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Asean Affairs  6 February  2015

Myanmar’s Military Still a Wild Card as Elections Loom

By Phuong Nguyen, (@PNguyen_DC), Research Associate, Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS

Myanmar for months has been immersed in intense political maneuvering with the first general elections since the country’s transition to civilian rule expected to take place in October or November. The spotlight has been on opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s inability to contest the presidency, whether President Thein Sein will contemplate another term, and the increasingly open competition among those two and the country’s other top leaders—parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann and Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing.

Equally important, however, is the way Myanmar’s armed forces will behave in the lead-up to and following the polls. What Min Aung Hlaing and the military decide to do will probably be the single most decisive factor in whether Myanmar will be able to move its fledgling reform process along.

Issues surrounding the military have long been controversial in Washington. As Myanmar begins a critical year, many administration officials are convinced the United States should not pull back from its current engagement with the country. Washington has, to some extent, been prepared for a less-than-perfect outcome, provided elections take place in a sufficiently inclusive, transparent, and credible manner. Yet if the military overplays its hand, it will become difficult to convince key constituencies in Washington, especially in the U.S. Congress, that the United States should continue to pursue engagement with Myanmar for the long haul.

Recent actions by the military give grounds for concern. The armed forces have acted in ways disruptive to the cease-fire talks with ethnic armed groups. Min Aung Hlaing has reserved the military’s right to intervene to restore law and order if asked by the president to do so, though he has said the military would not stage a coup. The commander-in-chief has also not shied away from conveying his discontent with both Thein Sein and Shwe Mann.

Following high hopes last August, cease-fire talks between the government and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team, an umbrella organization representing 16 ethnic armed groups, hit an impasse. Many believe a rift between the president and the commander-in-chief has been partially responsible for the deadlock in negotiations.

Government troops on November 19 shelled a training facility of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which does not have a bilateral cease-fire with the military, in the deadliest attack since fighting erupted in Kachin State in 2011. Cadets from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, another group that has not signed a cease-fire, were among those killed. The shelling was initially seen by some as an attempt by the military to pressure the Kachin and Ta’ang groups into signing the nationwide agreement.

But the attack immediately caused many ethnic armed groups to fear that the KIA might retaliate and in so doing provide the armed forces with an excuse to escalate the conflict beyond the KIA capital of Laiza. Fresh fighting broke out on January 15 outside the government-controlled state capital of Myitkyina after the KIA kidnapped a state transportation official and three police officers. The hostages have since been released, but there is no sign that smaller skirmishes or incidents will cease anytime soon.

The latest events may have proven right those who believed the military never genuinely wanted a peace deal. Sources privately say Min Aung Hlaing and Thein Sein have not been on the same page and that the military commander has sought to disrupt the peace process. Several major ethnic armed groups have lost confidence about the possibility of signing a nationwide peace deal on February 12, which is Union Day in Myanmar, as was previously discussed between the government and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team. Meanwhile, a Kachin member of parliament has publicly accused the commander-in-chief of being behind recent clashes in Kachin State.

Another area to watch is how the relationship between the armed forces and the ruling, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will evolve in the coming months. From the establishment of the civilian government in 2010, many believed a rift between the USDP, whose members have to compete to get elected, and the appointed military bloc in the parliament was inevitable. This divide has grown wider as Min Aung Hlaing has become increasingly disillusioned with Shwe Mann, whom he believes has not faithfully defended military interests in his position as speaker.

Shwe Mann has used his perch to push for discussions of national or important policy issues to be channeled through parliament, while at the same time making no secret of his presidential ambitions. Min Aung Hlaing, who will reach retirement age by the time the next government comes into office, is expected to enter politics and will likely be the appointed presidential candidate of the military representatives in parliament. If the two blocs continue to diverge, Min Aung Hlaing may eventually become convinced that it falls on him to protect the autonomy and long-term interests of the armed forces.

Finally, should Myanmar manage to hold elections in a sufficiently peaceful as well as inclusive, transparent, and credible manner, it remains to be seen how the military will respond to persistent calls by political parties and civil society to amend Article 436 of the constitution, which effectively gives military representatives the power to veto constitutional changes.

Given Myanmar’s complex political landscape in the lead-up to the elections, any serious talks on constitutional amendments realistically will have to wait until 2016, regardless of what Aung San Suu Kyi may have wished. Min Aung Hlaing wasted no time in asserting his view with respect to changing the provision: Myanmar is not ready for a reduced military role in parliament. Without the military in the legislature, the general says, the country cannot move toward a strong multiparty democratic system.

At this juncture, the military holds some of the most important cards in Myanmar’s future. But for all his tough talk, the commander-in-chief knows he cannot turn the clock back on the country’s fledgling democracy given the monumental changes that have happened in Myanmar’s civil society and economy over the past four years.

Courtesy: This post originally appeared on the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C. cogitASIA blog

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