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News analysis

Yangon minister's remarks test government's ties with military

Powerful military wants action taken against civilian minister who said Myanmar not true democracy

A Myanmar minister's comments have put the civilian government in the crosshairs of the powerful military, in what could be a test of their carefully cultivated ties so far.

Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein, billed by some as a rising star, said last week that Myanmar was not a full-fledged democracy, given the elevated status of its military and commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing. "There are no civil-military relations in the democratic era, and the military must be under a civilian government," he said, adding that the commander-in-chief's position was equivalent to that of a director-general.

The military, which functions independently of the government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), controls the Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs ministries, as well as a quarter of all parliamentary seats. And it guards its reputation like a hawk.

The military last Tuesday demanded that the government take action against the chief minister for this slight. It alleged that Mr Phyo Min Thein's comments were "reckless and confrontational", and his presence was not conducive to the "long-term" relationship between the government and armed forces.

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The following day, NLD spokesman Nyan Win told the DVB news outlet there was no reason to take action.

Presidential Office spokesman Zaw Htay, however, told The Straits Times that it sent a letter to the military on Thursday after receiving the military's complaint. He declined to disclose its contents.

This row is unfolding more than a year after Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi took on the delicate task of reforming a country, dimmed by 50 years of junta rule, while maintaining good ties with the military, which is guaranteed under the Constitution to hold some of the reins.

Myanmar's military controls certain key ministries as well as a quarter of all parliamentary seats.
Myanmar's military controls certain key ministries as well as a quarter of all parliamentary seats. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

"Generally, the NLD and NLD-government have been very cautious, even overly cautious, in not offending the military," Mr Soe Myint Aung, founder of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies, told The Straits Times.

GENTLY DOES IT

Generally, the NLD and NLD-government have been very cautious, even overly cautious, in not offending the military.

MR SOE MYINT AUNG, founder of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies, on the government's delicate balancing act.

Ms Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has not questioned the military's crackdown in Rakhine state, launched after insurgents attacked border posts there last year. The government has said it will not grant visas to United Nations investigators tasked with looking into allegations of human rights abuses there.

NLD researcher Myo Yan Naung Thein, who criticised Senior General Min Aung Hlaing's role in the Rakhine state situation, was charged with defamation via a controversial telecommunications law and sentenced in April to six months' jail.

Movies have not been spared. Twilight Over Burma, a film based on the true life story of an ethnic Shan prince who died under mysterious circumstances following the 1962 military coup, was pulled by censors from a film festival last year over fears that it might hurt the army's image.

But the events last week involve an elected politician at the helm of Myanmar's financial capital, who has quickly risen through the ranks since joining the NLD in 2012. Some observers wonder if it might hurt the NLD to censure the Chief Minister at the military's behest.

"An elected Chief Minister should have a right to speak," says Mr Moe Thway, who heads the Generation Wave political activist group. "Otherwise, why should we elect them?"

Relations between the NLD and the military as a whole are far from damaged, stresses Tagaung Institute's Mr Soe Myint Aung. "But is it really in the military's interest to pursue elected politicians? I wouldn't think so."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline 'Yangon minister's remarks test government's ties with military'. Print Edition | Subscribe