Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during a Martyrs' Day ceremony in Yangon on July 19, 2020. (AFP)
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during a Martyrs' Day ceremony in Yangon on July 19, 2020. (AFP)

Could Min Aung Hlaing’s retirement break the political deadlock?

With the Tatmadaw chief reaching retirement age this year, some speculate that a fresh face could achieve a détente with the NLD – but the appointment process itself could hold the key to better civil-military relations.

By SITHU AUNG MYINT | FRONTIER

Myanmar’s constitution is unusual because it has created a nation with two rival centres of power: an elected president who appoints the government and the Tatmadaw headed by its commander-in-chief. Ending this situation will require an amendment to the constitution and some have speculated that the next Tatmadaw chief could support such a move.

According to a 2014 amendment to the Defence Services Act, the commander-in-chief must retire at the age of 65. The current Tatmadaw chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing will reach this age in July. Assuming that he does retire, some are hopeful that his successor will try to improve relations with the civilian government, which are currently strained. This in turn could break the impasse over changing the constitution.

But who among the top ranks of the Tatmadaw could achieve this détente? While personality counts for a great deal, the process of appointing the next commander-in-chief could itself hold the key to progress.

In 2011, junta leader Senior General Than Shwe appointed then General Min Aung Hlaing to succeed him as commander-in-chief. Than Shwe, then 78, chose the then 55-year-old Min Aung Hlaing ahead of more senior Tatmadaw officers. In March 2013, Min Aung Hlaing was promoted to senior general.

His service as commander-in-chief can be divided into two phases: from 2011 to early 2016, under the Union Solidarity and Development Party government of President U Thein Sein, a former general, and from late 2016 to the present, under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy government.

In the first phase, Senior General Than Shwe and Vice-Senior General Maung Aye had retired but many former generals who were senior to Min Aung Hlaing were serving in government, the parliament and the USDP. He maintained a low profile while carrying out some positive reforms in the Tatmadaw, and supported efforts by Thein Sein and Minister for the President’s Office U Aung Min to strike peace deals with ethnic armed groups.

In August 2015, a dramatic split emerged in the ruling USDP when Thein Sein purged the faction headed by Pyithu Hluttaw speaker U Shwe Mann, a former general and number three in the former junta. Three months later the NLD won the general election in a landslide ­– a victory that gave Myanmar its first democratically elected civilian government in more than 50 years, but one that came as a shock to the generals and former generals.

In late 2016, after the transition to an NLD-led government, Min Aung Hlaing’s mission seemed to shift to recovering state power for the military establishment. He largely refused to cooperate with the civilian government and this undermined progress in the peace process; over the past five years, only two more ethnic armed groups have joined the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed by eight armed groups with the government in 2015, and conflict has raged in several parts of the country. Moreover, instead of focusing on the Tatmadaw’s main responsibilities, he increasingly meddled in civilian politics.

In the months ahead of the November 8 election, Min Aung Hlaing was observed to be working closely with the USDP as part of an apparent bid to become the next president. If the USDP and its allies had won at least one-third of elected seats in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, he could have become president with the support of unelected military MPs, who by law hold 25 percent of the seats. His dream evaporated in a second NLD landslide.

The constitution allows Tatmadaw MPs to nominate one of Myanmar’s two vice presidents, and Min Aung Hlaing could put himself forward for this role before the new government convenes in March. This would require him to retire from the military and a new commander-in-chief would have to be instated. Alternatively, he could unilaterally amend Tatmadaw regulations so his term as commander-in-chief can be extended.

Over more than five decades, both the Tatmadaw and the country’s politics were dominated in turn by two men: General Ne Win and Senior General Than Shwe. Both dictators were commanders-in-chief and both chose their successors as Tatmadaw chief. However, Min Aung Hlaing will not be able to straightforwardly handpick his successor when he leaves the Tatmadaw, ironically because of a clause in the military-drafted constitution. Section 342 says: “The President shall appoint the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services with the proposal and approval of the National Defence and Security Council.”

The NDSC has 11 seats, of which six are controlled by the Tatmadaw. The council comprises the president and both vice presidents – one of whom is a Tatmadaw nominee – along with the speakers of the Pyithu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw, the Tatmadaw commander-in-chief and his deputy, and the ministers for foreign affairs, defence, home affairs and border affairs. Of these four ministerial positions, only foreign affairs is occupied by a civilian.

Before he retires, Min Aung Hlaing might propose to the president that he convene a meeting of the NDSC to name a new commander-in-chief. The president would likely decline the request on the grounds that the post of commander-in-chief was yet to be vacated. Such a scenario would require Min Aung Hlaing to retire voluntarily due to his age, and for command of the Tatmadaw to be assumed by the deputy commander-in-chief or next-highest ranking officer in the Tatmadaw.

In such circumstances, the president would convene a meeting of the NDSC to appoint a new commander-in-chief, at which the six representatives aligned with the Tatmadaw and the remaining five civilian members will each be able to nominate a candidate for the position. Although the ability of the president to block the candidate elected by the NDSC is unclear, it is likely that the process will involve negotiation between the civilian and military wings of government – and one hopes the eventual appointment will be the product of consensus.

This would be a positive development for civil-military relations, and for building democracy. It would also mark the end of a deep-rooted Myanmar tradition in which a dictator bequeaths the post of commander-in-chief to the person most likely to become the next dictator.

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