Myanmar’s military still has plenty of sway


Picture of Murray Hiebert
Murray Hiebert

Murray Hiebert is Senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC.

Myanmar launched a dramatic new chapter in its political history on 1st April when its first democratically-elected government in over 50 years took office. The ostensible head of the new government is democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who led her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to a stunning landslide victory in the November elections.

Despite her electoral success, Suu Kyi will have to lead Myanmar under a delicate and fraught power-sharing arrangement with the armed forces, which ruled the country since a coup in 1962. The military launched political reforms in 2011, resulting in the freeing of most political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, and led to generally free and fair elections late last year.

But under the constitution drafted by the military in 2008, anyone who has close relatives with foreign nationalities is barred from serving as president. Aung San Suu Kyi’s two sons carry British passports. When the NLD took control of the parliament in March, it proposed amending the clause in that constitution blocking Suu Kyi from the presidency, but the effort was promptly checkmated by the military. The constitution requires that any amendments be passed by at least a 75% parliamentary majority; and, because the constitution reserves a full quarter of the parliament’s seats for the armed forces, that’s impossible unless some military representatives defect to the ruling party.

For the new NLD government to achieve many of its goals will require cooperation with the armed forces

The NLD was able to outmanoeuvre the military the day after taking office by creating the new position of state counsellor for Suu Kyi, a post that allows her to offer advice to all government agencies and reports directly to parliament. The military delegates walked out during the parliamentary vote and complained that the NLD move violated the constitution, which grants the president the leading government position. Some warned this move could harm relations between the military and NLD leaders. And this is critical, because for the new NLD government to achieve many of its goals will require cooperation with the armed forces. Although the NLD controls the ministries responsible for economic and social affairs, the military still manages those in charge of defence and security. It appoints the ministers of defence, border affairs and home affairs – a perch from which it manages the country’s civil service.

Collaboration between the government and the military will be needed to hammer out a peace process with the armed ethnic groups, many of which have been at war with the central government for more than five decades. Suu Kyi has said this will be her top priority. The outgoing government signed a peace agreement with 8 of the 15 armed groups last October, but fighting has continued in some areas since the elections, particularly in Shan state in the north. Suu Kyi has not yet outlined her strategy for the peace process, including what her NLD government will propose to do with three armed groups the military has said will need to surrender before they can join the talks. In the end, the peace process will have to tackle tough issues such as political power sharing, likely through some form of federalism, and the sharing of revenue from natural resources. For these issues to be resolved and to incorporate the necessary amendments into the constitution, the NLD government has to coordinate closely with the armed forces.

The military still appoints the ministers of defence, border affairs and home affairs

The military, which put Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years following the NLD’s first election landslide in 1990, has considerable distrust of Myanmar’s new state counsellor. She irritated the military when she declared ahead of the elections that she would be ‘above the president’ in the new government. Suu Kyi held three rounds of talks with powerful military chief Min Aung Hlaing after the elections, but they do not seem to have resolved many differences. Bickering between the two sides erupted over parking spaces for the government handover ceremony and the NLD complained that outgoing officials had removed large amounts of equipment when moving from their offices.

In a speech on Armed Forces Day just days before the new government took office, General Hlaing said the military would work with the NLD government to build ‘eternal peace’ and boost economic development. ‘We the military play a leading role in national politics,’ he said. The General warned that he would not allow Myanmar to ‘totter backwards’ into ‘a situation that could harm the stability, perpetuation of sovereignty and non-disintegration’ of the country. He sent Aung San Suu Kyi’s government a clear signal that the two power centres were entering a delicate diplomatic dance that would determine the country’s political future. He did not have to remind his listeners that the constitution names the armed forces as guarantor of the document and provides a coup option to topple the civilian government or impose martial law if Myanmar’s stability or constitution come under threat.

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