Will Armed Forces Day Bring Burma’s ‘Big Four’ Together at Last?

By Aung Zaw, Political Parties 26 March 2014

Until the recent past, the Burmese opposition had repeatedly called for a tripartite dialogue involving Aung San Suu Kyi, the military regime and ethnic leaders. Since reforms in Burma began in 2011, this demand been dropped, seemingly replaced by a new call from some quarters for a meeting among the “big four”—Suu Kyi, President Thein Sein, military Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and the powerful Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann.

On the eve of Armed Forces Day, political analysts and local media have speculated that the joining of these powerful figures—and a dialogue among them—may finally be at hand, as all four are expected to attend a reception to commemorate the national holiday on Thursday.

The so-called “four-way dialogue,” which Suu Kyi has called for since November of last year, has yet to take place, with the unrealized prospect apparently thus far the victim of unwillingness by some of the parties involved.

Suu Kyi has also expressed her desire to hold a meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, who is expected to retire in July of next year and is widely believed to be planning to enter politics thereafter. The National League for Democracy chairwoman attended Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw for the first time last year, and this year she has been invited again, but Suu Kyi has yet to have the opportunity to meet the senior general.

Since last year, the Nobel peace laureate has reportedly sought to arrange a meeting with Min Aung Hlaing via Western governments and powerful tycoons in Rangoon, who she enlisted to serve as go-betweens. Informed sources say Min Aung Hlaing initially sent a positive signal back, suggesting that he would like to sit down with her, but ultimately reneged on the offer.

Rebuffed on the bilateral proposition, it appears Suu Kyi then changed tack. Since November of last year, the opposition leader has called for talks to be held involving the big four, to discuss amendments to Burma’s Constitution. This time it was Thein Sein who reportedly turned down the suggestion.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Other well-informed sources say Thein Sein has been courting Min Aung Hlaing, and if their presence together in Kachin State this month is any indication, the duo seem to get along well, at least on the surface.

For Burma, Min Aung Hlaing’s post-retirement plans remain a major question mark hanging over the country’s reform process. Signs point to a future in politics.

These days Min Aung Hlaing can be seen attending public functions, and the senior general even held a press conference for the first time earlier this month. (His media debut was hardly a smashing success, with many journalists shut out of the event and questions submitted in advance—and all posed by state-run media outlets.) Businessmen close to Min Aung Hlaing say he recently told them that he wanted to be a politician.

He has held several meetings with leaders from the Karen National Union (KNU), seemingly suggesting that the government is looking to pick an ethnic Karen leader for vice president, following the precedent set by its selection of the little-known civilian Shan leader Sai Mauk Kham, who was appointed to be one of the country’s two vice presidents in February 2011.

In November, Brig-Gen Wai Lin, a Lower House MP who leads military lawmakers in Parliament, told The Irrawaddy that he expected Min Aung Hlaing to be a leading candidate for the presidency. Wai Lin said military parliamentarians were keen to nominate Min Aung Hlaing following national elections in 2015. The plan is plausible because the country’s president is elected by Parliament, where military officers hold a quarter of the seats.

Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann have also both expressed a desire to become president, but have avoided an antagonistic dynamic over their potentially clashing ambitions. In fact, their effective working relationship has been one of the biggest surprises out of Naypyidaw since the NLD contested, and dominated, by-elections in 2012.

So for all the talk of a four-way dialogue, it appears any such gathering would be “four-way” in name only. Four faces, two sides.

Sources in Naypyidaw have suggested that if the meeting takes place, it would be an informal happening at some state-sponsored function or reception. This also suggests that, as in previous meetings between Suu Kyi and former regime leaders like Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, it will be little more than a stage-managed affair—no sound bites, no fundamental agreement, no breakthroughs.

In any case, the groundwork may have been laid earlier this month, when Thein Sein met Suu Kyi at his cottage in Naypyidaw, their fourth meeting in total since the historic first face-to-face in 2011. Though both sides kept mum about the content of their discussions, Suu Kyi is likely to have brought up the four-party proposition at the March 9 meeting.

Suu Kyi has been rallying people in support of amending the Constitution, which currently bars her from presidential eligibility, and she remains wildly popular among ordinary Burmese citizens. Even so, she knows she needs support from the armed forces’ leadership. It’s just not clear that she’ll get it.

If forces more potent than people power have pegged Min Aung Hlaing as next in line to lead the nation, a Suu Kyi presidency, which many feel is the rightful conclusion to the long-time democracy icon’s political saga, may never come to fruition.