Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘It Is Not Enough for Elites Simply to Get Along’

By The Irrawaddy 12 December 2015

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week we’ll look at why ex-military leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe has resurfaced, and if his meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi signals a positive sign for the country or unexpected political turns. Ko Mya Aye, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, and political commentator Dr. Yan Myo Thein will join me for the discussion. I’m Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy’s English edition.

U Than Shwe hadn’t appeared in public in five years, since he transferred power to U Thein Sein. Why has he decided to resurface now? What is your view, Ko Mya Aye?

Mya Aye: Politics, as I understand it, is about power. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s power was clearly proven through the election results. But Myanmar will not, all of a sudden, be able to enjoy democracy simply because the NLD won the election. This is because the election was held under 2008 Constitution, which was adopted from the military’s seven-point roadmap [which enshrines power to the institution]. So if [Suu Kyi] wants to move toward national reconciliation in the current political landscape, she has no choice other than to see Snr-Gen Than Shwe, one of its chief architects. Daw Aung Suu Kyi has built up power and has requested to meet with former Snr-Gen Than Shwe, and he has granted it.

KZM: Ko Yan Myo Thein?

Yan Myo Thein: Although former Snr-Gen Than Shwe only now seems to be resurfacing, he has actually been wielding great influence over the current government as well as the military the entire time. Again, the civil-military relationship plays an extremely important role in Myanmar’s democratic transition. Indeed, according to this logic, the recent dialogue between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and current military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing was also key. At least to an extent, her meeting with them was so important because it is reasonable to assume that former Snr-Gen still exerts influence over the current one.

KZM: We heard that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself requested to meet former Snr-Gen Than Shwe. It is important that the transition period is smooth, and here the military plays a major role, as Ko Yan Myo Thein has said. Snr-Gen Than Shwe is the one who, at present, has the largest influence over the military, and that’s the main reason why [Suu Kyi] requested the meeting. Because the next government will be a purely civilian one, led by the NLD, perhaps former Snr-Gen Than Shwe wants something besides a smooth transition—perhaps he also wants a verbal guarantee that [punitive] actions will not be taken retrospectively, as laid out in the Constitution.

MA: It is totally correct that a good civil-military relationship has to be built. But the nature of the military should be understood as well. I think we need to try to understand it. The military has its interests. Not only our country, but most third world countries have this tendency.

KZM: The 2008 Constitution, according to the seven-step roadmap, was ratified in 2008. The election was held in 2010, and power was transferred in 2011. Everyone suggests that this was Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s exit strategy. But this isn’t over, since the NLD won the election. If the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had won 26 percent of the seats, it could have formed the government together with the 25 percent of [constitutionally guaranteed] military appointees. Had this happened, U Than Shwe would not have resurfaced, for sure. But because the exact opposite played out in reality, U Than Shwe has had to try to come up with another exit strategy.

YMT: I wouldn’t call this an exit strategy. Rather, I’d describe this in terms of containment theory. This is an attempt to contain Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The core of the seven-step political roadmap is the 2008 Constitution, which has put Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in a political straightjacket. Under the Constitution, NLD lawmakers got into Parliament through the 2012 by-election. So I think between 2010 and now their strategy was hinged primarily on the Constitution. But they needed to re-adjust their strategy in light of the November election results. Since the election former Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the linchpin in this entire strategy, has had to resurface to try to fix the situation as best as he can, perhaps because they intend to retain the power. The next government will be a civilian government, but because of the 2008 Constitution, the military will still hold important positions in the government.

KZM: Everyone, including Snr-Gen Than Shwe, must accept that the election results represent the will of people. The results clearly signal that the people have chosen Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and leaders must accept this. So I don’t think it [the military] will be able to hold onto power too much longer. The real question is if the meeting, whatever reason was behind it, will be a positive sign for our country. It seems that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi willingly requested to meet him [former Snr-Gen Than Shwe] because he is a key player. So Ko Mya Aye, what positive changes might the meeting bring? Or will it lead to a limbo of sorts?

