The Importance of Reading Between the Lines

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 14 September 2018

Without the ability to read between the lines of a country’s political rhetoric, grasping the nuances of its politics is virtually impossible. Myanmar is in a very complex situation indeed, one that requires more “reading between the lines” than most.

Lacking this ability, many would-be analysts of Myanmar fall victim to a tendency to badly misread the situation here.

The most recent example can be found in the international reaction to a reply that Myanmar’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, gave when she was asked about the likelihood of another military coup in the country. Speaking after delivering a lecture in Singapore in late August, she said she wasn’t worried about the matter, adding with a laugh that all three of the generals in her cabinet are “rather sweet”. The audience, most of whom were Singaporeans or people from other Asian countries, reacted with laughter.

I think many people in the audience got it right, and that the many others in Myanmar who watched it online understood clearly what she meant. That is, they were well aware that in her description of the generals, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t really mean that they were “sweet”.

But many foreign observers, especially Westerners, didn’t get it at all. They were provoked to outrage by her words. Some analysts for Western media, including those participating in a discussion on CNN, interpreted it that way; they believe she really likes the generals and enjoys having them as ministers in her cabinet. That’s simply wrong. In fact, the State Counselor’s comment was a humorous one, delivered with a laugh and a witty look—and her audience understood this. As she said it, the audience laughed along with her. And the moderator responded laughingly with a comment about her “very charming reply”.

Similarly, I am sure many people in Myanmar watching online fully grasped that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi chose the words “rather sweet” because she is unable to offer an opinion such as “rather bad”, given the country’s hybrid political situation and the military’s constitutionally privileged position of power. Another important fact is that she knows she cannot control the military.

Some viewers may also have misinterpreted a comment the State Counselor made while addressing the likelihood of another military coup, when she said, “Our relationship with the Army is not that bad, you know.” Her tone was clearly ironic. Reading between the lines, one can see that she views the relationship between the military and her government as “not good”—or even that “it’s terrible.”

Such faulty interpretations are understandable. Myanmar’s politics are more complicated than most. But without being able to read between the lines on some key issues, it becomes very difficult to make sense of the situation. If we can grasp such nuances, we can understand the reality.

The intelligence information we’ve gathered backs up the assessment of sour relations between the military and the National League for Democracy-led government.

Even those comments made by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Singapore left the military unhappy, because the State Counselor said her government was trying to amend the undemocratic articles of the Constitution that guarantee the military’s political power, such as the rules stating that 25 percent of seats in Parliament are occupied by unelected military appointees and that three key Cabinet positions are filled by military officers—the very same officers she described as “rather sweet.”

One former high-ranking Army official who is close to the commander-in-chief confided that the top military leaders feel that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi chose the wrong time and place to talk about amending the Constitution, given the many problems the country faces.

In fact, when the NLD was in opposition in Parliament under the previous government from 2011 to 2016 and discussed amending the Constitution, the military never showed the slightest interest in the idea. It has always firmly taken the position that its job is to safeguard the Constitution. And in the absence of a political miracle in the country, this stand is highly unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

On Aug. 27, when social media platform Facebook announced that it had removed the account of military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, along with 17 other military-related accounts and 52 Facebook pages associated with the military, the military leaders suspected the government of involvement in the closure. That might not be the case.

But such deep suspicion of the NLD-led government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi by the military has created an atmosphere in which she must choose her words carefully, and comment indirectly, in order not to offend the military leadership.

So, to truly understand Myanmar’s politics, please try to read between the lines.