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General new man to watch in Myanmar

In position to seek presidency

– People in Myanmar are accustomed to keeping a close eye on their generals. It seems like a reasonable habit when you consider that the military ruled Burma for more than the past half-century. Even today, despite three years of liberalizing reforms, high-ranking officers retain considerable sway.

So you can hardly blame people for sitting up and taking notice when a local weekly published details of a speech made by Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of the armed forces. He declared, among other things, that the military is “afraid of no one.” Just in case someone didn’t get the message, he also noted that “the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) will always follow policies set by retired Senior General Than Shwe.” Than Shwe was the head of the ruling military junta in Myanmar from 1992 to 2011.

His remarks, supposedly given during a closed meeting with officers on Nov. 29 and not published in the state-run newspapers, were accompanied by several highly provocative comments about the simmering ethnic conflicts that have plagued the country for decades. Strikingly, the general pinned the blame for Myanmar’s long-running civil war on the leaders of ethnic groups who have been fighting for greater autonomy and a bigger share of the country’s national wealth.

So what’s going on? Can we learn anything useful from reading between the lines? In fact, there are at least two important conclusions we can draw from Min Aung Hlaing. First, his remarks signal an important shift in the development of military doctrine, one that entails a major change in the style of the leadership of the armed forces. Second, his statements strongly suggest that the commander in chief is considering the possibility of entering politics, perhaps by running for president in the next national election scheduled for 2015.

‘National principles’

Over the past 25 years, since the military seized power in 1988, the Tatmadaw has professed to follow an ideology based on “Three National Principles” – namely, the preservation of the union, the maintenance of national solidarity and the defense of sovereignty.

Based on these principles, the armed forces developed a doctrine they called “total national defense,” which is included in Myanmar’s 2008 constitution. This was the third phase of doctrinal development in the recent history of the armed forces. The Tatmadaw announced its first official doctrine in 1950, followed by a second in 1958. While some of the details have changed, the ideological program articulated in all three cases revolves around the notion of state security. As experience has shown, the armed forces take these statements of doctrine very seriously. In the past, even when these ideological guidelines were kept secret from the public, right up into the 1990s, the armed forces nonetheless used them as the basis for civil-military relations and its interventions in civil politics.

The military staged its coups in 1958, 1962 and 1988 in the name of state security – the same rationale cited by the successive juntas to justify economic self-sufficiency and self-imposed isolation in foreign policy. The coup leaders continued to cite state security needs to legitimize their expansion of the army at the expense of education, economic welfare and health care. The military built roads, bridges, dams and even a new capital deep in the jungle.

New type of security

The former military leaders I’ve interviewed placed supreme emphasis on state security, despite their clear awareness that the public has entirely different priorities, such as democracy and social welfare. Members of the military dismiss such views as “populist” or “short-sighted.”

In this historical context, Min Aung Hlaing’s explicit embrace of “human security” represents a dramatic departure from the norm. If his statements are to be taken seriously, they indicate an attempt by the military to win the people’s hearts and minds by redefining the armed forces as the defenders of democracy and social welfare.

And what about the possibility that the commander in chief is positioning himself for the 2015 elections? According to several sources inside the military, Min Aung Hlaing, who will reach retirement age that same year, is quietly preparing a run for the presidency. Some of Myanmar ’s military lawmakers have stated that the armed forces will nominate Min Aung Hlaing as a candidate in 2015. If this is the case, Min Aung Hlaing’s “human security” rhetoric might well resonate with the public’s aspiration, and he could present himself as a statesman with a clear political vision, perhaps enabling him to profit from intense personal rivalries among the other contenders, including the incumbent president Thein Sein, the parliamentary speaker Thura Shwe Mann and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In any event, it’s quite clear that observers of Myanmar’s political scene will find themselves paying even closer attention to the doings of Min Aung Hlaing.

Su Mon Thazin Aung is a doctoral student at the University of Hong Kong. He wrote this for Foreign Policy.

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