Myanmar's top general listens to Aung San Suu Kyi. Will the Army follow her?

After the National League for Democracy's landslide victory in Myanmar last month, outgoing leaders meet with Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss the country's future. 

Aung Shine Oo/AP
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, right, and Myanmar's Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the military commander-in-chief, shake hands during their meeting Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Suu Kyi met Myanmar's outgoing president and Commander in Chief Wednesday to discuss the transfer of power following her party's landslide election win.

The transition from military to democratic rule in Myanmar took a symbolic step forward Wednesday. But the pace of transition is still an open question.

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Myanmar, met with army chief Min Aung Hlaing and outgoing President Thein Sein Wednesday to discuss the upcoming leadership transition after a massive NLD victory in elections last month.

Before driving away in his car, the general smiled and told reporters, “We had very nice talks.”

Ye Htut, a spokesman for President Thein Sein, told a news conference that the 45-minute meeting was focused on a strategy for the upcoming transition of power.

“We have opened a communication channel,” Ye Htut said. “They mainly focused on the smooth and peaceful transfer of the state responsibilities to the future government.” The NLD is expected to delegate a number of powers to the military, and the military continues to own and operate major national businesses. The NLD will likely need the military’s support to govern smoothly. 

The New York Times reports that Nay Zin Latt, a former army officer and government adviser, said the democracy movement and the military appeared to share a vision of the army withdrawing from politics and becoming a professional, Western-style security force. But the timing is still an open question, he said.

“Their mission is to become a professional army,” Mr. Nay Zin Latt said. “But it’s not easy. Habits are deeply rooted.”

He described the military’s retention of 25 percent of seats in Parliament as “leverage.”

Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from becoming the next president, even though she is regarded as the mother of democracy in Myanmar (previously known as Burma). A constitutional provision prevents anyone whose children are foreign nationals from becoming president, and Ms. Suu Kyi’s two sons have British passports.

Although the 2008 constitutional rule was created with the aim of keeping Suu Kyi out of power, she is clearly determined to be the neck of the future presidential head if she cannot be the actual president herself. 

“It’s a very simple message,” she said, and according to the Associated Press, “While another member of her National League for Democracy party would hold the presidential title, ‘I’ll make all the proper and important decisions.’”

Either way, the buck stops with Suu Kyi.

“Constitutions are made by people, and they are not eternal,” she said last month. “If the support of the people is clear and strong enough, I don’t see why we should not be able to overcome minor problems like amendments of the constitution.”  

Ye Htut told the BBC that Suu Kyi did not broach the subject Wednesday of changing the constitution to allow her to become president, and there was no discussion regarding who the next president may be.

Since present Myanmar leaders held an inaugural meeting with Suu Kyi Wednesday, it suggests both outgoing President Thein Sein and army chief Min Aung Hlaing also consider Suu Kyi the central leader of the NLD.

But Suu Kyi is not solely responsible for the NLD’s victory in the Nov. 8 parliamentary elections as it was also “a win for the egalitarian nature of Myanmar’s culture of Theravada Buddhism, as The Monitor’s Editorial Board wrote last month.

Myanmar's Buddhist monks are a significant political and moral force. 

Although apolitical most of the time, the monks played a leading role in the democratic uprisings of 1988 and 2007 that helped shake the generals who have ruled Myanmar since 1962. They helped forced the regime to gradually allow more freedom and grant more power through elections. For years, many top military officers were boycotted by monks in the daily practice of almsgiving, a shunning known as “turning of the bowl.” This moral rebuke “effectively removed the spiritual condition sustaining the regime’s power,” writes scholar Ingrid Jordt, a former Buddhist nun in Myanmar and now an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin.

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