What’s next for Myanmar’s military chief after 65?

Published on December 8, 2020

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

Bangkok Post – December 8, 2020

As per the 1959 Defence Services Act, which was amended in 2014, the retirement age of Myanmar’s military chief and his deputy is set at 65. Previously, military leaders could serve for as long as the Tatmadaw needed them.

Now, the answer many want to know is whether the military commander- in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who turns 65 July next year, will retire when his time comes.

The military chief may choose any of these three possible routes – voluntary retirement, enter politics, and or extend his tenure.

Voluntary Retirement

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing assumed the post of commander-in-chief in March 2011 following the retirement of military strongman Senior General Than Shwe. This was part of the country’s seven-step roadmap toward a “discipline-flourishing democracy,” which was announced by General Khin Nyunt in 2003.

If Min Aung Hlaing chooses to retire, it will happen only after there is a thorough discussion and agreement with the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which won the Nov 8 election by a landslide.

Such discussion will most likely include, among others, immunity from prosecution and indictment for the military chief and his family members, as well as that of his deputy and family members.

While it has not been publicly stated or discussed, one of the reasons why the military has been unwilling to transfer absolute power to the civilian government is for fear of their safety.

The military ruled the country with an iron fist for almost 50 years, during which the regime and its leadership were accused of severe human rights violations. There has been a lingering concern that either the civilian government or victims of the military dictatorship may resort to revenge against present and former military generals and their family members, as well as their associates.

If Min Aung Hlaing chooses to retire, he is likely to be accompanied by his deputy Vice-Senior General Soe Win, as their predecessors did in 2011 when Senior General Than Shwe and his deputy Vice-Senior General Maung Aye stepped down.

Political Ambitions

Months before the general election, Min Aung Hlaing in his June interview with a Russian weekly said, “The first priority is to successfully hold the 2020 elections. Then, if there is trust, we might also have to consider how we could participate in politics.”

He has also previously said that his experiences in the military leadership could be helpful in politics.

However, the prospects for his political ambitions is not encouraging. In the Nov 8 election, the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), won only 71 of all the elected seats, down from the 2015 election when the party won 117 seats.

The USDP’s dismal electoral performance is an indication that Myanmar’s electorates do not trust the military and its affiliates. The election result also means that Min Aung Hlaing has no chance of holding the top-most position in the country, the presidency, despite the military holding 25% of seats in all legislatures.

But under the 2008 constitution, the military is guaranteed one of the two vice presidential positions. This means that the military commander-in- chief can become a vice president if he decides to become one.

But the potential of the military chief becoming a vice president is different from what the military chief himself may have wanted to see happen, that is, trust and confidence from the voters. The recent election results show that had it not been a reserved position, even the chances of becoming a vice president are very difficult, if not impossible.

The NLD, which won 920 of the total 1,117 seats, up by 61 seats from the 2015 general election, is now in a firm position to form the next government in April next year.

The election result is also an indication that Myanmar’s electorate does not want the military or its proxies to come back under a free and fair electoral competition.

Extension of Tenure

The possibility of the military chief extending his tenure beyond 65 years cannot be completely ruled out. During a press conference in the country’s administrative capital Nay Pyi Taw on Nov 27, the military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun reportedly evaded a question on the military chief’s retirement.

He said, “The party that won the election is now preparing to form the government. We don’t know how the political landscape will develop… The Tatmadaw will act in line with the 2008 constitution and not overstep it.”

In fact, Article 20(b) of the constitution says that the military has the right to administer all affairs of the armed forces independently. Moreover, the constitution also gives the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) the power to propose and approve the military chief to the president who formally appoints. Out of the 11 NDSC members, the military holds the upper hand with six votes.

This means that the military chief’s tenure can be extended by the military leadership. This had happened in 2016 when a meeting of the top-level military officials decided to extend the military chief and his deputy’s tenure for five years.

The bottom line is that the future of Min Aung Hlaing depends on the nature of deal he can reach with Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD government, similar to his predecessors Than Shwe and President Thein Sein, who was a military general-turned president in the USDP government.

Should such a situation arise, the NLD government may want to use the opportunity to push for some concrete actions and compromises from the military on issues such as the country’s peace process with ethnic armed groups and constitutional amendments, which are the NLD’s two major priorities.

Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is a Political Scientist, Associate Professor, Assistant Dean and Executive Director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University.

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