Suu Kyi, generals form a cosy alliance

Suu Kyi, generals form a cosy alliance

The relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing remains fragile, but both sides are learning to co-exist in the new era. (AFP photo)
The relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing remains fragile, but both sides are learning to co-exist in the new era. (AFP photo)

Myanmar's new democratic government, led by the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, has only been in power for 50 days.

But already many Myanmar analysts and commentators are finding fault with its lack of speedy reforms, broken promises and unexpected government appointments. Some even suggest Ms Suu Kyi is already antagonising the military, still the most important institution in the country, with her style of government.

Nothing could be further from the truth, according to former army officers and Myanmar military analysts. Although the relationship between Ms Suu Kyi and the army commander in chief, senior general Min Aung Hlaing remains fragile, this is only to be expected. While the reigns of government may have been handed over, the power transition is still in the process of being informally negotiated. In fact both sides are treading carefully as they learn to co-exist in this new era.

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service New Editor for the region.

"Trust has to be built between the two sides, which hitherto have had limited contact with each other," said a former army officer -- now part of a military "think-tank" network -- on condition of anonymity.

"So far so good," he mused, but it will take time, maybe up to two years. Most former military officers, and those close to them, believe Ms Suu Kyi's cautious approach has been well received by the army hierarchy, even though sometimes it seems the military members of parliament are critical of the government's recent legislation.

The media-savvy army commander-in-chief used his latest press conference to clearly spell out the army's political position. "The commander-in-chief is ranked below the president," he told journalists in the capital Nay Pyi Taw last Friday. "Contrary to what many assume, we are working together [with the civilian government]," he said.

The government recently published a protocol list that ranked the president Htin Kyaw and the newly created post of state councillor, held by Ms Suu Kyi, as above the commander in chief. Many commentators assumed this was in fact a slap in the face to Min Aung Hlaing. But according to sources close to the army leaders, this was accepted as legitimising the reality.

"We all know [in the army] and accept that The Lady [Ms Suu Kyi] is running the government," a former senior military officer told the Bangkok Post. "And this merely formalises it."

Ms Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) faced an enormous task when they took over power at the end of March -- one which was far greater than they anticipated.

And the leadership has opted to err on the side of caution, and not allow the enormous public expectations to stampede them into premature and ill-advised actions or policy options. Clearly the NLD leader has opted for a slow and careful roll out of the new government's policies and programme. With this strategy she is committed to keeping the military leaders on board, and not provoking them.

Before the actual handover of formal power, there were several incidents of miscommunication and misunderstanding, according to sources close to the process.

"She must talk directly to the commander-in-chief, inform him of all proposed changes and appointments, and must publicly respect the army and its mission," a senior government official, close to the talks between the two sides, said. She appears to have heeded this advice.

Channels of communication and cooperation have been firmly established. There were some initial hiccups involving the hand-over ceremony and the gala dinner. But Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing has made it clear that he will only "talk" to the president -- which is indeed the accepted protocol.

The home minister apparently passed the message to President Htin Kyaw from the army chief not long after the NLD cabinet was sworn in, according to sources. But this does not mean the military has adopted a non-cooperation stance. In fact the opposite is true.

The three military ministers -- Lt Gen Sein Win (defence), Lt Gen Ye Aung (border affairs) and Lt Gen Kyaw Swe (home affairs) -- have a good relationship with Ms Suu Kyi, in her capacity as state councillor.

"They have a good understanding with her, and are working closely together," a former senior military officer said. There have already been some contentious issues -- the resumption of mining at the Leptadaung copper mine and the future of Chinese construction of the Myitsone Dam -- that are being resolved amicably. Though there is likely to be substantial protests by the local residents and communities at both sites.

On the other hand the proactive and critical position taken by the military members of parliament -- who still comprise 25 % of the legislative assemblies -- on some law making measures, particularly the creation of a state councillor and the creation of a new ministry to service the position, should not be seen as the army taking a principled position against the NLD leaders, but simply them exercising their parliamentary right. They have been instructed by the army chief to take their parliamentary functions -- to provide "checks and balances" on the executive -- seriously.

Interestingly, many of them served in the last parliament and most of them are far more senior than their predecessors in the previous parliament. "The army wants an effective parliament," said a former military officer. "They are playing the democracy game," he added.

That does not mean there are not significant fault lines ahead in the trust-building relationship between the army and the NLD government.

The biggest at present is the continued elevated position the former parliamentary speaker Thura Shwe Mann has under the new government, and the close advisory role he has with Ms Suu Kyi herself. The peace process, when it resumes, and the discussion on constitutional reform -- especially incorporating federalism -- will also pose serious risks to the continued cooperation and trust between the two sides.

"But above all the army is committed to resolving any future differences peacefully without resorting to a coup," a former military officer said. The constitution allows the army chief to initiate action -- by taking "administrative control of the country" -- if he thinks the nation's stability is threatened.

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