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Ethnic Issues

Burma Struggles to Ditch Its Military Masters

To democracy advocates’ chagrin, Burma’s record of martial leadership is likely to continue through the next presidential election.


Since the country’s first military coup in 1962, Burma has lacked a real civilian president. More than 50 years on, all five presidents and two other leaders have come from the military ranks, a record of martial headship that is likely to continue at least until 2020.

Five presidents were appointed after the late dictator Gen. Ne Win staged a coup in 1962. Ne Win himself assumed the presidency from 1974 to 1981 after ruling the country under repressive law as leader of the Revolutionary Council. After Ne Win, his deputy Gen. San Yu held the office from 1981 until 1988, when a popular uprising toppled Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party along with its government.

During the ’88 uprising, Brig-Gen Sein Lwin—known as the “Butcher of Rangoon” because he had issued the firing order against student demonstrators on the campus of Rangoon University soon after the 1962 coup—was appointed as president. He lasted just 17 days, as the street demonstrations gained momentum and led to his ouster.

After the Butcher, Dr. Maung Maung, a Ne Win’s loyalist, served briefly as president until Sept. 18, 1988, when the military assumed power from him. Among those presidents, Maung Maung was the only scholar, but had also served as a second-lieutenant at the War Office for years in the pre-independence Burma of the early 1940s.

From 1988 to 2011, the two leaders of the 1988 coup, Snr-Gen Saw Maung and his successor Snr-Gen Than Shwe, did not hold the title of president, and instead served as chairmen of the military regime. In March 2011, a former general, Thein Sein, was chosen president.

More than three years later, as Burma approaches elections in 2015, it looks increasingly likely that the next president will not emerge from the leadership of Burma’s storied pro-democracy movement, and will instead arise from the same old political elite. That is, the military establishment.

That scenario is not wholly unexpected, but many Burmese had optimistically expected to see a different outcome following the upcoming legislative election, which is likely to be held in late 2015.

Supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi were hoping to see her as president, despite the fact that the current 2008 Constitution bars her from the office on the grounds that she was married to a foreign national. Those aspirations are looking more like wishful thinking by the day, as the chances of amending the Constitution before the election appear increasingly slim.

Recent political developments have not been promising in Burma, where the unofficial battle for the presidency began many months ago.

Last year, Suu Kyi publicly said that she was eyeing the presidency. And in mid-2013, Shwe Mann, the Lower House speaker and chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), also told The Irrawaddy that he was keen to succeed Thein Sein.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Interestingly, Thein Sein has said little of substance to indicate whether or not he is interested in serving another term. His silence has been interpreted by some as a sign that he must be seriously considering or has already decided to go for it.

The push from Suu Kyi and her supporters to change a constitutional provision guaranteeing the military a veto over amendments to the charter must be understood as a stepping stone to further revisions to that document—including the clause disqualifying the opposition leader from the presidency.

Positive political developments in 2012 and 2013 created a public perception that constitutional change was likely to happen before 2015.

Shwe Mann, who has by all accounts forged a more amicable relationship with Suu Kyi than Thein Sein, has been seen as likely to agree to some changes to the Constitution. He even once told media, “I would personally be glad if Ama Gyi [referring to Suu Kyi as a big sister] becomes president.”

But that was last year. The changing political dynamics of 2014 are not promising for Suu Kyi, whose candidacy for the presidency could arguably be called a pipedream at this point. There has been almost no other name civilian name put forward—by the National League for Democracy or other opposition parties—as a possible presidential contender.

Observers are, however, also watching the commander-in-chief of the military, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

Last November, Brig-Gen Wai Lin, who is a military representative for the Lower House, told The Irrawaddy that military MPs expected Min Aung Hlaing to be a leading candidate for the presidency. The Constitution reserves 25 percent of seats in Parliament to military representatives, who are directly appointed by the commander-in-chief.

Brig-Gen Wai Lin added, “The current commander-in-chief will make a good civilian president.”

But the commander-in-chief has not yet stated publically that he has any ambitions to hold the top post.

Each body of the Presidential Electoral College, which is comprised of the Upper House, the Lower House and the military representatives, is given the power to appoint a vice president. The Presidential Electoral College will then vote to determine which of these three people will become president.

Even if all of these frontrunners miss the boat in 2015, another rising star from the military or the ruling USDP stands the best chance, with the incumbent party citing the need for continuity amid Burma’s reforms.

Hla Swe, an MP-elect for the Upper House from the USDP, recently told The Irrawaddy that the USDP party will choose Thein Sein or Shwe Mann as president in 2015. “We have no problem regarding who will be president out of those two. But we have to have a president from the USDP so that the country’s current transition will be smooth,” the former lieutenant-colonel said.

Members of his party no doubt share this view. The political elite, comprised of the military, the current government and the USDP, will do everything in their power to make sure the reins of power stay in the family.

Looking at the way Burma’s three vice presidents were chosen in 2010 is instructive in understanding the coy maneuvers that the political elite are capable of executing.

Two vice presidents were former generals and one was an ethnic loyalist to the military. While Thein Sein, a former general, was chosen as president, another general, Tin Aung Myint Oo, was selected as a vice president. (Tin Aung Myint Oo was replaced by Vice Admiral Nyan Tun two years later.)

The third vice president, Sai Mauk Kham, was a token ethnic selection, but even then the Shan doctor was a loyal member of the USDP.

Following precedent, one ethnic minority candidate will again likely get the nod. This time, the vice president may come from the ranks of one of Burma’s many ethnic parties rather than the USDP, and the candidate is likely to be from an ethnic minority that is not Shan, allowing the ruling government to claim two consecutive gestures to the country’s ethnic diversity.

Though Burma has seen dramatic political changes over the last three years, it likely won’t be until at least 2020 before we see a break from the leadership tradition that has endured for more than 50 years. Like it or not, the Burmese people may well be forced to accept another general-turned-president at the helm.