With Myanmar's internationally beleaguered civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi
convening her latest efforts for national peace in the next round of the 21st Century Panlong Peace Conference
in Yangon from July 11, the fragile relationship between the leaders of Myanmar's civilian and military leadership who jointly run the country has effectively collapsed. Indeed, Suu Kyi and her advisers met the leader of the military, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing
, and other top military brass on June 8 for the first time in at least a year. This preceded a nine-day visit by the new U.N. special envoy to Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, who met the two leaders separately after she arrived on June 12 and who has considerable experience in the region. The military is very much the senior player in the relationship and the deterioration in already fragile ties has been due to the military's ethnic cleansing/genocide of the Muslim Rohingya
in Rakhine State. But media reports claiming Suu Kyi has "overseen" this monstrosity are ill informed. Without any resolution to the crisis taking place in Rakhine, as well as the ongoing and recently escalated civil war in northern Kachin State, all statements and promises from armed groups about national peace amount to nothing.
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Still, the conference has promised it will work on formulating new principles to establish a federal union, which has long been sought by states with large ethnic populations. The term "Panglong" refers to a process that was started but never finished by Suu Kyi's late father Aung San, also the father of modern Myanmar, who was murdered by his rivals just six months before the country gained its independence from Britain in 1948. The problems between the two sides of Myanmar's current government that are now being writ large in Rakhine and Kachin
were effectively set in place when the restrictive 2008 constitution was passed by a dubious public vote held in the wake of the devastating Cyclone Nargis. The charter also has its infamous "Aung San Suu Kyi clause" forbidding anyone with a foreign-born spouse or children from holding the executive office. Suu Kyi, widely referred to internally as The Lady, had a British husband and her two sons are also British nationals. Crucially, the constitution also handed the military 25 percent of the seats in both the bicameral national legislature and the various unicameral state legislatures, which have become toothless to the point that Naypyidaw appoints the governor of each state, despite the elected makeup of each state parliament. The 2008 constitution has also given the defense, border affairs and home affairs portfolios to the military to control — the latter controls the country's budget and police — so it's easy to see that it is the military rather than the civilian government that is running the show in Rakhine. In fact, for the last three to four months, the army chief has been considering imposing a state of emergency on Rakhine, multiple sources in Myanmar have told ucanews.com. But gossip spreads fast, and the country's new president Min Wynt recently had to issue a public denial that the general was threatening a coup. Indeed, that would go against the very reason why the military that has been running the country since a 1962 coup by Ne Win decided on its own version of reform and opening up in the late 2000s. The reason was to boost economic growth via foreign investment, competition and more private enterprise, paving the way for a "gold rush" for continental Southeast Asia's most resource-rich nation. Insiders and experts are now talking about the need for generational change to fix the situation, and that points to a long road ahead for the already conflict-torn nation. It's especially difficult for the ruling National League for Democracy. Suu Kyi has a longstanding reputation for being difficult and not taking advice from others. A corollary to this has been her refusal or inability to begin grooming a group of potential successors. However, this appears to have changed, albeit slowly, in recent months. In March, President Htin Kyaw resigned as Myanmar's figurehead. Reports that he only intended to stay in the role a short time appear to have been verified. He was nominally the head of state but effectively ceded the role to Suu Kyi with the creation of her new role as state counselor. She now runs that part of the government left to her by the military. Htin Kyaw has been replaced by Min Wynt, who was the former speaker of the lower house, the official government's third most important role. Since taking the role of president, Min Wynt has become far more vocal than his predecessor.
However, that's not saying much. Interestingly, the speaker's role has been taken by T Kun Myat, who hails from predominantly Christian Kachin State where Protestant groups like Baptists and the Assemblies of God vastly outnumber Catholics, highlighting the effectiveness of missionary work prior to World War II. So he is another member of the next generation to watch, even though it is unlikely that heavily Buddhist Myanmar would ever accept a Christian leader. In late May, Soe Win, a managing partner at accounting group Deloitte, was named to the key role of minister for planning and finance, a well-received move despite the fact observers were expecting a more wholesale change in the ministry. The other senior figure from the National League for Democracy (NLD) who has recently emerged as something of a player is Zaw Myint Maung, the regional chief minister of Mandalay who served as a pediatrician before entering politics. He is the party's No. 2 vice-chairman who played a key role at the NLD's annual conference from June 24-25. Suu Kyi and Min Wynt were unable to attend due to another constitutional rule barring government leaders from attending party political activities. In the aftermath of the conference, it was Zaw who reiterated the NLD's commitment to constitutional reform and ending debilitating internal ethnic conflicts. Failure to achieve peace would threaten the consolidation of democracy in Myanmar, Zaw warned. He also stressed the need for constitutional change to bring the Ministry of Home Affairs under direct government control. The ministry is responsible for the police, who stand accused of suppressing peaceful dissent by education activists and journalists in recent years. As the home affairs minister is appointed by the armed forces, this makes it harder to address important national tasks, Zaw said.
On the military side, things appear a little clearer, with insiders suggesting Gen. Min is taking aim at the presidency in the 2020 elections. The military continues to foment trouble in the seven states controlled by ethnic minorities such as the Shan, Rakhine (Buddhists) and Kachin that surround the central region populated by the dominant Bamar ethnic group, which in 2015 voted en masse for the NLD. Apart from Kachin and northern Shan, the military has resumed hostilities in Kayin (also known as Karen) State in the hope of laying the blame on the NLD. Since there has been considerable effort in key states like Kachin and Shan to consolidate parties with a local focus, the NLD has done itself no favors by only having Suu Kyi make the occasional visit outside the central region. Because the military automatically gets 25 percent of the seats, Suu Kyi must win 66 percent of the vote. Without any votes from outside the center, however, this may prove difficult and appears to be central to Gen. Min's plan to assume control of the presidency by making sure the NLD does not get the required votes to form a majority.