Myanmar Military-Government War of Words in Run-up to Vote Raises Concerns

myanmar-army.jpg Activists display posters of Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (C) and founder of the nation General Aung San (foreground) during a show of support for Myanmar military personnel in Yangon, Dec. 18, 2016.

Myanmar’s civilian government pushed back Wednesday at blunt criticism from the powerful military chief over preparations for weekend elections, with the office of the president saying Senior General Min Aung Hlaing had created “instability” and broken a law banning partisanship by public officials.

The nation of 54 million people, which emerged from harsh military rule a decade ago, goes to the polls on Nov. 8. Some 7,000 candidates from more than 90 parties vying for more than 1,100 seats in both houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures.

On Monday, six days before the nationwide vote, a statement issued by Min Aung Hlaing highlighted public complaints of “weakness and deficiencies” in poll management, warning they could hurt the “image of the election.”

He cited reports that the Union Election Commission (UEC), an independent body which oversees voting, had mishandled voter lists, botched ballot envelopes and boxes, and struggled to get political parties to observe election campaign rules set to conduct the vote during a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The government has the complete responsibility for all the intentional and unintentional mistakes of the commission at its different levels,” said the statement, which said both entities are responsible for ensuring a free and fair vote on Sunday.

Min Aung Hlaing did not mention national leader Aung San Suu Kyi by name or threaten to withhold recognition of the election results. But observers saw it as a worrying intrusion into politics by the military — and the government spokesman said the general went too far.

“The latest statement by the military is based on unfounded claims of some political parties and individual persons. Far from helping to have a free and fair election, it only serves to further the concerns and instability in the country,” said Myanmar President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay.

Monday’s statement and further remarks the military commander in chief made to local outfit Popular News “are not compatible with essence of the existing laws and constitution,” the president’s spokesman said.

2008 Constitution

Zaw Htay said the top general’s remarks ran afoul of Article 26(a) of the 2008 constitution, which mandates that government employees must be free of political party affiliations.

“The rule of the game here is the 2008 constitution. We all have to play by that rule. If you don’t play by that rule, the game is canceled,” said the spokesman, who added that he suspected deliberate efforts to sabotage the election process.

"In some places, some people are just causing trouble, on purpose. Some are coordinated efforts. What I mean is these are very unusual. I want all to be aware of these unusual activities,” said Zaw Htay.

Military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun, however, defended the commander’s remarks as part of the military’s duties to supervise the government.

“It didn’t name any political parties. It was not involved in party politics,” the spokesman said, adding that the statement drew on publicly available complaints about the management of the election.

“There are many party delegates who are present on the ground and observing the progress. They spoke out about what they have seen. There are independent media and election watch groups on the ground. The military’s statement is based on their reports,” said Zaw Htay.

The rare intervention by the military is troubling to many in Myanmar, which endured harsh military rule from 1962 to 2011. In 1990, the military nullified the results of an election in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) party won 81 percent of the seats in parliament, holding Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years between 1989 and 2010.

Political analyst Yan Myo Thein said much criticism of the UEC in 2020 was valid and the commission should “take the views and criticisms from political parties, civil society groups and the military seriously.”

But he added: “Judging by the current situation, I don’t think we are heading toward a military coup. I think it is indication that frank discussions between political leaders and military leaders are needed.”

Military holds veto

Beyond this week’s election flap, the military will loom large and retain the ability to thwart Aung San Suu Kyi’s agenda for a second term, experts said.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s signature goal of ending decades of wars with ethnic armies made little headway in four rounds of talks in five years, in part due to army resistance.

The army is guaranteed 25 percent of seats in national and regional legislatures under the constitution it wrote in 2008, and retains control of the defense, home affairs, and border affairs.

“The constitution calls for 25 percent of the members of parliament to be appointed, uniformed military. They don’t even go through elections,” said independent analyst Priscilla Clapp, a former senior U.S. diplomat in Myanmar.

“Major articles in the constitution that affect the structure of the political system cannot be changed without more than 75 percent of the parliament,” she said.

“So you have to have some uniformed military in the parliament voting in favor of the change in order to make it happen. And that hasn’t worked. So they have an effective veto over any significant changes for the constitution,” added Clapp.

Some political analysts worry that the post-2020 election period could bring a crisis because of the strained relations between military and civilian leaders.

Tin Mar Aung, a former personal secretary to Aung San Suu Kyi, said the state counselor and the military chief “seem to get on well when they appear on TV, but their relationship could be different behind the scenes.”

“There are many things we cannot see below the surface,” she said. “All in all, I think the parts we cannot see are not so tranquil.”

Reported by Wai Mar Tun, Thiha Tun, Thet Su Aung and Khin Maung Soe for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin and Paul Eckert.

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