The Lady and the Generals  

By Aung Zaw 25 July 2016

It takes two to tango, say Burma-watchers trying to make sense of the relationship burgeoning between the new government and the armed forces. This last week, some intriguing gestures have passed between the two.

On July 19—Burma’s Martyrs’ Day, commemorating the assassination of independence hero Aung San and eight of his colleagues in 1947—Commander-in-Chief Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing became the first armed forces commander in decades to take part in the annual ceremony at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Rangoon. This is bound to become protocol for Min Aung Hlaing’s successors.

There were more surprises. After delivering his salute at the mausoleum, the commander-in-chief showed up at Aung San Suu Kyi’s Rangoon residence for a Buddhist merit-making ceremony, switching his uniform for a traditional Burmese jacket and longyi.

Pictures of Min Aung Hlaing and Suu Kyi nodding and smiling at each other alongside prominent Buddhist monks in Suu Kyi’s lakeside villa were shared widely among the Burmese public and foreign observers.

Prominent former generals were also present, including Myint Swe, vice president and a protégé of former dictator Than Shwe, and Shwe Mann, who was once “number three” in Than Shwe’s military junta and is now a close ally of Suu Kyi.

Relations between Shwe Mann and the military establishment have grown chilly at best; with Suu Kyi in the middle, they were forced to exchange pleasantries.

Last month, the military attempted to sue a local newspaper for a story that quoted from a speech given by Shwe Mann to graduates of the Defense Services Academy, in which he urged them to work with the country’s newly elected democratic government. The military claimed the publication of these words could “destroy the unity of the military.”

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

Tin Oo, a commander-in-chief of the military during the 1970s and now one of the senior-most leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD), was seen conversing with top members of the military establishment at Suu Kyi’s house on July 19.

The event was like a social gathering of the current bi-polar political elite in Burma, minus President Htin Kyaw. The general public reacted positively.

Min Aung Hlaing, who had turned 60 by July 19, brought his wife along; she was photographed sitting behind Suu Kyi as the monks partook of their lunch offerings. It was a demonstration of closer relations forged between Suu Kyi and the armed forces chief.

So what was the deal underlying all this?

One theory circulating among political analysts asserts that the government first proposed that President Htin Kyaw attend the ceremony at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum, which would have made him the first Burmese head of state to attend since before the 1988 coup.

However, this would have led to concerns that such a move would reflect badly on previous heads of state—who chose to remain aloof from a monument so closely associated with Aung San, the late father of then-opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi—and would have set a binding precedent for all succeeding presidents.

In the end, President Htin Kyaw commemorated Martyrs’ Day in Naypyidaw at a Buddhist merit-making ceremony, receiving little publicity. Assigning Min Aung Hlaing to the high-profile ceremony in Rangoon was part of the compromise reached, so the theory goes.

A rumor shared among political pundits several months ago was that Min Aung Hlaing was facing resistance in extending his position for another five years—on the understanding that, constitutionally, he would need the go-ahead from the president.

On Wednesday of last week, Lt Gen Mya Tun Oo addressed a press briefing in Rangoon on behalf of the military, in which he confirmed that Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy, Soe Win, would continue in their roles for the full term of the current government, ending in 2020. Under an amended defense services law, the retirement age is now pegged at 65.

Political insiders have since claimed that the NLD government had given the green light for this extension; Suu Kyi and senior NLD officials were not ready to begin relations with a new commander-in-chief.

In May, Min Aung Hlaing clarified his position at a press conference in Naypyidaw: “The commander-in-chief is below the president. Contrary to what many had assumed, we are working together [with the civilian government].”

Suu Kyi’s present goal is to achieve peace in a war torn country. For this, she must find common ground with army generals as well as ethnic leaders. Like her father, she has shown herself to be a pragmatic politician.

The events of last week, with the appearances of the commander-in-chief at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum and in Suu Kyi’s Rangoon home, signal such an attempt to reach out and build trust.

This augurs a new political dynamic in Burma—a cause for cautious optimism.