MA: In an interview, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing specifically talked about the charter amendment. He said, firmly, that when armed conflict ends and when there is peace and stability in the country, the requirement for 25 percent military representation in Parliament, or Article 436, will be re-considered. Military leaders, including former Snr-Gen Than Shwe, do have interests. But we need to see beyond those interests. Some might have their own political beliefs. Here I don’t want to talk about which belief is right and which is wrong. What I want to stress is that there might be different beliefs, and we need to see this.

KZM: You mean there might be different views within the military?

MA: Yes. Anyway, former Snr-Gen Than Shwe met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi because she can build power through the election results. As Ko Kyaw Zwa said, if the USDP had won the election, this meeting would not have happened. Snr-Gen Than Shwe has only offered to meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi since the Saffron Revolution. Before that, he would only see her when he wanted to, and he would have never granted a request by her to meet with him. Now, however, he has said that he will acknowledge her as the leader chosen by the people. It seems to be constructive. Anyway, I think it is a positive sign for the country. But I want to warn of one thing: It is not enough for elites simply to get along. They also need to consider the people.

KZM: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly said that she would not hold any grudges and that she would form the next government with the goal of national reconciliation. If she can firmly guarantee this, the Constitution might be able to be changed, at least to an extent, for example, Article 59(f) might be changed within three, four months, though the 25 percent military block will be kept unchanged. What do you think?

YMT: At best, during the next Parliament term, I think we can hope for a slight addition to Article 59(f), rather than a complete overhaul.

KZM: For Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to become president—

YMT: Yes, we can hope for the best, that the way may be paved for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to become president by at least by some small addition rather than by amending the entire provision. But it’s also important to note that what we are discussing now is not based on an official statement [of what was talked about between Suu Kyi and Than Shwe]. I think the NLD should release a statement about the meeting as soon as possible. Only then will we have a clearer idea of how the topic of the meeting might factor into the future of politics for this country. Again, I don’t think that we’ll see change just because two people met and may have reached some sort of agreement. The Panglong Agreement, for instance, was signed before Burma gained independence. But despite this, our country failed to establish any semblance of a federal, democratic union, and it is still stuck in seemingly intractable political mire today. The most important thing is that a political pact must be achieved during the transition period, and it must take place in the presence of both the people [of Burma] and the international community.

KZM: I think it is still too early. They’ve met only once and only for two hours. The real dialogue is yet to come, though the initial phase of any dialogue is very delicate.

YMT: [Suu Kyi] met Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing for an hour, and President U Thein Sein for 45 minutes. The meeting with Snr-Gen Than Shwe lasted longer than the combined time of the other two meetings.

KZM: Still, he [Than Shwe] has no official title now. That meeting was more informal than the other two, though he has a larger influence. As you said, bilateral discussion is not enough. Even so, given the circumstances, dialogue should not be all-inclusive at this time, should it, Ko Mya Aye?

MA: It is typical for dialogue to start with a few participants and then for the number to grow over time. We can look at this meeting as the beginning of the civil-military relationship. However, this is not the main focus for our country. Taking into consideration interviews with Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the real focus is the peace process. When the next government comes to power [in March], should it be a civilian government, all actors have to act within the framework of the 2008 Constitution.

KZM: Let’s take an optimistic view. There may be more meetings between former Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. If things turn out to be very positive, and if the military gradually withdraws from politics and focuses on national defense, I think the Constitution could be changed quickly.

MA: As I have said, [Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing] has stated before that the military will retreat when there is internal peace and stability [in Burma].

YMT: I share this view. But I don’t think the path taken by the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) will lead to peace. We need to change course. In discussing the framework for political dialogue and selecting representatives for this dialogue, the people need truer representation, I think.

KZM: We’ve discussed whether, going forward, the meeting between former Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Daw Aung Sann Suu Kyi might play an important role in Burma’s transition. We’ll have to wait and see if these results will turn out to be positive. Thank you both for your contributions.