The lady and the generals are learning to get along

The lady and the generals are learning to get along

Larry Jagan,
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Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing. PHOTO: Reuters

In the last few weeks 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 – when they look back at her first year in office.

The lack of reforms, broken promises and unexpected government appointments are seen as reflecting the government’s failure. But the recent by-election results indicate she remains hugely popular at the grassroots, although she has certainly lost support in the country’s ethnic areas. Since the prominent lawyer, Ko Ni’s assassination there has been growing concern that internal elements are trying to destabilize the National League for Democracy-government, with the firm figure being pointed at the military – or more precisely the former military.

These suspicions were further fuelled a few weeks ago when the NLD spokesman, Win Thein accused unnamed military sources of spreading rumours that the current President was about to resign due to ill health and the former general Shwe Mann – who is very close to Aung San Suu Kyi – would replace him. Rumours in Myanmar abound – all as a result of Facebook feeds. 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 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 have had limited contact with each other before the NLD 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 programme.

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 Defence 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.

Sources close to Mina 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 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 Min Aung Hlaing. The relationship so far has been built on mutual mistrust. 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 fully-fledged 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 the interim period before the military fully handed over power would take 15 to 20 years.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces.

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 Defence 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 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. Min Aung Hlaing is feverishly trying to increase the sources of military equipment, especially from the West as reflected in his recent visit to Europe, particularly Germany, which has already sold Myanmar helicopters in the last few years, since bilateral relations were normalized following Thein Sein becoming a quasi-civilian 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 Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Suu Kyi – rather than discarding her and the NLD altogether. A form of political power sharing is contemplated with the current commander in chief becoming president.

But in the end, it seems certain 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 that is certainly not in their best interests.

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