THE ROW BETWEEN THE MILITARY AND NLD: Casting aspersions or blocking constitutional amendment?

  • Written by Sai Wansai/ S.H.A.N
  • Published in Op-ed

Within just a little more than two months, the Tatmadaw or the Military has complained twice in a row of the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) top functionaries in what amount to sensitivity over casting aspersions on it’s political image and posture, which have led to bad press coverage, including the degradation of its self-appointed, sole protector of national sovereignty and national unity bastion role.

In May, the NLD Central Executive Committee’s secretary, Win Htein was accused of tarnishing the image and reputation of the Tatmadaw during his meeting with the reporters.

According to Myanmar Times, on May 3, a Facebook account named “NLD Central News” that went online in April 29, posted on its page that President U Htin Kyaw would resign after State Counselor and Foreign Minister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi returns from her visit to Europe.

On May 4, Win Htein told reporters that some individuals or organizations were targeting the party by spreading fake news concerning the actions of certain party officials and those in authority.

The Military statement, quoting Win Htein answering a reporter during the May 4 briefing said, “It is difficult to tell who the suspects are because we are hearing a lot of things on the matter. Was it the USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party]? Was it done by some Tatmadaw organizations? Did some IT experts who don’t like us do it? It is hard to say.”

However, Win Htein responded to the Tatmadaw’s accusation with humor saying that he felt like being pelted with a flower.

“They themselves said it. It wasn’t even in my words. I just answered the question when asked who I thought it was that was distributing fake news. I answered that it could be this or that person. I did not accuse anyone directly. Their response has no effect on me, it feels like they are throwing flowers at me,” he told the reporters at the Sibin guest house in Nay Pyi Taw after the CEC meeting on May 6, according to the Myanmar Times.

At a workshop funded by USAID – to help integrate the former political prisoners back into the society – held on July 9 in Yangon, Phyo Min Thein, Yangon Chief Minister, warned participants that the country is still moving toward becoming a full-fledged democracy.

“There are no civil-military relations in the democratic era. The military should be under civil administrative rule and the commander-in-chief position is the same as a director-general in accordance with protocol. But we are now dealing with the [commander-in-chief] as head of state. This is not democracy,” Phyo Min Thein said.

Tatmadaw’s response

On May 11 and 12, the Tatmadaw’s press team released statements that said Phyo Min Thein’s comment had hurt relations between the government and the Military.

Myanmar Times reported: “U Phyo Min Thein’s reckless and confrontational comment on the Tatmadaw and its commander-in-chief is damaging the government’s goal of national reconciliation and the process of building a long-term relationship between the government and Tatmadaw, and the people and Tatmadaw. Therefore, the Yangon chief minister is deemed a person creating obstacles,” quoting the statement.

Apart from that, the statement said that Phyo Min Thein is not suitable for “constructive and long-term” relations and the Tatmadaw wants the government to take action against him, adding that his  “no civil-military relations in a democracy’”clearly showed his observation weakness, regarding the important role of the Tatmadaw in nation-building, and  harboring confrontational nature.

To drive home its message, the statement stressed: “U Phyo Min Thein’s comments on the commander-in-chief who is on an overseas trip, is an attempt to offend the armed forces and its chief and damages the Tatmadaw chief and the Tatmadaw’s images.”

The statement also cited the government announcement of June 3, 2016, which ranked the commander-in-chief eighth in order of precedence (protocol) from 38 people on the list of state protocol. Accordingly, state and regional ministers are ranked at 36.

Backing and reprimanding of NLD leadership

According to July 12 video report of  DVB, Nyan Win who is on the party’s central executive committee (CEC), defended Phyo Min Thein , saying there is no reason to take action against  him if the Tatmadaw accepts the truth.

He made his point by saying: “It is true that the commander-in-chief is the head of governmental organization and directors-general are heads of their civilian organizations as well, so they are on the same level.”

But added: “The fact that the commander-in-chief is more powerful due the political configuration (the military-drawn 2008 constitution) has nothing to do with it and according to the said (theoretical) thinking, they are the same level.”

He further stressed: “According to the (2008) constitution, commander-in-chief is a lot more higher. But our party has been continuously saying that this is absolutely wrong from the beginning. So we cannot give in (or change) our stand, just because it is included in the constitution. Things that are included in the constitution are not all correct and have lots of mistakes; in all 168 points (clauses) have to be corrected.”

However, on July 13, the NLD leadership warned Phyo Min Thein for his statement and then on July 14, the following day, issued an internal memo which said: “The party’s CEC has warned U Phyo Min Thein for what he said at a workshop held in collaboration with USAID . . . CSOs and Media in Yangon on July 9,” according to the report of The Irrawaddy, which claimed to have seen the memo, on July 16.

In addition, on July 16, Ministry of Defense Office issued a statement that Phyo Min Thein’s letter of apology addressed to the commander-in-chief on July 13 has been received. But nothing was mentioned on whether the issue has been resolved from the Military’s point of view.

