Parsing Prospects for Burma’s Overshadowed VP

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 7 March 2016

RANGOON — This week, the Burmese people’s months-long wait to find out who their next president will be is expected to finally end.

On March 10, the Lower and Upper houses of Parliament as well as lawmakers appointed by the military are due to nominate three vice presidents, with one assuming the country’s top post. These names can come from among the ranks of newly seated lawmakers, but can just as easily be individuals from outside the legislature.

The trio will then be put to a ballot in a joint session of the bicameral assembly, with the winner of the most votes becoming Burma’s next president. The runners-up will remain vice presidents.

Barring intraparty ructions that virtually no one is anticipating, the presidential candidates nominated by elected members of Parliament’s two houses will have the blessing of the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD), which holds a super-majority approaching 80 percent of elected seats in both chambers.

Speculation in the months since Burma’s Nov. 8 general election, which propelled the NLD into its king-making position, has focused on who from the party might get the nod. The most obvious candidate, Suu Kyi herself, is constitutionally barred from assuming the post, making possible stand-in candidates the subject of intense conjecture during the lengthy transition period that has followed the November poll.

Another possible scenario bandied about posits the NLD naming someone from an ethnic political party as a presidential candidate, the theory being that this would be in line with its stated desire to form an inclusive, “national reconciliation” government.

Less attention has focused on the military’s choice for its vice president.

The Burma Army maintains an important role in the country’s politics, despite the NLD’s thumping election win last year. It controls three powerful ministries—Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs—in addition to the Constitution reserving 25 percent of seats in the Union Parliament and regional legislatures to military representatives appointed by the commander-in-chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

The third presidential candidate, then, is Min Aung Hlaing’s to choose.

Brig-Gen Tint San Naing, a spokesperson for military lawmakers in the Lower House, told The Irrawaddy that the military would pick someone who could further the country’s development and has the required “vision” on matters of defense, politics, economics and administration.

“Whoever we choose, it will be that kind of person. Only can [a candidate with] those four visions make the country secure and developed,” he said.

While the NLD’s intentions vis-à-vis the presidency have understandably garnered more attention in recent months, a handful of high-ranking generals have made their way to the fore of less common discussions as to who the military might choose as its man “on the inside” of an NLD administration.

Deputy commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Soe Win; commander-in-chief (Air Force) and special operations coordinator (Army, Navy and Air Force) Gen. Khin Aung Myint; retired Gen. Hla Htay Win; retired Gen. Thura Thet Swe; and retired Lt-Gen Khin Zaw Oo have all been tipped as potential presidential candidates. Rumors of late have had it that current Rangoon Division Chief Minister Myint Swe is also a potential contender.

A former lieutenant-general who was tipped to be selected vice president in 2012, Myint Swe was passed over to fill that unexpected vacancy, as one of his sons was an Australian national. Unconfirmed reports, however, say his son has since been reinstated as a Burmese citizen, which if true would remove that obstacle to his father’s nomination.

Other sources close to the military, on the other hand, expect the army chief to choose someone younger than him who is still in active service.

“The commander-in-chief will consider someone his junior as seniority means a lot in the military. That’s why he will name someone who will listen to him,” said Naing Ye Zaw, a retired lieutenant-colonel.

If that be the case, only two men from the list above are likely to be eligible: Soe Win and Khin Aung Myint, as active-duty generals who graduated from the Defense Services Academy’s 22nd and 20th intakes, respectively.

Min Aung Hlaing is a graduate of the elite academy’s 19th intake, while Myint Swe would be a nonstarter if the seniority criterion were borne out, given that the former lieutenant-general is four intakes senior to the current commander-in-chief.

Reporting to Whom?

The president “takes precedence over all other persons” in Burma, as per the Constitution’s Article 58, a provision that would appear to imply vice presidential subservience.

The peculiar form of “democracy” enshrined in Burma’s charter could complicate the hierarchy, however. Will a vice president from the ranks of the military, chosen by that institution for the VP post, answer to an NLD president or fall back on the chain-of-command dictates of Min Aung Hlaing?

This delicate dance between Burma’s military and nascent civilian power structures is likely to be further complicated by another question hanging over the new government that will come to power in April: To what extent will an NLD president be able to influence and cooperate with the three powerful ministries controlled by the military?

During the five-year term of outgoing President Thein Sein’s government, the question was of little practical significance. The military-led and quasi-civilian camps were viewed as “birds of a feather,” given that essentially the entire administration came either from military backgrounds or the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Less clear-cut is how this dynamic will play out for the incoming Suu Kyi-led government. Whoever the NLD selects as president, Suu Kyi has already vowed to govern from “above” that individual, and the true nature of the NLD chairwoman’s relationship with the top brass is an open question.

Political commentator Yan Myo Thein posited that the military’s choice for vice president would be an individual willing to deviate from his civilian higher-up if deemed necessary.

“Generally speaking, I don’t think the military vice president will say ‘yes’ to every case. When it comes to either military issues or reviewing military interests, there would be confrontations,” he said.

Technically, vice presidents are not as powerful as the president, but their inclusion on the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), the highest authority in the Burmese government and responsible for the country’s security and defense affairs, could make a difference. On the 11-member council, civilian members, including the president, are outnumbered by military representatives, who hold six spots, including the commander-in-chief as well as the vice president appointed by him.

According to the National Defense and Security Council bill that was distributed to Upper House lawmakers in December, Article 14 of the draft gives the president no right to vote on council matters, except to cast a deciding vote in the event of a deadlock. The same article also says that the council must strive to reach a consensus in its decisions, and to accept a majority vote if a unanimous resolution cannot be reached.

“They are taking the upper hand in the NDSC. Guess which side they will be on when it comes to military interests?” said Yan Myo Thein.

Khin Zaw Win of the Tampadipa Institute, an independent think-tank in Burma, agreed that dealing with the military would be challenging for the incoming government, adding that the military’s choice for vice president was likely to face a dilemma over whose orders he takes.

“As far as I’m concerned, the incoming government should cleverly handle its relations with the military, for matters ranging from the vice president to NDSC to the three powerful ministries, by appointing someone as an ‘advisor’ for their relations with the military.”

He said that person should be either a serving or recently retried member of the military with a respected reputation and who clearly understands the Burma Army’s current mindset as well as wants to see the country developed.

Asked whether Shwe Mann—a former general as well as ex-chairman of the USDP who was purged last year for his close ties to Suu Kyi—might be the best candidate for the post, Khin Zaw Win said this was “unlikely.”

“He has been appointed as the chairman for Parliament’s legislative commission. Plus, he is not popular among the military personnel. But he could make a recommendation,” said the director of the institute.

“The NLD has experts on other issues apart from the Burmese military. If they have one [on military affairs], it would be very helpful,” he added.

The Irrawaddy’s Htet Naing Zaw contributed reporting from Naypyidaw.