One country run by two persons: this is Burma. On the one hand, there is State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi; on the other, there is army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. If one were to ask who is ultimately in charge, they might find no clear answer.
Suu Kyi is Burma’s de-facto political leader, with her power coming from the people who elected her party—the National League for Democracy (NLD)—in the country’s 2015 general election. But among the checks on her authority is the capacity to make decisions relating to the Burmese army. Only Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has that privilege.
The senior general has shown support for almost every action taken by Suu Kyi since the NLD took office earlier this year. Yet, in his own arena, it seems that Min Aung Hlaing has taken little initiative to rein in his military: fighting has recently broken out against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin State and against the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in northern Shan State.
Additionally, Min Aung Hlaing will not allow three of the country’s non-state armed groups—the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Arakan Army (AA) and the TNLA—to join Burma’s upcoming Union Peace Conference starting on August 31. These groups are currently under pressure over demands to disarm, which they so far have continued to resist.
As can be expected in a country arguably run by two people with different visions, there is a divide. Suu Kyi’s earlier stated plan was to invite all ethnic armed groups to join her “21st century Panglong” conference, modeled after one held in 1947 by her father, independence leader Aung San. With that aim not shared by the Burma Army, what will Suu Kyi will do next, given that she has said she wants an all-inclusive event?
In the latest attempt to bring all of the stakeholders together, the NLD government’s National Reconciliation and Peace Center’s (NRPC) delegation met twice with the three armed groups in the region of Mongla, in June and again in August.
During the first meeting in June with the AA, MNDAA and the TNLA, there was reportedly high tension when the NRPC’s Khin Zaw Oo, a former Burma Army general, allegedly pointed his finger at the leaders of the armed groups, saying, “you guys have to disarm.” He asked the groups to issue an initial statement to the effect that they intended to give up their weapons.
In an informal conversation with an Irrawaddy reporter, Tar Bong Kyaw, the TNLA’s general secretary, recalled his annoyance at Khin Zaw Oo in the meeting. “He disrespected our chairman by pointing his finger at him. His action was not appropriate,” he said.
Dr. Tin Myo Win, the head of the NRPC delegation, did not attend the most recent meeting with the three armed groups. Instead he sent Aung Kyi—a former army general like Khin Zaw Oo. Again, no agreement was reached.
At an ethnic armed group summit in Mai Ja Yang, Kachin State in late July, organizations who opted out of signing the 2015 nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA)—and are members of the ethnic armed alliance, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)—said that they remain unsure about whether to participate in the upcoming Union Peace Conference.
No concrete decision about their attendance emerged from that gathering. No decisions emerged about any future signing of the NCA, either.
Nai Hong Sar, vice chairman of UNFC, went as far as telling reporters at a press conference on July 29 that if it were made clear that the groups did not have to sign the NCA in order to participate in the conference, they would happily attend.
The conference is a step preferable to the NCA, he said.
Which brings us back to how we began: who is in charge here? And is it not time for the Burma Army to give fresh thought to the issue, namely who is the head of the country, Aung San Suu Kyi, or Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing?
Suu Kyi may know some things about how to bring peace to this country, based perhaps partly on the ideas of her father Gen Aung San. But those ideas and plans could fail again, if she is not permitted to put them into action.