An article in one of Burma/Myanmar‘s local publications bore a headline that might turn some heads in the United States: “Is the President Truly Above the Commander-in-Chief?” The title “commander-in-chief” is actually a military position, designating the person who is in charge of a nation’s armed forces. In the United States, of course, the commander-in-chief is also the sitting president (though he is considered a civilian as well), and the two terms are generally used interchangeably. This is not so in many parts of the world, and in Burma, it’s a source of a great deal of tension.
There are essentially two reigning powers in Burma — the civilian government and the military. They are somewhat separate from one another, and the military has ingrained itself into enough civilian government positions that — according to their own constitution — they always hold enough cards to have major political sway to achieve their own political agendas. 25% of parliament seats are required to be held by military officers, no matter what qualifications some may or may not be lacking. There are also two vice president positions, and one must be filled by a member of the military. These are just a few of the changes the military wrote in for itself when the constitution was rewritten approximately ten years ago.
This is much different from the United States culture that generally wants a veteran to serve in the White House, especially as the commander-in-chief. To require these positions in government, especially to active duty service members, takes away power from the voters, and has built a distinct gap from the military government (known as the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC), and the elected civilian government.
There is no doubt that Burma has had a long and rocky past, but when Aung San Suu Kyi came into the picture, many started to become quite hopeful for the country’s future. They felt that she was truly a representative and a hero of the people, and once she was elected, a lot of people were expecting a historic turn-around for the nation. Instead, her ascension to become the State Counselor of Myanmar (essentially the Prime Minister) only led her to find that she did not have complete power over the military. Whether or not she knew that was coming, or how large of an obstacle that would be, is purely conjecture. At the end of they day, the fact remains that she does not have much power over the SPDC, despite the fact that she is the de facto leader of the country.
Many don’t view Aung San Suu Kyi as hapless victim entirely, as she has fallen under harsh criticism for her distinct lack of speaking out against the government’s actions, especially when it came to the systematic violence on civilians in Rakhine State, involving the Rohingya.
Burma also has a president, and though they are not the de facto leader of the government like the State Counselor, they still are officially considered the head of state. Even U Win Myint, Burma’s newly elected (by parliament) president does not seem to have control over the military. Violence continues in Rakhine, though 90% of the Rohingya are now in refugee camps along the Burma-Bangladesh border. Violence has begun to spring up in northern Kachin State, many of whom are Christian and completely separate from the Rohingya. The cease-fire with the Karen to the east is on a razor’s edge. The civilian government has had little to no success in negotiating peace between the military and these ethnic minorities in the outer states.
And all of these decisions, conversations and deliberations between the civilian government and the SPDC happen behind very closed doors. The same article from the Irrawaddy quotes Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, an SPDC general, in regards to the violence against the Rohingya, and how that will be justified with the new president. The General said, “[the military] is under the guidance of the Myanmar government. We only take action according to the mandate given by law and we are not authorized to do anything beyond the limits of the law.”
This vague answer was followed by another vague statement from the article, “We still don’t know if U Win Myint has had any quality conversations about this sensitive subject with Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing since he took office in March.”
This lack of transparency, added to the free rein the military has made lawful for themselves, added to the lack of power given to elected officials, all adds up to the high amounts of conflict we see happening every day in Burma — and that ongoing violence is the one thing that hasn’t changed in 70 years.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.