in particular as steadfast friends. But the upheavals in Rakhine since August last year, has totally changed the situation. Before that Min Aung Hlaing and his top brass had believed they could even woo Washington. The Tatmadaw leader even believed he was going to be invited to America by the US Secretary of State for Defense.

But what was not reported at the time was how Min Aung Hlaing tried to upstage the State Counselor and tried to isolate her. In both cases he stressed that that the Myanmar military was strictly non-aligned, and did not support Beijing, as both Delhi and Tokyo are China’s international rivals, especially within the Asia region. He told both leaders that this was in stark contrast to the country’s civilian leader, who had thrown her lot in with the Chinese.

This irked the Chinese leaders, especially their Generals, who regarded the Myanmar military and their commander Min Aung Hlaing in particular as steadfast friends. But the upheavals in Rakhine since August last year, has totally changed the situation. Before that Min Aung Hlaing and his top brass had believed they could even woo Washington. The Tatmadaw leader even believed he was going to be invited to America by the US Secretary of State for Defense. Apparently, he even thought Myanmar would be allowed to buy US-made military transport aircraft, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, according to sources close to the senior general.

These four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft are almost unique: capable of using unprepared runways for takeoffs and landings, and their various uses include being a gunship for airborne assault, search and rescue, maritime patrols and aerial fighting. “There no way in heaven that Myanmar would have been sold these planes,” a senior US military attaché told South Asian Monitor (SAM) on condition of anonymity. The irony is of course there is a civilian version the L-130 that the US administration could not have prevented being sold, and could easily be made combat ready, said the same source.

Now of course this US rapprochement is a dream of the past. Instead of being welcomed to Washington, selective sanctions are being imposed on certain top Myanmar military commanders who are regarded to have orchestrated the crackdown in Rakhine. According to insiders, Aung San Suu Kyi may have been instrumental in encouraging Washington to take a hardline against the Myanmar military and to label the crackdown as ethnic cleansing.

Now instead of a red-carpet Min Aung Hlaing faces the prospect of international criminal charges. While this may have meant to be a lever to keep the military in check, it is likely to haunt the State Counselor instead, as she will have to pull out all stops to prevent it happening. So, Bill Richardson’s personal tirade against Aung San Suu Kyi will not only weaken her standing internationally, but in all intents and purposes has strengthened Min Aung Hlaing’s position at home.

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