Army To Rebrand Itself As New Political Reality Sets In

By Aung Zaw 16 May 2016

Burma’s Commander-in-Chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, is turning 60, but he is showing no signs of slowing down, nor is he planning to retire, as some have speculated. Instead, at press conference on May 13 in Naypyidaw, he pledged to continue to lead the armed forces and work with Aung San Suu Kyi to achieve peace and reconciliation in the country.

This was the first news conference held by the military chief since the new administration took office in April. In fact, President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Suu Kyi have not held such a press conference yet. To many, the new government remains inscrutable as it continues to formulate new policies without giving much public indication of an overriding road map for how it will govern. Aware of this, the military’s top commander decided to meet the press to clear up as many questions as he could.

At the news conference, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing left a positive impression on many reporters as he expressed a willingness to work with the new administration. Despite being a long-time military man, the senior-general tried to answer questions with more political sensibility than some might have anticipated. Yet an awareness of his position as the head of the army still heavily influenced his responses.

Min Aung Hlaing was also quick to clarify his place in the new political hierarchy. “It is not as many speculate,” he said. “The commander-in-chief is below the president. Contrary to what many had assumed, we are working together [with the civilian government].” The comments were seen by some as a response to Western media reports last year that characterized the military leader as the most powerful man in Burma.

But despite the general’s insistence that the military is working with the civilian government, it is not known whether Min Aung Hlaing had officially informed the president or Suu Kyi about the press conference.

The army’s public relations machine worked well this time. One could even suspect that it was part of a new strategy to rebrand the military and shed its tarnished image.

To the surprise of many reporters, Min Aung Hlaing extended his press briefing for several hours with a promise to serve tea and snacks afterward; he genuinely appeared to enjoy engaging with the media. He was open and candid. More importantly, he did his homework—unlike some politicians—and impressed many reporters. Later, at the tea session, he mingled and shared jokes with both journalists and the officers present.

The general countered rumors of tension between the army and the new National League for Democracy (NLD) administration, emphasizing his respect for the Constitution. But he also noted that he does not need to inform the president before making decisions about military affairs and combat offensives.

Under the previous administration, former President Thein Sein had cultivated a close relationship with Min Aung Hlaing in response to Suu Kyi’s courting of then-House Speaker Shwe Mann. But on this occasion, the army chief demonstrated he was ready to collaborate with the new government. This gesture will no doubt alleviate some of the concerns most Burmese have about the army’s intentions and role in the nation’s politics, but doubt and suspicion will likely remain.

Starting last year, Min Aung Hlaing and other top commanders met with Suu Kyi several times.

The relationship has since appeared to be stable, despite some setbacks. In April, army members within Parliament opposed a bill to approve Suu Kyi as state counselor.

The military lawmakers, who, under the Constitution, make up a quarter of the legislature, stood up to register their protest that their proposed amendments were being ignored. Analysts were quick to say that it was a bad start for the relationship between the new government and the armed forces.

But while the general supported his military comrades’ move, he seemed to back away from the hard line taken earlier.

At the press briefing, Min Aung Hlaing mentioned that the creation of the state counselor position violated the law, but he was not specific about which law–perhaps he meant it violated the Constitution. He surprised reporters by saying the Constitution could be amended in the future—although he did not give specifics on when or how this process would take place.

Further fodder for surprise was the general’s statement that the army would no longer claim 25 percent of Parliament seats after a permanent peace has been established. Admittedly, that process could take decades, but in previous interviews, Min Aung Hlaing has said that the army would remain in national politics for 10 years.

Meanwhile, the general’s own role in Burma’s politics remains the subject of considerable speculation. Speaking to Channel News Asia last year he said that any pursuit of the presidency would “depend on the situation” at that time. “If I turn my attention to politics now,” he explained, “it is likely to affect or weaken my present job. Right now it is too early to make a decision or talk about it.”

