The Irrawaddy

Is the President Truly Above the Commander-in-Chief?

Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing (left) and then-Lower House Speaker U Win Myint attend a signing ceremony marking the New Mon State Party's ratification of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in Naypyitaw in February. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

Executive power in Myanmar is divided between the civilian government and armed forces. As many political observers put it, there are two lions sharing a cave.

But then how can the president exercise his executive power to order the military to stop fighting in an ethnic minority region, particularly in the north?

Indeed, this is an ongoing debate among political observers and ethnic leaders.

U Win Myint is now president and believed to be focusing on fixing several critical problems. But he will also — many hope — be given more executive power from his boss, and Myanmar’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

This debate resumed when UN Security Council members visited Myanmar (after Bangladesh) to learn about the crisis in northern Rakhine State in early May.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing told the council delegates: “Our Tatmadaw [military] represents Myanmar, and though I am the head of the Tatmadaw, our country has the president. And we Tatmadaw act under the leadership of the president.”

He was responding to a question about clearance operations in Rakhine State that have driven some 700,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh.

The Tatmadaw, the army chief added, “is under the guidance of the Myanmar government. We only take action according to the mandate given by law and we are not authorized to do anything beyond the limits of the law.”

We still don’t know if U Win Myint has had any quality conversations about this sensitive subject with Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing since he took office in March.

But it is clear who ordered the 2,000 to 4,000 troops to Rakhine State when Muslim terrorists began attacking civilians.

The deployment was ordered not by then-President Htin Kyaw, but by Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

In August, a delegation comprising seven members of the Arakan National Party visited the army chief to discuss local concerns and called for heightened security measures in Rakhine State. They asked the military to send more troops because ARSA and other radical Muslims had slaughtered local civilians.

Who, then, ordered the clearance operations? Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing or U Htin Kyaw? The answer is obvious. Interestingly, though, there was no counter-statement from the civilian administration.

This week The Irrawaddy asked a Defense Ministry official whether the military was prepared to obey if President U Win Myint were to order it to stop fighting in Kachin State.

Brigadier General Aung Kyaw Hoe, the ministry’s permanent secretary, replied: “The Tatmadaw is under the leadership of the state. The president is the head of the country. If he gives an executive order, we are ready to obey. There is no reason we won’t obey it.”

It is understood that his answer caused some in Naypyitaw to hit the roof. Regardless, will U Win Myint test his powers and order the military to stop fighting in Kachin?

Former President U Thein Sein, an ex-general who was lauded as a reformer, ordered the military to halt attacks on the Kachin in 2011. As a result, the fighting gradually ceased and the leaders of the Kachin Independence Army came to the negotiating table. But the generals complained that the Kachin had expanded their bases during the peace talks and the attacks resumed.

Since the National League for Democracy took control of the civilian government in early 2016, the National Defense Security Council has not met. Though the army and government have had joint security briefings, the fighting in Kachin should be discussed at a proper meeting of the council.

Ethnic leaders are frustrated with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s long silence on the fighting in Kachin and Shan states. She has been to Kachin and visited camps housing displaced families. But it seems she has little influence over the army chief, even after gushing that she was fond of the military as her father, General Aung San, had founded the armed forces.

But the real issue here is the 2008 Constitution, which forces two lions to share a cave and limits the civilian government’s executive powers.

As the Constitution clearly states: “The Defense Services have the right to independently administer and adjudicate all affairs of the armed forces and the commander-in-chief of the Defense Services is the supreme commander of all armed forces.”

It goes on: “The Defense Services have the right to administer military affairs independently; the Defense Services are mainly responsible for safeguarding the non-disintegration of the Union, the non-disintegration of national solidarity and the perpetuation of sovereignty; the Defense Services are mainly responsible for safeguarding the Constitution.”

Myanmar’s fundamental power structure won’t change if the military continues to play a leading role in national politics as stipulated by the Constitution. It will only serve to set the two lions on a collision course.

But wishful thinking among some political observers has it that the generals may be hinting that they are ready to compromise with the current civilian government now that they say they are under the president’s orders. Or they may simply be trying to shift the blame for the Rakhine crisis onto the civilian government with international rebuke focused mainly on them.

Some are asking why the civilian leadership is so silent and displaying a siege mentality.

At a press conference in May 2016, Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said: “The commander-in-chief is ranked below the president. Contrary to what many assume, we are working together [with the civilian government].”

So should U Win Myint order the military to stop fighting in Kachin State and see how the army responds?

Isn’t it time for the president and army chief to sit down and be frank about who is telling the truth?