Earlier on July 13, government spokesperson Zaw Htay said that the Yangon Chief Minister’s remarks on the army  chief’s position do not reflect the government’s stance and  had “caused misunderstandings between the government and  the military.”

According to The Irrawaddy, Zaw Htay said: “Those comments caused misunderstandings between the government and the military. As  the chief minister is responsible [for what he said], we have instructed him to do what he  needs to do.”

When pressed for further detail, the spokesperson said: “We can only  share that so far.”

Perspective and outlook

 The row between the Tatmadaw and Phyo Min Thein is an existing latent conflict caused by the hybrid civilian-military political system which has been there from the beginning and is programmed to come out in the open every now and then, from time to time.

 While the Suu Kyi-led NLD is hoping that in due course the Military could be wooed or would change its mind and become democratic, the Military in turn is driving to convince the NLD to accept the quasi-civilian unitary system rule as a model where it could maintain its political edge for as long as it is needed.

 The military knows what it wants and what to do, but the NLD doesn’t seem to have any strategy on how to achieve its goal of fully-fledged democracy except to appease the military so that it is not upset and resort to total control of the polity through emergency rule or coup d’etat.

The recent protest on Yangon chief minister Phyo Min Thein by the Military for casting aspersion on its commander-in-chief is actually just part of the problematic relationship which stems from civilian-military hybrid government system that has plagued the country from the outset.

But if one looks at the situation deeper the two episodes are linked to the bigger picture of constitutional amendment.

It is clear that in a democratic form of governance the military has to take orders from the elected government.

The Aung San Suu Kyi headed NLD regime comes into being through the popularly elected votes, with the slogan of “time to change”, albeit for only 75% of seats, as the 25% is reserved for the appointed Military’s MPs according to the military-drafted constitution.

Under such circumstances, the NLD government functions as a coalition partner of the Tatmadaw although there is no existence of clear and transparent coalition contract like it supposed to be in developed democratic countries. But, of course, no one knows for sure if there are unwritten verbal understanding between the Military and Suu Kyi, as she has met General Than Shwe, prior to the take over of the government from its predecessor regime, who is considered to be still influential on the Military establishment and was the one that installed the present commander-in-chief Min Aung Hliang.

But regardless of such speculation the reality in actual political arena is that the two coalition partners are locked in an unspoken confrontation to further their ambitions. While the NLD is tasked with having to deliver the aspirations of the electorate which is the installation of fully-fledged civilian government, the Military is determined to protect and nurture it political edge for the benefit of its organization, if not just for its group survival made up of the military top brass.

To this end, the military has been making use of a variety of coordinated approaches and tactical moves to maintain its political supremacy . Such as:

  • Making use of the NLD’s legitimacy to open up sanctions, including the normalization of military relationship with the West and beyond;
  • Maintaining its veto power on constitutional amendment and political edge through the military-drafted constitution – as it is vested with power to run the most important ministries of home, defense and border affairs, including 25% appointed MP seats in all levels of the parliaments;
  • Employing Unlawful Association Act Article 17(1) and Telecommunication Law Section 66(d) to quell resistance in ethnic states and general control for all activities countrywide that it considers to be against its interest;
  • Keeping the war flames on by excluding some of the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), conducting offensives in ethnic areas and rejecting all-inclusiveness participation in the peace process;
  • Giving lip service to federalism while openly vowing to protect the military-drafted constitution, which in no way could be argued as being a federal constitution, to its utmost, including blocking the amendment of the constitution that would weaken its control in general;  and
  • Through its refined push and pull maneuver has managed to push the NLD to endorse its stance or tacit approval against all-inclusiveness and its hard-line policy that has led to the international accusation of human rights violations in Arakan, Kachin and Shan States, among others.

The NLD on the other hand seems to be now resigned to treading lightly more than ever, where the constitutional amendment is concerned after some attempted failures within the parliament, due to the 75% approval ceiling needed by the parliamentarians to make amendment proposal even to sail through the first motion in the parliament.

Older members mostly tend to favor to go slow and refrain from challenging the military on constitutional amendment. But younger members are frustrated and want to accelerate the change that the NLD has promised in its election campaign manifesto. Thus, a certain latent conflict could be said to exist within the rank and file of the party. In general, the NLD has been echoing the Military’s position to restore peace first and constitutional amendment later.

Recently, Win Htein talked and argued that the NLD is still on the ball and that gradual changing of constitution is the way to go, by using the Burmese words “da saint saint” evolutionary change, which could be translated into”seeping in slowly”, whatever he meant to say by that.

Given such an atmosphere, the Military and the NLD latent conflict will linger on and rows such as Phyo Min Thein, Win Htein and Military would definitely pop up now and then again. But for now the constitutional amendment is being pushed back to be a back-burner, at the expense of the electorate that have weighed in their lot, believing that Suu Kyi and her NLD would be able to deliver on their election campaign manifesto of “time to change”.