Thein Sein may be president, but General Min Aung Hlaing ultimately has all the power
By Sacha Passi
Myanmar President Thein Sein’s calls for political, economic and administrative change have commanded the attention of international political leaders and been key to unlocking the country’s iron clad gates to the outside world. Yet when he announced a ceasefire in January to ease the ongoing battle between ethnic Kachin guerrillas and the military, his words went unheeded.
Thein Sein’s call for a truce followed reports that the military had used air strikes in an intense assault near the Kachin Independence Organisation’s Laiza headquarters – killing three civilians and wounding six others. Threats from the skies ceased, but on the ground the violent conflict continues.
It is not the first time that the military has ignored ceasefire declarations from the president’s office since the 17-year truce with the Kachin Independence Army ended in June 2011. In December of the same year, the president’s call for a ceasefire was similarly ignored.
“When Thein Sein issues a public directive to the army, he knows that legally he is trying to exercise authority that, strictly speaking, he currently does not have,” said Trevor Wilson, former Australian Ambassador to Myanmar.
Under the 2008 constitution, drafted by the former junta, the commander in chief, Vice-Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has independent authority over the military’s actions. Any directive from the president regarding warfare is a show of diplomatic will, at best.
“General Min Aung Hlaing is the most powerful person in Burma,” said Aung Din, co-founder and former executive director of US Campaign for Burma. “He knows very well that he is much more powerful than Thein Sein and Shwe Mann (speaker of the Lower House) and he is exercising his power by not listening to their orders.”
Min Aung Hlaing rose through the ranks of the military quietly but steadfastly.
When Shwe Mann and Thein Sein were ranked 3rd and 4th respectively in the former military regime’s State Peace and Development Council, Min Aung Hlaing was a junior general. In March 2011 he took over as commander in chief of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s Armed Forces, succeeding Myanmar’s former dictator Senior General Than Shwe.
Despite ongoing battles in the north, Min Aung Hlaing no doubt understands that he walks a fine line between asserting his authority through military endeavours and reversing the country’s gains from the international community, which would go against the military’s interest in increasing Myanmar’s economic potential.
When control of Rakhine State was handed over to the military in June 2012, government troops showed restraint in policing unrest between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. Ceasefires with ten rebel groups have also been agreed to and upheld since late 2011. Furthermore, there have been talks between Aung Min, a minister in the president’s office, and the United Nations regarding the possibility of making amendments to the 2008 constitution “… if ethnic minority groups are not happy with the existing procedure”, Reuters reported.
Min Aung Hlaing knows that his closest ally is the constitution, which allows the military to seize power if ‘national solidarity’ is threatened – the commander in chief has overriding authority to decide whether such a threat exists. “Any changes will not be realised without his commitment and consent, especially amending the 2008 constitution,” said Aung Din. Min Aung Hlaing is, however, unlikely to forfeit his role as Myanmar’s most influential figure.
“Like most senior military figures [in Myanmar] he remains enigmatic. His distinctions as a post commander, including in so many of the army’s most sensitive and strategic posts, ensure that he should not be underestimated,” said Dr Nicholas Farrelly, a political and strategic expert with the Australian National University. “Min Aung Hlaing is also part of Senior General Than Shwe’s insurance policy if the current set of reforms go wrong. The importance of that role can’t be underestimated. The primary goal for Than Shwe is, I expect, still to ensure that his wealth, security and position are protected. Whoever controls the army ultimately guarantees that.”
“From prison to parliament” – National League for Democracy MP Phyo Min Thein discusses torture, ethnic violence and Myanmar’s long road towards democracy
“Sibling rivalry” – After five years sitting on the sidelines of Thai politics, Yaowapa Wongsawat could soon find herself appointed Thailand’s next prime minister