Burma Preview: The People to Watch in 2013

By Aung Din

Parliament Building, Burma, in 2012. Source: NZNationalParty's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

[Editor’s Note: Key players will shape Burma in 2013, for better or worse. As a guest contributor to cogitASIA, Aung Din will examine their current role in Burma, and their potential impact in the coming year, in a short blog series, “The People to Watch in 2013.” Part I examines the heads of government, Parliament, and the military. The author has requested the use of Burma to refer to the country.]

2012 was an important year for Burma, also known as Myanmar, as it made significant progress in its political and economic transformation. Successful by-elections brought Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) into Parliament, and the United States and Europe removed key sanctions and began looking to Burma as a potential place for investment.

The progress was underscored by visits from U.S. president Barack Obama and U.K. prime minister David Cameron. It was not, however, without setbacks, including reoccurring violence in Rakhine State, a brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators at the Letpadung copper mine, and increased offensives against the Kachin Independence Army in northern Kachin State, which included the use of fighter jets and attack helicopters.

We all hope Burma is better in 2013 and beyond. However, there are many challenges and obstacles ahead. First, the judiciary system is still not independent and impartial. It serves at the pleasure of the regime, and incompetent judges are running kangaroo courts. Second, the country’s economy is still dominated and controlled by the military, crony capitalists, and families of the regime. There is no chance for ordinary citizens to compete with them on a level playing field. And third, the Burmese military is still above the law and dominant in the country’s political affairs with unchecked powers. This post examines the heads of government, Parliament, and the military to provide a preview for 2013.

Thein Sein, Shwe Mann, and Min Aung Hlaing:

Current president Thein Sein and Speaker of the Lower House Shwe Mann are former generals and were powerful figures in the previous military regime, known as State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Both are now leaders of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Min Aung Hlaing, a junior general when Shwe Mann and Thein Sein numbered three and four in the SPDC, is now serving as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. They are now running the three power centers: the government, the Parliament and the military, separately.

Although Thein Sein is the head of the government, he does not own all of his cabinet. The ministers of defense, home affairs, and border area affairs are appointed by Min Aung Hlaing. Shwe Mann is the head of the Lower House and will become the speaker of the Union Parliament, a combination of both houses, in June 2013, but does not own all of Parliament either. Twenty-five percent of the Union Parliament is military officials appointed by Min Aung Hlaing. The 2008 constitution allows for Min Aung Hlaing to run the military independently.

Among the 11 members of the country’s most powerful body, the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), Min Aung Hlaing controls six members: himself, his deputy commander-in-chief, the ministers for defense, home affairs, and border area affairs, and one of Burma’s two vice presidents. Apparently, he is the most powerful person in Burma.

Though these three men are all on the same side, in reality they are fighting each other. Thein Sein wants to consolidate power to his presidency. Shwe Mann has tried hard to undermine Thein Sein through parliamentary maneuvering, and is presenting himself as the best presidential candidate for the 2015 election. Neither man will succeed without the support of Min Aung Hlaing, but neither one has won him over.

When Senior General Than Shwe, who led Myanmar and the SPDC prior to reforms, selected Min Aung Hlaing to lead the military, it was a jump promotion. Initially, he was very quiet and unable to avoid the influence of the more senior Thein Sein and Shwe Mann. Gradually, he seems to have realized the magnitude of power the 2008 constitution gave him.

Min Aung Hlaing began consolidating his power base in the military by replacing regional commanders and top military figures who were his contemporaries with his loyalists. Now he knows very well that he is much more powerful than Thein Sein and Shwe Mann, and is exercising his power by not listening to their orders. He does not need to become involved in the competition between Thein Sein and Shwe Mann. He does not need to support anyone, but he will oppose anyone who tries to amend the 2008 constitution that gives him supreme power, or those who try to attack Senior General Than Shwe, who gave him this position.

Although Thein Sein, Shwe Mann, and Min Aung Hlaing are competing for power, they all have one thing in common: they all know that they need to use Aung San Suu Kyi to some extent. Thein Sein knows that giving her political space will help normalize relations with western democracies that were major critics of the military regime. Shwe Mann knows that giving her some leading role in the Lower House will help strengthen his image and his dream for the presidency. Min Aung Hlaing knows that recruiting her to lead the Investigative Commission on the Mount Letpadaung Copper Mine Project could save the military-owned business empire and its joint-venture projects with Chinese companies from future public criticism and protests.

As political norms begin to crystallize throughout 2013, the power struggles between these three men will play a major role in the development of Burma’s institutions and their legacies. This year will be critical in determining whether Burma’s branches of government can work together cohesively or if one will dominate over the other two, and thus shape the state’s trajectory for years to come.

Mr. Aung Din is a democracy and human rights activist and former political prisoner.