The Military Readies for Burma’s New Politics

By Aung Zaw 29 January 2016

The tenor of President Thein Sein’s farewell speech to the nation did not come as a big surprise.

As expected, the outgoing head of state took credit for setting the country’s democratic transition in motion, for building peace with ethnic armed groups and, of course, for the violence-free and credible general election last November.

The speech appeared to be well-received by the public. Indeed, to many, the sight of the country’s president signing off was a relief; further proof that the transfer of power to an elected National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government remained on track.

The former general who is in his early 70s continues to lead the defeated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but he won’t stay long. By all reports, he is looking forward to spending more time with his family.

But the political system he leaves behind is no democratic utopia, liberated from the sway of a military that has commanded political and economic heft for decades.

The army, which has long-planned for the day its formal political vehicle is superseded, will remain a key institution in politics.

This is where Aung San Suu Kyi and her election winning party will have to learn to work collaboratively and negotiate.

The military retains a quarter of parliamentary seats and controls three key ministries—defense, border and home affairs. An eleventh-hour bid led by the president that would have brought immigration matters under military control was voted down by outgoing lawmakers on Thursday.

Burma’s commander-in-chief still holds the keys to power. Hence thus far, Suu Kyi has sought to build a constructive relationship with him.

In Burma’s new political era, it is not the USDP but the military who will call the shots. However, the overwhelming mandate in favor of the NLD in last year’s poll may give the general’s pause. After all, it was elected, democratically-minded officials, not the old military-backed establishment, in which the Burmese people so definitively invested their faith.

Ahead of the first day of the new Parliament on Feb. 1, Suu Kyi has appointed the speakers and deputy speakers of the legislature, including an ethnic Karen, a Kachin and an Arakanese.

The Lady herself would harbor hopes of the military consenting to amendment of Article 59(f) of the Constitution, which currently bars her from the presidency, in the not-too distance future. For now, as Suu Kyi prepares to lead the next government—at least “from above”—the powerful army chief is not sitting idly.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing recently selected a qualified batch of army officers to sit in the incoming NLD-dominated parliament, including major-generals, brigadier-generals and colonels. In total, 386 non-elected military personnel were appointed or reappointed to the country’s three levels of Parliament.

It is these military MPs, constituting the largest opposition bloc to the NLD in Parliament, who are preparing to take on Suu Kyi’s party. In contrast, after its stunning electoral defeat in November, the USDP is essentially a spent political force.

Min Aung Hlaing and his cohorts are now preparing for a new battle; not in the conflict-prone hills of the north, but in the nation’s Parliament.

The sending of more experienced and educated khaki-clad officers to the Parliament is a strong indication the military is preparing to engage in policy and legislative debates with the NLD, in the absence of a more robust opposition force.

According to defense analyst Maung Aung Myoe, the Burmese author of “Building the Tatmadaw”—who also taught at the National Defense College—of 26 senior military officers newly appointed to the Lower and Upper houses of Parliament, 22 have master’s degrees from the National Defense College.

Writing in the Nikkei Asian Review, the author stressed that military lawmakers’ graduate education had equipped them with an understanding of “not only national security and international affairs but also public administration and economic development, giving them a broad overview and understanding of public policy issues.”

In 2009, then ruling Snr-Gen Than Shwe said in an armed forces day speech that democracy in Burma was in a “fledgling stage and still requires patient care and attention.”

He continued: “As a Myanmar proverb puts it, a recently dug well cannot be expected to produce clear water immediately.”

Seven years on, the well has still not produced clear water yet. Not yet.