As the election draws closer, it is telling that the country’s powerful military chief looms larger over the campaign than the president. The front page splashes of Thein Sein in state-run newspapers, cordially greeting diplomats and touring villages, would not appear out of place at any point in the last five years. A slick campaign video featuring the president, produced by his office and apparently set to the score of a Jerry Bruckheimer film, was mocked more than it was commended on social media.
Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, by contrast, cuts a more powerful figure than ever. This year, we have seen the once publicity-shy military leader come out of the woodwork. He has courted local media outlets, doing his best to put reporters at ease in a way that would have been simply unthinkable for his predecessors. He has promised on multiple occasions that the armed forces will honor the results of the election and will not interfere with its conduct, and in a meeting with selected reporters this week, said in a veiled reference to Suu Kyi that he would welcome the prospect of a female president. (That she is constitutionally barred from holding the office is another matter.)
Whatever excitement might be gleaned from the senior general’s candor is tempered by the many dark corners of the military that remain shrouded from full view. The military media liaison service promised to the Interim Press Council a year ago has not been established. The military budget is not subjected to proper review in the Union Parliament, and its officers continue to operate a parallel economic and judicial system far from the reaches of public scrutiny.
Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is whether Min Aung Hlaing intends to seek the presidency. He is widely expected to retire next year at the age of 60, alongside a number of other senior military figures from the Defense Services Academy’s 19th intake, such as incumbent Home Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Ko Ko. The commander-in-chief has never ruled out aspirations for the presidency. Indeed, in consummate political style, the senior general has never given a firm indication one way or another; the closest he came was in response to a direct question on the matter a BBC interviewer: “the duty of the soldier is to serve the country in whatever role,” he replied.
As ever, Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) have been conciliatory to a fault. NLD leaders have long recognized that the military will ultimately decide the next steps of the country, and have diligently worked to prevent the longstanding antipathy towards the armed forces within their own ranks from boiling over.
The party’s election manifesto pledges a “dignified role for the armed forces” as a defender of democracy and the people, and commits a future NLD government to building a modern fighting force. In her allocated campaign broadcast on state television this week, Suu Kyi herself said the party was striving to “wipe out suspicion between the NLD and the military.”
It is no secret that Min Aung Hlaing’s overarching goal as commander-in-chief has been to modernize the country’s military, which for decades has been hampered by a bloated standing army and outdated equipment. The senior general’s barnstorming tours to defense manufacturers in Pakistan, Serbia, Israel and other countries this year is testament to the close interest he is taking in new military acquisitions.
Suu Kyi has sought to accommodate Min Aung Hlaing’s modernization push, partly in the hopes that closer collaboration with Western armies will serve their Burmese counterparts with important lessons in education, respect for human rights and restraint.
It is obvious, however, that Suu Kyi still does not have the military’s respect. Both her and Min Aung Hlaing still speak a very different language when it comes to the role of the military, and nothing substantive has emerged from the few occasions the pair have formally met. Gone are the days when the opposition leader is depicted as a toothless, aggressive crone in the cartoons of government newspapers, but the gulf between her and the top brass remains immense. The first statement Suu Kyi made upon her release from house arrest in 1995 was a call for dialogue between the NLD and military leaders, in a spirit of cooperation and free from recrimination—20 years later, the military cannot shake their impression of the opposition leader as an intimidating and unpredictable threat.
For the next decade at least, the military’s continuing role in politics will remain the single defining political issue of this country. Thein Sein, himself a former general and the fourth-highest ranking member of the old military junta, sought to manage international expectations earlier this year when he said the armed forces were the true custodians of the democratic transition.
“In fact the military is the one who is assisting in the flourishing of democracy in our country,” he told the BBC. “As the political parties mature in their political norms and practice, the role of the military gradually changes.”
Despite shedding his epaulets, Thein Sein still speaks the language top brass wants to hear. Suu Kyi’s own entreaties, reasonable as they seem, appear as always to have fallen upon deaf ears. Would this change with Min Aung Hlaing as head of state? Does the NLD have the power, and does the military establishment have the will, to erase their longstanding mutual suspicion? The military wants to be taken at its word that it will abide by the election results, but they are unwilling to take Suu Kyi at hers. All evidence suggests that regardless of who sits in the presidential palace next year, this interminable mistrust will linger for longer still.