Why Won’t the Myanmar Govt Call a Meeting of the National Security Council?

By The Irrawaddy 5 October 2019

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. During a recent press conference, Tatmadaw [military] spokespersons raised the question of why the National League for Democracy [NLD] government has never held a National Defense and Security Council [NDSC] meeting, and asked whether the government would do so only if the country were at war. Why hasn’t the government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi held an NDSC meeting? What are the political reasons behind this? What are the positive and negative consequences for the security of our country and the people? I have invited Ko Aung Moe Zaw, chairman of the Democratic Party for New Society, and Dr. Min Zaw Oo, executive director of the Myanmar Institute of Peace and Security, to discuss these issues. I’m Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Ko Min Zaw Oo, as I have said, the Tatmadaw has called for an NDSC meeting. The NLD government has not held one in the past three years [in which it has been in office]. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the failure to hold such a meeting? What are the political reasons behind this?

Dr. Min Zaw Oo: The way changes are taking place in Myanmar leads to a lot of instability. When I was abroad, I saw that so-called democracy, strong factionalism based on organizations and political groupings, and a lack of development together increased the risk of instability in Myanmar. When the transition took place, the model we considered was that there would be conditions created by the 2008 Constitution. We expected two things from such a transition. The first one is a political space with more freedom. Another is that opportunities for national reconciliation would be created through dialogue between the civilian [government] and the military. When the NLD government took office, our expectation was that the government and the military would work closely to find solutions for the country and talk about the security of the country. We thought they would hold talks. In reality, there is no platform for dialogue between the military leaders and civilian leaders. An NDSC meeting can be held according to the Constitution. They can also hold other forms of dialogue without calling an NDSC meeting. They can form a committee. The president can form a committee or hold regular meetings. However, we can see that there is no such platform. Why? I think one possible answer is political issues between the military and civilian leaders. The result is that there is no such thing as national security policy in Myanmar.

KZM: Do you think an NDSC meeting should be held?

MZO: Even if they don’t want to hold an [actual] NDSC meeting, there should be a form of dialogue like an NDSC meeting. There should be regular meetings between military and civilian leaders.

KZM: As we said, it is a political issue. The NDSC was established under the 2008 Constitution by the previous military government as a policy. Has the NLD made a policy of not holding NDSC meetings? According to its setup, there are six NDSC members from the Tatmadaw and five from the civilian government including the President, two vice presidents and two Parliament speakers. It is obvious that the [military-dominated] setup of the NDSC is not a coincidence. They purposely did this to give more votes to the Tatmadaw. Ko Aung Moe Zaw, do you think it is necessary for our country to hold an NDSC meeting?

Aung Moe Zaw: First of all, we learned that two or three special meetings on security issues were held at the President’s Office after the NLD took office in 2015. First, it is good for the country if such an environment can be created. Second, I would like to point out that it is difficult for the NLD or pro-democracy forces to accept the setup of the NDSC. Although it was formed in accordance with the Constitution, I think the President and the government aim to avoid it by using other means. I believe this is why an NDSC meeting has never been convened. As Ko Min Zaw Oo said, we have a lot of problems in our country. There are different problems in different regions. Everyone knows that the fundamental issues are political. It is necessary for political and military leaders to find the will to solve political issues. During the term of [former] President U Thein Sein, there were calls for meetings of four parties and 14 parties. There is no need to do so at present. It is necessary for the two top leaders to meet and discuss the details seriously. Ko Min Zaw Oo said there is no such platform. Personally, I find this difficult to accept. If they want to meet and discuss issues, they can do so at any time, formally or informally. I would like to ask them why they cannot meet and discuss the problems of the country.

KZM: There are a lot of views. The two top leaders are State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services [Senior General Min Aung Hlaing]. Despite their efforts, it seems their relationship has not improved. Many people believe this. The Tatmadaw has called for an NDSC meeting but the civilian government has refused to hold one. The deadlock stems from the conflict over [proposed] constitutional amendments. When the constitutional amendments were discussed, the NLD and others proposed a format for the NDSC. The NLD and the National United Democratic Party were of the same view. Instead of the current 11-member NDSC, they have proposed a 12-member council including the deputy speakers of the Upper and Lower houses. Currently, the Parliament speakers are on the council. In the same way as the commander-in-chief and deputy commander-in-chief are on the council, the deputy speakers of Parliament should be on the council. Then, they proposed removing the minister for border affairs, who is a member of the current council. As a result, there would be 12 members on the council including seven members from the civilian government and five from the military. It is related to the Constitution. Another thing I would like to point out to Ko Min Zaw Oo is that according to the Constitution, the President is required to appoint the commander-in-chief recommended by the NDSC. I think there are power issues behind this. Ko Min Zaw Oo, what do you think about this?

MZO: Under the current 2008 Constitution, certain numbers of [representatives of] the civilian government and the military will be on the council. The Constitution does not require the NDSC to make decisions by voting. Many people wrongfully think that the NDSC makes decisions by voting. First, it doesn’t make decisions by voting. There were some decisions made by the NDSC during the term of the previous government. At that time, members of the NDSC expressed their views and recommendations and the President made the final decisions. Decisions of the NDSC are not made by voting. In National Security Councils in other countries, the president, as the commander-in-chief, does not adopt policies without listening to the recommendations made by the military. There are two problems at present. The first one has to do with the appointment of the commander-in-chief.

 KZM: They make recommendations.

 MZO: The NDSC may submit a proposal for extension of the term of the commander-in-chief and the President may endorse and sign it. The commander-in-chief extended his term when he turned 60. This may be an issue.

 KZM: It is one of the possible factors. There may be much more to it than that. Ko Aung Moe Zaw, the NDSC does not make decisions by voting as Ko Min Zaw Oo said. However, there are six members from the military and five from the civilian side. This is no accident. The format was designed this way intentionally. This may be the cause of the government’s concern.

 AMZ: The government really has concerns about the format. Although there is no written rule for the NDSC to vote on its decisions, there is also no written prohibition of a vote. If an important decision is to be made by a vote, the 6/5 setup of the NDSC is a cause for concern for the NLD or any other civilian political party. During the past three years, the NLD leaders have shunned NDSC meetings deliberately.

 KZM: They have done so on principle.

 AMZ:  Certainly, there may be personal issues, but fundamentally it is a political issue. The leader of the ruling party and the commander-in-chief should think seriously about how to overcome the deadlock. The deadlock must be overcome. If military-civilian relations cannot progress due to the deadlock, instability in the country is linked to such factors.

KZM: The Tatmadaw has called for an NDSC meeting. However, analysts like Ko Min Zaw Oo think there should be a platform for dialogue even if it is not the NDSC. But there is no such platform. There are many problems. Even if it is not the NDSC, does our country need to hold a special meeting at present?

MZO: Such meetings are needed because the State Counselor and the commander-in-chief are the two most important people in our country. If meetings between them are difficult, the President should use his power to hold regular meetings between them, for instance once a month, even if they are not NDSC meetings.

KZM: Even if it is not the NDSC?

MZO: Our country urgently needs a forum where issues can be put on the table and solved.

AMZ: I would like to urge the State Counselor and the commander-in-chief to meet. The President is the head of state. However, whether the President will take his own initiative ahead of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a question. This is what I see.

KZM: They are on the same side.

AMZ: Yes, they are on the same side. It is important. They are leaders of their organization. I would like to urge the State Counselor and the commander-in-chief to meet and discuss the issues. They should say to each other, “Let’s meet and discuss the current situation of the country.” I think they can regularly meet and discuss it.

KZM: Thanks for your contributions.