In the Wake of Rakhine State Crisis, Support for Suu Kyi is (Almost) Solid

By Aung Zaw 14 September 2017

Political life in Myanmar is like a roller coaster ride: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) administration have faced ups and downs since they came into power. The irony is that since the situation in Rakhine State escalated further in recent weeks, she has garnered much needed support inside the country.

Is it because the public is worried that the military will stage a coup to justify its role as safeguarding the nation and its sovereignty?

There are two schools of thought on this.

First, some political observers have produced a conspiracy theory—note that there is no shortage of these nowadays in Myanmar—that as the country faces more instability, military leaders are prepared to step into national leadership. Even some veteran NLD members expressed concern that a coup is inevitable as the situation in northern Rakhine remains a great concern, with pressure mounting and opposition parties asking the military to step in.

Some have even gone further, saying that the country is witnessing the same scenario as in 1958, when Prime Minister U Nu invited Gen Ne Win to form the military-led Caretaker Government. Will there be a repeat of this move?

The political instability in the country at that time, and the serious split within the ruling party the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League forced U Nu to reach a compromise with Gen Ne Win, then the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, to hand over power with the promise of holding free and fair elections in the near future.

Gen Ne Win, a member of the legendary “Thirty Comrades,” was arguably already planning to take state power. Ne Win became prime minister, but as he promised, he held a free and fair election in 1960, which U Nu won. Two years later, he staged a coup and threw U Nu and his cabinet ministers in prison.

This scenario is unlikely to be repeated, critics of this theory argue.

The second theory is that the army has a contingency plan to take control of the country in case of an emergency, as is mandated in the 2008 Constitution, but there is a process required.

Only the President—U Htin Kyaw—can declare a state of emergency after consulting and coordinating with the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services and Home Affairs. This declaration must be submitted to the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) for approval as soon as possible, according to Constitution. It should be noted that under the current administration, regular NDSC meetings do not take place.

Whatever the case, the commander-in-chief—Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing—would have sovereign power, but he would have to seek NDSC approval to extend the emergency period six months or more. He also has to report to an emergency session of the Union Parliament. This scenario is likely if the country is perceived as facing a serious emergency situation or a formidable threat to sovereignty. Thus, looking at the increasing instability and the derailing of the current peace process, some critics say that the NLD government has been sabotaged and undermined. But Daw Aung San Suu Kyi still enjoys public support.

So a coup is unlikely. Under the Constitution, the army has 25 percent of the parliamentary representation and controls key ministries of defense, border and home affairs. It is a hybrid power-sharing government structure that some former military leaders claim can prevent a military coup like the one Myanmar experienced in the past.

Myanmar military Commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing looks to Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi during Myanmar’s top six-party talks at the Presidential palace at Naypyitaw on April 10, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Who Is More Powerful: Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?

Under the 2008 Constitution, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is more powerful than Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now de facto leader of the government.

The army chief can order and mobilize troops under his command. In the case of Rakhine, he sent troops to the state’s northern townships weeks before Muslim militants launched attacks on police and military targets on Aug. 25. It was assumed that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was not consulted in advance, but informed through high-ranking government officials. This means that the State Counselor has neither control nor influence over the military. But if the President holds regular NDSC meetings, the issue of sending troops can be discussed.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is loyal to the armed forces and the country, and his duty is to protect the sovereignty of the state. However, some observers have suggested that he may have his own political ambitions. As army leaders intend to remain in politics for the foreseeable future, it is impossible to conclude that the military will be removed from this sphere—they are likely to persist.

Therefore, Min Aung Hlaing may contest the next national elections in 2020 and become head of state. But still, it is unclear under what political platform he would run, if not under the former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Does the Army Still Need Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?

The relationship between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is at odds, which does not help the situation in Rakhine State.

Due to a lack of strategic thinking, coordination and packaging, the diplomatic offensive by the government and the military to counter an onslaught of international pressure and media has been appalling. But many, including critics of the State Counselor, have asked if not for Aung San Suu Kyi, who would defend the country? If Min Aung Hlaing were mandated a politician, could he defend the nation on the international stage and at the UN?

The US, for instance, has been looking into the situation with keen interest and with the suggestion of placing pressure on Myanmar. It continues to engage with the government to make progress in Rakhine State, but has expressed concern over the military’s action and behavior in the region. The possible expansion of military-to-military engagement between the two countries is now in doubt. If Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and future military leaders need this shift in US policy to be realized, they will require Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s blessing.

A former democratic icon and a veteran politician, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has friends around the globe and goodwill ambassadors who will act on her behalf—friends who understand Myanmar’s complex power structure, and have a balanced and nuanced, if not deep, knowledge of ongoing conflicts in the country. The Myanmar Army’s generals still lack a sufficient number of allies to back them up.

With Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at the forefront of the country, the irony is that she somehow serves as a shield to deflect serious international pressure and threats of sanctions from Western governments. The army leaders know this—their image and legitimacy was enhanced in the week initially following the August attacks, but it has appeared to slip in the period since then.

However, informed sources close to the inner circle of both the government and military say there is sympathy from the army and its members’ families toward Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as they feel she has been portrayed unfairly in the international spotlight. It should be noted that Myanmar citizens, like those of other countries, are proud patriots. When the UN and Western media criticized former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe, many inside and outside the country rallied around these calls, because they knew that his regime needed to be overthrown. This time it is different: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is no Than Shwe.

Likely because of pressure from the UN and reporting on Rakhine State which is perceived as one-sided, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been singled out to be denounced. However, public support for her today is strong domestically, a change from previous months in which critics questioned ger government’s direction, the stalled peace process and economic policies.

Within Myanmar, many are alarmed by the return of ultranationalist monk U Wirathu as a public figure in the wake of the attacks. The possible outbreak of anti-Muslim riots and rising tension in central Myanmar have also played a factor in many reaching the realization that the administration needs support at this time.

What about the USDP and its allies? It is safe to say that the public doesn’t want this party to return to power in the near future. The USDP’s aggressive push for the military to take a tough stance in Rakhine State was met with strong disapproval from the public.

Many netizens have stated on social media that the crisis in Rakhine State should serve to unify the nation and the people. It should also aid in realizing common ground between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the army’s commander-in-chief—the nation’s strength lies within, not outside.

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