From Foes to Friends

Suu Kyi once famously told CNN that she has a soft spot for the generals, and she has often referred to the military as her “father’s army,” a reference to Gen Aung San, who founded Burma’s military in the 1940s.

Suu Kyi’s loyalty to the army is now considered beyond question, and she appears to have no intention of inciting discord among the generals.

It is believed the military no longer see Suu Kyi, now in her 70s, as a formidable threat to their institution, and view her as containable.

Despite the fact that there were obvious difficulties between the military and Suu Kyi in the past, now the armed forces likely see her as a pragmatic leader who is very popular among the general public. Hitching their wagon to Suu Kyi’s star could enhance the army’s overall image.

In fact, Suu Kyi can be helpful to the military for many reasons. She holds the key to US sanctions on over 100 individuals and several army-owned companies. These restrictions are likely to be extended with slight modifications by the end of the week.

Since the country began opening up, the US Treasury Department has eased sanctions against Burma. According to recent wire stories, Suu Kyi supported the extension of US sanctions with some changes, but she wanted to make sure the restrictions did not hurt the country’s overall economy and only kept pressure on military-owned institutions and companies.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is due to visit Burma on May 22, when he will meet with government leaders including Suu Kyi.

There have been some signs of rapprochement between the US and the Burma Army. Starting in 2012, the US has invited mid-level Burma Army officers to attend regional military exercises and conferences. There is even discussion on allowing the US military to provide non-lethal training to Burma Army officers.

In June 2014, Lt-Gen Anthony Crutchfield, deputy commander of the US Pacific Command, gave a speech to his Burmese counterparts at the Myanmar National Defense College in Naypyidaw. This was seen as part of America’s careful but deliberate and limited military re-engagement with the Burmese Army, which has been tainted by reports of serious human rights abuses and political repression.

In December 2015, after Suu Kyi’s landslide election victory, Gen Vincent Brooks, then-commander of the US Army Pacific, said he was eager to build closer ties to the military in Burma, but he said this would have to await a policy decision by the US government.

If Suu Kyi holds power and influence over the remaining US sanctions and the possibility of military-to-military engagement between the American and Burmese armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing’s motivations for closer cooperation with the new government become more understandable.

Peace Is Still The Key Issue

We still do not know the ups and downs that the military-government relationship will undergo in the coming years, but the army does seem willing to cooperate with Suu Kyi on her plan to host a “21st Century Panglong Conference,” which would attempt to hash out a peace deal with several of Burma’s ethnic armed groups.

On the eve of the country’s independence, Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, held the Panglong Conference in Shan State with leaders from several of the country’s ethnic groups. The pact between the Burman majority and the ethnic minorities fostered a spirit of unity and guaranteed full autonomy. It also set the stage for the provision of the right to secede—if the ethnic states so chose—outlined in Burma’s first Constitution.

Suu Kyi wants the new Panglong Conference to be an important part of her legacy; to achieve peace, she will need the cooperation of both the top generals and ethnic leaders. She has advocated a federal union that would devolve considerable powers to the ethnic areas, but if the military proposes a competing notion of federalism, this may result in a serious dispute.

On the issue of peace, Min Aung Hlaing even took some credit.

“I told Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, ‘in this five-year term, we really want to work to achieve peace,’” he said, adding that she had “agreed.”

A Panglong Conference is meant to foster national unity and reconciliation, the top commander said, while also criticizing some ethnic armed groups for having no political purpose.

Yet even as Min Aung Hlaing pledges to work with Suu Kyi, ethnic groups have grown disillusioned with what has been perceived as a lack of NLD support for their rights so far. And this apparently cozy relationship between Suu Kyi and the military could result in further difficulties. Some ethnic groups may grow more suspicious of both the NLD and the military, fearing that as the two Burman-majority entities become closer, the ethnic agenda will be put on the backburner.

How Suu Kyi balances the military relationship with the needs of the ethnic groups could be key to determining whether the high hopes for the 21st Century Panglong Conference are fulfilled.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor of The Irrawaddy.