RANGOON — Commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing makes clear in an interview with The Washington Post that the incoming National League for Democracy government will be hard-pressed to engineer a dramatic acceleration of democratization in Burma on his watch, offering little to indicate that he has been moved by the NLD’s electoral rout of the military-backed ruling party earlier this month.
At turns dismissing the notion of democracy as a universal ideal in governance and insisting that Burma was not ready for “quick change,” Min Aung Hlaing offered a sobering reminder of the martial realities the country will continue to face despite the overwhelming mandate for change that the party of Aung San Suu Kyi received on Nov. 8.
“Some countries have faced problems as they become democracies. … The Middle Eastern countries are the worst example,” he told The Washington Post during an interview in Naypyidaw published late Monday.
“We have only experienced democracy for a short time. To get good results for our country, you need to be patient. It is very difficult for us to have quick change in our country.”
Asked if he was willing to turn more power over to the civilian government, Min Aung Hlaing said that “would depend on the stability of our country and people understanding the practice of democracy,” adding that ending the country’s decades-running ethnic conflict was the primary metric by which he would gauge stability.
The fate of a peace process with ethnic rebel groups that was initiated by outgoing President Thein Sein is one of the biggest questions hanging over Burma during the 2016-2021 period, when the NLD, led by Suu Kyi in some capacity, will take the reins of government.
While Thein Sein successfully pushed for the signing of a so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement last month with eight non-state armed groups, most of the country’s biggest rebel armies abstained from the pact. Most non-signatories have cited the outgoing government’s refusal to allow some armed groups to sign, or have pointed to continued Burma Army offensives in Shan and Kachin states, as reasons for holding out.
Ethnic leaders and observers recently told The Irrawaddy that resolving armed conflict in the country would prove especially difficult for Suu Kyi’s incoming government, as she would be reluctant to confront the powerful Burma Army or try to circumvent its authority despite having vowed to act “above the president.”
Suu Kyi’s party won supermajorities in both houses of Parliament on Nov. 8, allowing it to select two of three vice presidents, one of which will ultimately also have the NLD votes needed to become president. That individual will not be Suu Kyi, however, owing to a clause in Burma’s military-drafted Constitution prohibiting those with a foreign spouse or children from assuming the presidency.
On the matter of whether he would allow for an amendment to the provision, Article 59(f), Min Aung Hlaing deferred to Parliament: “I can’t decide this alone. Under Chapter 12, the Parliament must discuss any amendment to the Constitution. I am not directly responsible for that.”
While that may be true, the answer fails to acknowledge the Burma Army’s outsize influence in the legislature, where 25 percent of seats are reserved for military appointees who are expected to vote as a bloc in line with the commander-in-chief’s wishes.
With the Constitution requiring approval of more than 75 percent of lawmakers for passage of charter amendments, Min Aung Hlaing very much holds the keys to the kingdom in a national legislature where otherwise, among elected lawmakers, the NLD holds a 79 percent majority across the two houses of the Union Parliament.
All this, analysts say, makes a working relationship between Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing crucial for the success of an NLD government.
The commander-in-chief confirmed that a first take for the two leaders amid shifting political dynamics is due up next month, when he told The Washington Post that he would meet with Suu Kyi to discuss the transition of power.
“When the electoral process is finished, we will meet. I am prepared to talk and answer and discuss. No limits. She can have any topics and I will answer,” he said.
Suu Kyi wrote to Thein Sein, Min Aung Hlaing and Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann seeking meetings to discuss “national reconciliation” a few days after the historic vote. So far, only Shwe Mann has met with her, while Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing have both agreed to do so.
In an extended interview posted to YouTube, Min Aung Hlaing was asked by Lally Weymouth, a senior associate editor for The Washington Post, if the NLD’s overwhelming election win had surprised him.
“No, not really,” he replied. “They were chosen by the people. We just have to follow the path chosen by the people.”
And in comments reflecting what may turn out to be one of the election’s unsung winners—the Burma Army itself—Min Aung Hlaing discussed military-to-military relations with the United States, long a nonstarter in Washington under the previous junta, owing to Burma’s checkered human rights record.
“Before 1988, we had many collaborations between the Burmese and US armies. But we had distant relations after that,” he said, referring to the year that Burma’s military cracked down brutally on pro-democracy protestors nationwide. “Now we are back on the right track so that the relationship between the two armies will be good, depending on trust.”
Asked by Weymouth: “Do you have any wish to buy military weapons from the US?”
“It depends on whether we can afford it,” Min Aung Hlaing replied. “We have to consider whether they are suitable, depending on the cost. If they are useful for us and if the US is willing to sell, we will buy them.”
The United States has lifted most economic sanctions against Burma in response to Thein Sein’s reforms, though an arms embargo remains in place—for now.