RANGOON — It was all beaming smiles in Burma’s capital on Wednesday, as the country’s three most influential figures came together for initial discussions that could prove crucial for the country’s political future.
Many Burmese were heartened to see the pictures of revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi with Burma Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and President Thein Sein warmly greet each other in Naypyidaw ahead of closed-door discussions that representatives said centered on charting a collaborative path forward.
Many are hopeful that behind those smiles lies a genuine willingness to ensure a smooth political transition in the coming months that could signal the beginning of a process of national reconciliation for the long-term benefit of the country.
Suu Kyi’s meeting with the commander-in-chief on Wednesday was their first bilateral sit-down since Min Aung Hlaing assumed the post in 2011.
Earlier in the day, President Thein Sein also met Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) romped home in the country’s Nov. 8 general election, claiming an outright majority and the attendant prerogative to select the country’s next president.
According to presidential spokesperson Ye Htut, the pair discussed how to ensure a peaceful transfer of power in their 45-minute meeting at the Presidential Palace.
Although observers generally applauded the meeting between the former general turned head of state and The Lady, who first met four months after Thein Sein took office in 2011, most remain convinced that the more pivotal relationship involves the military chief.
While the future of the soon-to-be opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is somewhat unclear, the military remains embedded in the country’s political and economic life.
With 25 percent of parliamentary seats, the Border Affairs, Home Affairs, and Defence ministry posts and one vice-presidential nomination, ensuring the army’s cooperation will be crucial for Suu Kyi’s party.
Without the military onside, the already formidable challenges facing the NLD will only be magnified.
For these reasons, many in Burma breathed a collective sigh of relief to see Min Aung Hlaing warmly greet the NLD chairwoman outside the military’s headquarters on Wednesday, with the pair posing for photographs before discussions commenced.
In many ways it was a remarkable scene to see Suu Kyi alongside the head of a military that had kept her under house arrest for 15 years.
The current military chief is certainly more media savvy than his predecessor, ex-junta head Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who famously avoided the media glare. Min Aung Hlaing has cultivated a more approachable persona, giving numerous interviews to foreign news outlets and maintaining a Facebook page.
State-run media often lends him a helping hand. In Friday’s edition of the government-run Global New Light of Myanmar, the commander-in-chief was pictured launching a drive off the tee to open a local golf tournament.
The army’s statement following Wednesday’s talks was brief, but observers of an optimistic bent were willing to interpret it as a positive sign.
“Both sides agreed to follow the people’s wish to collaborate for the country’s stability, rule of law, national unity and development during the meeting,” the statement read.
Of course, smiles and handshakes don’t amount to much without demonstrable action. The country will know in the coming months whether such gestures were genuine.
Generally speaking, Burmese people are not vengeful. If Min Aung Hlaing truly understands his own people, that will be an advantage. If he respects the people’s wishes and allows the NLD to govern to its full capacity, he will gain the people’s respect and the historians’ tick of approval.
All will be hoping that Wednesday’s round of smiles translates into cooperation across the board toward fostering stability, genuine national reconciliation and equitable national development.