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Politics

Myanmar military-Suu Kyi rift widens amid coup fears

Army claims vote fraud and threatens 'action' in country without civilian control

The rift between Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, left, and commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing seems to be deeper than ever. (Source photos by Reuters) 

NAYPYIDAW/YANGON -- Myanmar's parliament is set to convene on Monday as tensions between State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and the military escalate regarding the November election results. The spat once again reveals the lack of civilian control in the fledgling democracy, raising coup fears.

On Friday, with the military still claiming fraud in the November elections, foreign diplomatic missions in Myanmar, mainly Western countries and regions including the U.S., U.K. and European Union, announced a joint statement. In it, they urged "the military and all other parties to adhere to democratic norms." The statement also says the missions "oppose any attempt to alter the elections' outcome."

Moreover, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has voiced "great concern," asking all actors to respect voters' choices. "All electoral disputes should be resolved through established legal mechanisms," he said.

Police on Friday tightened security in the capital Naypyidaw, with many officers setting up checkpoints to prepare for the parliamentary meetings.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in the general elections last November. During the session starting on Monday, the parliament will elect the new president and vice presidents who will rule the country for the next five years. It will also approve newly appointed ministers.

However, the country's military voiced a number of complaints about the election, including allegations of fraud in voter lists and other documents.

Military representatives are supposed to attend the session on Feb 1. As stipulated by the constitution, 25% of the representatives are appointed by the armed forces. But a military spokesperson warned on Jan. 26 that the armed forces might "take action" and did not confirm whether the military-appointed lawmakers would attend Monday's session.

Myanmar's military spokesman General Zaw Min Tun speaks with the media in Naypyitaw on Jan. 26.   © Reuters

Furthermore, when asked if the military would rule out a coup d'etat, the spokesperson said, "No. We cannot say whether or not we will do it."

Political analyst Khin Zaw Win told Nikkei Asia that "relations between the civilian government and military started to deteriorate early in the first term triggered by the State Counselor Law. All military members of parliament protested that it was unconstitutional," he said, referring to the law passed in 2016 for Suu Kyi to become the de facto leader of the government because the constitution barred her from becoming the president.

In early January, the country's commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing said: "It is not proper for the civilian government to carry out tasks by selectively applying the law. Mistakes are pointed out because such mistakes may tarnish the validity of the election." In December, he also said the military "consistently takes a leading role in politics to achieve national stability and solidarity."

The relationship between the two sides became increasingly thorny when Suu Kyi's NLD tried to amend the constitution. The NLD suggested changing key provisions that would undermine military influence, among them the right to appoint military parliamentarians.

Army soldiers clear traffic as an armored personnel carrier moves through Yangon on January 28.   © Reuters

"The second big rift appeared with the constitution amendment in early 2019," Khin Zaw Win explained. "Suu Kyi knew it wouldn't pass, but she wanted to show the electorate she tried. The military was very unhappy."

Political Commentator Yan Myo Thein agrees. "During the constitutional debate in 2019, tensions between civilian and military parliamentarians escalated," he said.

A person familiar with the matter told Nikkei that "currently there is almost no direct communication between Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing," adding that "the two had been holding private meetings until 2018, but the dialogue has since stopped."

The November elections dealt another crucial blow. Military pressure on the civil government reflects the frustration toward potential changes in the civil-military balance after the 2020 election, according to Yan Myo Thein. "Maybe the military expected more balance in parliamentary politics. They weren't expecting such a huge victory by the NLD and maybe they feel they will lose too much power."

Meanwhile, NLD spokesperson Myo Nyunt is upbeat. "We remain optimistic, although we have many difficulties, including the civil-military relationship. But I think we will have some success this term," he told Nikkei. "We still have to overcome the bad memories from the past dictatorship and the relationship with the military."

But political commentator Yan Myo Thein remains cautious. "During the next five years, the civil-military relationship is one of the challenges that the new government and parliament have to tackle," he said.

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