Not the Time to Rock the Boat

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 12 July 2017

It is still unclear how the government will penalize Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein for his recent remarks concerning the head of the military. What is certain is that the incident has been an embarrassment for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) administration, which has prioritized good relations with the army in the one-year-old government’s quest for national reconciliation.

The Myanmar Army has filed a complaint with the government asking that they “take necessary actions” against the chief minister for saying “there are no civil-military relations in the democratic era” and that the position of the military’s commander-in-chief “is the same as the level of director-general, according to the [state] protocol.”

U Phyo Min Thein made the remarks in an address on Sunday during a workshop about the rehabilitation of former political prisoners in Yangon. The statement was delivered in the context of him explaining that the military should be placed under civilian control. “But in practice, we have to treat him in the same way as we do with the country’s top leaders. It’s not democracy,” he added, referring to the commander-in-chief.

As a result, the relations between the government and the armed forces have soured at a time when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been attempting to build trust with the powerful military, hoping to amend the controversial 2008 Constitution. The Yangon Chief Minister’s remarks have generated ire from the institution that, according to the charter, is relegated control of three of the country’s important security ministries, and 25 percent of parliamentary seats.

According to the NLD government’s official protocol, the military commander-in-chief is ranked eighth in the national leadership hierarchy, just after the Union Chief of Justice. It’s the same position Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing enjoyed during the previous government’s tenure, during which he was ranked seventh because the position of State Counselor did not yet exist. The senior general likely was insulted that U Phyo Min Thein equated his position with that of a director-general, ranked last, or 38th, for directors from the defense ministry.

Despite the army chief’s standing as eighth in the country, there is truth in part of what U Phyo Min Thein said: that the military commander-in-chief is treated in the same way as the country’s top leaders. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has the final say on military and security issues, while U Htin Kyaw, the President of the elected NLD government, takes control of civilian matters. It’s contrary to practices in other democracies. In the US, for example, the civilian-elected President also acts as the military chief.

In Myanmar, no one in the government can directly appoint the military chief. Only the commander-in-chief can choose his successor: after all, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing was appointed by his predecessor, Snr-Gen Than Shwe. The Constitution says the President can appoint the army chief only with a nomination and recommendation from the National Defense and Security Council. But of the council’s 11 members, six are from the military, including the army chief, who appoints the others. Plus, the commander-in-chief can appoint a vice president, and ministers for defense, home affairs and border affairs.

Addressing U Phyo Min Thein’s concerns is only possible through constitutional reform, which is one of the NLD government’s missions, alongside the realization of a successful peace process. Both aims will take time. To make either happen, military collaboration is crucial, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s relationship with them is one that she has been developing for years. The last thing we want is to place further hurdles in her efforts for the country. The controversy surrounding the chief minister’s statement is simply the latest reminder that civil-military relations in Myanmar remain sensitive, and that indiscreet comments can still rock the boat.