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Military division of power in Myanmar

Despite Aung San Suu Kyi's landslide victory in the November parliamentary elections, she is forced to share power with the military – and that could be her biggest challenge.


"My constituency was like a battlefield," said Maung Thin Thit, one of the more surprised winners of Myanmar's first free election in 25 years. The 49-year-old poet ran for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which recently won nearly 80 percent of the seats in Myanmar's national parliament. Many military personnel, police officers and officials live in Maung Thin Thit's constituency in the capital Nay Pyi Taw. In 2010, current President Thein Sein was elected here, and the opponent in the election campaign this time was former General and Defense Minister U Wai Lwin. Even the country's former powerful dictator Than Shwe voted by post in the constituency for the November 8 parliamentary elections. Winning here seemed like an almost insurmountable task for the local poet and activist, also known as Ye Mon and has previously been jailed for seven years for his political activities. But the poet won over the general – with only 176 votes and with the help of the approximately 800 out of 10 votes from the military that went to him. “My opponent prepared as if for a battle, but the civilians voted for me. If the soldiers had felt they could vote completely freely, we would have had even more votes, "he explains. His campaign office in a dilapidated but beautiful old colonial building was during the election campaign when New Time passed by, filled with volunteer activists. Now, after the election victory, they are in the process of establishing a think tank to support Maung Thin Thit and the other newly elected with their work in parliament.

Aung San Suu Kyi in conversation with Chief of Defense Min Aung Hlaing. PHOTO: AFP PHOTO / MYAWADDY
Aung San Suu Kyi in conversation with Chief of Defense Min Aung Hlaing.

Transfer of power. For the fight is far from over. Many analysts believe that it has only really begun. In 1990, the NLD won a similarly large landslide victory, but the military then chose not to hand over government power. Today, 25 years later, Myanmar's military is still a crucial force in the country. Through the Constitution, the military is secured 25 percent of the seats in parliament, the control of three important ministries including the Ministry of Defense and the Interior, and the chief of defense is not subject to either parliament, government or president. The big winner of the election, Democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is also excluded from the presidential post elected by parliament due to her sons having foreign citizenship. Therefore, despite the overwhelming majority, Aung San Suu Kyi's party NLD cannot rule the country without some military acceptance. "Aung San Suu Kyi has done the seemingly impossible and achieved a majority that annihilates some of the safety valves carefully inscribed in the Constitution," explains analyst Khin Zaw Win. “Nevertheless, both sides need each other at this time. Both Aung San Suu Kyi and the military, because civilian control of the military – although a beautiful thought – is not practically feasible at this time. ” Defense Minister Min Aung Hlaing congratulated Suu Kyi on the NLD's electoral victory even before it was official – and emphasized that the military will accept the result this time. He and current President Thein Sein have also agreed to a meeting with her on the transfer of power – after refusing to meet with her on two-year terms in recent years.

Without authority. Aung San Suu Kyi has urged her supporters to keep a low profile after the election victory. "Victory or failure, it's not important. What matters is how we win or lose. Those who lose should bravely retire, while those who win should humbly celebrate victory. It is a true democracy, ”she said after the election. She departed from holding the otherwise expected historic electoral speech, and in addition to a few thousand supporters in front of the NLD headquarters, the people followed her call and abstained from celebrating the long-awaited outcome. Many see Aung San Suu Kyi's attitude as an attempt to establish a conciliatory tone with the military and the outgoing ruling elite. The power of the military also lurks in the back of the poet Maung Thin Thit, but he also reaches out to his former opponents. "The reality is that our nation needs the NLD and the military to cooperate – that will be to the benefit of both," he emphasizes.
Aung San Suu Kyi has made it clear that despite the exclusion from the presidential post, she will be the one to lead the country from a position "above the president" and make all major decisions. She will elect the president (officially elected by parliament in February) and emphasize that "he must understand that he has no authority – and that he will act in accordance with the party." She explains that this particular system is a necessity in a non-democratic country. Others believe it is a violation of the constitution introduced by the military and which guarantees the military's continued influence. Analyst Khin Zaw Win believes the military's core interests are not yet threatened. "With all its defenses in place, the military is not so concerned about the presidential post," he explains. "They showed respect for President Thein Sein, but ignored his instructions much of the time. They can easily do the same with the next president. […] The military as an institution understands Burmese politicians inside and out. Aung San Suu Kyi doesn't rank high in their optics. ”

Only a few see the election as an automatic solution to the country's ethnic problems.

The Ethnic Challenge. Aung San Suu Kyi's leadership and lack of control over the military can be especially challenging when it comes to the ethnic groups and the more than 60-year civil war between the military and the ethnic armed organizations that want a federal state and respect for ethnic rights. It is this conflict that was the reason why the military took power in 1962 and has remained with it ever since. Under the current government, President Thein Sein has repeatedly asked the army to refrain from offensive against ethnic groups, which they have repeatedly ignored – so few see the election as an automatic solution to the country's ethnic problems. "The generals may feel safe enough to accept a situation where the NLD, as the democratically elected government, has control over most aspects of national politics while the military retains authority in the security sector," explains Ashley South, an expert on ethnic relations in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly backed the ethnic groups' demands for a federal state, "but it is still unknown whether the party will prioritize this promise among the country's many other major and pressing issues," adds Ashley South.

Control of the judiciary and the courts. The NLD is also challenged by the fact that the military has placed many former military people on top administrative posts in the country's ministries and its judiciary. Although the military will formally assume a more withdrawn role in the future, it can still retain some control through its network of loyal former commanders. Khin Maung Soe, a leading lawyer near the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, explains that five out of seven Supreme Court judges have a military background and that the courts are far from independent. "Military commanders can command the outcome of a lawsuit, but often direct interference from the military is not even necessary," he emphasizes. "Judges are afraid in advance if they have the impression that military interests are at stake in a case." Along with over a hundred lawyers, Khin Maung Soe, a longtime NLD member, has started a public campaign against the military's influence over the courts. Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly emphasized the importance of increased legal certainty as a solution to many of the country's problems, and prominent NLD members have backed the campaign – but the NLD leadership has now asked him to suspend it. "They are worried it will provoke the military in the transition phase," he explains, adding: "I don't think it would be a wise long-term strategy for the NLD to join the military, because if we don't fight, we risk to be trapped in a trap where the military has its people installed in all command structures. ” However, others close to the military believe that the military sincerely wants to play a more constructive role in Myanmar in the future. Aung Naing Oo, spokesman for the government-backed Myanmar Peace Center, emphasizes that the military is serious both in terms of ethnic groups and democracy rules: «The military's sincere desire is to end the conflicts. They are in the process of modernization and know full well that they will have to be part of democracy. ”

Kempel is a freelance journalist living in Yangon.

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