The Man to Watch

Is Burma's top general maneuvering for a run at the presidency?


People in Burma are accustomed to keeping a close eye on their generals. It seems like a reasonable habit when you consider that the military ruled Burma for more than the last half-century, relinquishing its absolute control over politics only recently. Even today, despite three years of liberalizing reforms, high-ranking officers retain considerable sway.

So you can hardly blame people for sitting up and taking notice earlier this week, when a local weekly published details of a speech made by Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces (pictured above). In the speech, he declared, among other things, that the military is "afraid of no one." Just in case someone didn’t get the message, he also noted that "the Tatmadaw [Burma’s armed forces] will always follow policies set by retired Senior General Than Shwe." Than Shwe was, of course, the head of the ruling military junta in Burma from 1992 to 2011.

His remarks, which were supposedly given during a closed meeting with officers on Nov. 29 and not published in the state-run newspapers, were accompanied by several highly provocative comments about the simmering ethnic conflicts that have plagued the country for decades. Strikingly, the general pinned the blame for Burma’s long-running civil war on the leaders of ethnic groups who have been fighting for greater autonomy and a bigger share of the country’s national wealth.

Nor are these the only statements by the general that have attracted notice recently. Three weeks ago, on Dec. 21, a state-run newspaper, the Mirror, surprised readers by devoting almost its entire front page to four separate stories on the most recent activities of the commander-in-chief. To be sure, flattering coverage of top generals is hardly unusual in a country where the military still holds significant power. Yet these latest publications have drawn attention precisely because of the message they seem intended to convey.

The paper devoted a full page, no less, to one of the stories, which covered Min Aung Hlaing’s appearance at the graduation ceremony of the Military Medical University. In his speech at the event, the general noted: "When it comes to implementing state security, unconventional measures should be taken into account as well as conventional ones." He then elaborated on what he meant by "unconventional measures," speaking at some length about the concept of "human security." This, he said, is a category that includes economics, food security, health, the environment, individual personal security, and national security. Particularly striking is the fact that the military strongman used the phrase "human security" in English.

So what’s going on? Can we learn anything useful from reading between the lines here? In fact, that there are at least two important conclusions we can draw from Min Aung Hlaing’s speeches. First, his remarks signal an important shift in the development of military doctrine, one that entails a major change in the style of the leadership of the armed forces. Second, his statements strongly suggest that the commander-in-chief is considering the possibility of entering politics, perhaps by running for president in the next national election scheduled for 2015.

Over the past 25 years, since the military seized power in 1988, the Tatmadaw (armed forces) has professed to follow an ideology based on "Three National Principles" — namely, the preservation of the union, the maintenance of national solidarity, and the defense of sovereignty.

Based on these principles, the armed forces developed a doctrine they called "total national defense," which is included in Burma’s 2008 constitution. This was the third phase of doctrinal development in the recent history of the armed forces. The Tatmadaw announced its first official doctrine in 1950, followed by a second in 1958. While some of the details have changed, the ideological program articulated in all three cases revolves around the notion of state security. As experience has shown, the armed forces take these statements of doctrine very seriously. In the past, even when these ideological guidelines were kept secret from the public (right up into the 1990s), the armed forces nonetheless used them as the basis for civil-military relations and its interventions in civil politics. In the doctrine developed in the late 1950s, for instance, the Tatmadaw expanded its role from defense to public administration and business. The military then proceeded to put these principles into practice, seizing state power for two years starting in 1958 and establishing military conglomerates in late 1950s.

The military staged its coups in 1958, 1962, and 1988 in the name of state security — the same rationale cited by the successive juntas to justify economic autarky and self-imposed isolation in foreign policy. The coup leaders continued to cite state security needs to legitimize their expansion of the army at the expense of education, economic welfare, and health care. The military built roads, bridges, dams, and even a new capital deep in the jungle. The former military leaders I’ve interviewed in the course of my studies placed supreme emphasis on state security, despite their clear awareness that the public has entirely different priorities, such as democracy and social welfare. Members of the military dismiss such views as "populist" or "short-sighted."

In this historical context, Min Aung Hlaing’s explicit embrace of "human security" represents a dramatic departure from the norm. If his statements are to be taken seriously, they indicate an attempt by the military to win the people’s hearts and minds by re-defining the armed forces as the defenders of democracy and social welfare.

And what about the possibility that the commander-in-chief is positioning himself for the 2015 elections? According to several sources inside the military, Min Aung Hlaing, who will reach retirement age that same year, is quietly preparing a run for the presidency. Some of Burma’s military lawmakers have stated that the armed forces will nominate Min Aung Hlaing as a presidential candidate in 2015. If this is the case, Min Aung Hlaing’s "human security" rhetoric might well resonate with the public’s aspiration, and he could present himself as a statesman with a clear political vision, perhaps enabling him to profit from intense personal rivalries among the other contenders, including the incumbent president Thein Sein, the parliamentary speaker Thura Shwe Mann, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In any event, it’s quite clear that observers of Burma’s political scene will find themselves paying even closer attention to the doings of Min Aung Hlaing in the months to come.

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