An escalating war of words between Myanmar’s powerful but sensitive military and a senior official in de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s government shows just how lightly Myanmar’s new leaders must tread amid the country’s volatile transition to democracy.
Speaking to former political prisoners at a conference July 9, Yangon’s Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein appeared to warn participants the army still retained strong influence, citing the fact that civilian leaders had to treat the commander-in-chief as a virtual head of state.
“This is not democracy,” he said, according to a video recording of the remarks. The military responded by calling the statement an insult to the head of the army, Min Aung Hlaing, and filing a complaint with the government.
A former political prisoner himself and member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Phyo Min Thein was appointed by Aung San Suu Kyi to the chief minister post following historic elections in 2015 that were meant to lurch Myanmar toward civilian rule after decades of military dictatorship.
His comments are extremely rare, as the party has avoided criticizing the military while stressing national reconciliation. But they also point to an uncomfortable reality of Myanmar’s precarious transition. More than a year into the NLD-led government, relations with the armed forces remain tense and uneasy.
“I think for the military, their position is to remain in the leading role or the driver’s seat as long as possible, so long as they are not sure about their own position or if they are not sure about civilian politicians, especially once they are opponents, they will continue to be behaving like this in the short and middle term,” said Soe Myint Aung, an analyst with the Yangon-based Tagaung Institute of Political Studies.
Party insiders have stressed repeatedly that they need to be careful about what they say so as to work with the military to achieve their goals, mainly signing peace deals with the country’s ethnic armed groups. Aung San Suu Kyi’s defenders have highlighted this to explain why she has not spoken out more about the country’s beleaguered Rohingya Muslim minority and other human rights abuses that point back to the armed forces.
But Soe Myint Aung said the approach has not worked, adding that their “overcautious” style may have ironically made the military more sensitive about its interests.
“I don’t think the NLD-led government has a strategy about civil-military relations or how to deal with the Burmese armed forces. That’s the whole point. But on the contrary, I think the Tatmadaw, the military, I think they have some ideas about how to be treating the civilian government,” he said, using the Burmese name for the military. “That makes the whole difference.”
The Tatmadaw still controls 25 percent of parliament and three ministries, and shows no interest in attempts to reform the 2008 constitution that affords them this share of the political pie. It has responded to criticism with lawsuits, and last month the army arrested three journalists and accused them of assisting insurgents.
Alex Dukalskis, a lecturer at University College Dublin who specializes in Asian politics, said in an email that the prickly nature of the military is an enduring feature of the institution.
“The military has always been quite sensitive to criticism. Before 2010 virtually all criticism of the military — even if it was minor — was censored,” he said, adding the current situation is difficult because of the power the army retained in the form of its ministerial portfolios, including Home Affairs.
“It could do a lot to frustrate the transition to more democratic politics, so the NLD does have some reason to tread lightly. In the back of many people’s minds there still may be a fear that the military could return to power,” he said.
Assassination stokes fear
The assassination in January of government legal adviser U Ko Ni, who had been working on amending the 2008 constitution, has helped stoke similar fears.
While authorities have not accused the army of involvement in the murder, some of the suspects in the case are retired military, and the sole fugitive was last seen in Naypyitaw, the capital built by the former junta. Despite knowing him for years, Aung San Suu Kyi did not attend his funeral, and it took weeks for her to say anything publicly about the case.
So far the government is not defending Phyo Min Thein, though it is unclear whether that could result in him being removed from his position. He could not be reached for comment.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay told the Irrawaddy news website Thursday that Phyo Min Thein’s comments do not reflect the government’s position and that “we have instructed him to do what he needs to do.” He did not elaborate.