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Myanmar military chief revamps his parliamentary team

A Tatmadaw soldier on observation duty at a construction site in Naypyitaw (Photo by Steve Tickner)

Ahead of the inaugural session of Myanmar's second post-junta legislature, scheduled to kick off on Feb. 1, Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has appointed or re-appointed 386 military delegates to the bicameral Union parliament and the country's 14 provincial assemblies.

     The legislative presence of the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, is enshrined in Myanmar's constitution, which reserves a quarter of all seats for the men -- and women -- in uniform. However, the thundering victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in elections held in November means that the legislative bodies will be controlled by historical opponents of military rule.

     A fundamental rebalancing of Myanmar's parliamentary landscape and legislative process is therefore expected. To take up the challenge, the Tatmadaw has beefed up its contingent of delegates and sent to the parliament in Naypyitaw a group of more senior and experienced officers.

     After a cautious experiment with legislative politics during the first post-junta legislature between 2011 and 2016, the Tatmadaw seems bound to reassert its parliamentary and constitutional strengths. The commander-in-chief can appoint a maximum of 110 military delegates to the lower house of the Union assembly, or Pyithu Hluttaw, and 56 to the upper house, or Amyotha Hluttaw. In each of the 14 provincial parliaments, the number of military representatives cannot exceed a third of the number of elected representatives there. In 2011, 222 military officers were assigned to these 14 bodies; the number will now fall to 220. Since 2011, military appointees have been regularly reshuffled by the Tatmadaw chief, with no civilian oversight. They do not resign from their positions in the armed forces, but are "seconded" to the legislative bodies.

     The rising significance of parliamentary politics for the Tatmadaw leadership is reflected in a sharp increase in the number of high-ranking officers in both chambers of the Union parliament. For the first time, three two-star generals will sit there. Maj. Gen. Than Soe, a newcomer, will lead the military delegation in the upper house. Maj. Gen. Tauk Tun (a graduate of the Teza military training school) and Maj. Gen. Than Htut Thein (an alumnus of the Defense Services Academy) will act as "whips" in the lower house. Both have been members of the Pyithu Hluttaw since April 2012; Than Htut Thein entered parliament as a colonel.

     The Tatmadaw's re-evaluation of its parliamentary role became apparent in the aftermath of by-elections won by the NLD in 2012. For decades, the armed forces regarded parliamentary affairs as toxic, blaming party politicking for Myanmar's inept governance in the 1950s before the advent of military rule. In 2011, Senior Gen. Than Shwe appointed only low profile soldiers to the new legislatures: five army colonels then sat as the highest ranking officers in both houses.

     His successor, Min Aung Hlaing, took a different path. In April 2012, he replaced 59 captains and majors with higher-ranking senior officers, including eight brigadier generals. This move indicated that the military would keep a closer eye on legislative matters. The substitutions also signaled that the Tatmadaw was readying itself for upcoming parliamentary battles with Suu Kyi, following the NLD's decision to drop its former boycott strategy and engage in electoral politics.

Stark contrast

The list of military officers seconded to the upcoming parliament -- unveiled on Jan. 18 -- shows that the Tatmadaw is now moving one step further. The military bloc in the Union legislature will count, besides three major generals, 12 brigadier generals and 11 colonels. The parliament is where Myanmar's post-junta public life is to be structured. To ensure stability and durability in the legislature, the Tatmadaw has thus reinstated a majority of military appointees delegates with significant legislative experience. Some, notably among army majors, were appointed as early as January 2011.

     This will stand in stark contrast with the bloc of newly elected representatives: only 12% of incumbent legislators of the outgoing parliament were re-elected. Even the NLD ordered several of its experienced Union-level lawmakers to run for seats in provincial parliaments, in order to grab most of the speakerships and other key parliamentary positions. This will leave very little experience among the ranks of the new civilian representatives in Naypyitaw.

     Chief among the military "returnees" in the upper house are Brig. Gen. Aung San Chit (another Teza alumnus) and Brig. Gen. Thet Htut Aung (a graduate of the Officers' Training School). Both were appointed almost four years ago, in April 2012, when Thet Htut Aung was a colonel. Brig. Gen. Tin San Naing was appointed in July the same year to the lower house, and will remain there.

Burmese army troops pass through Lashio in northern Shan State during a prolonged conflict with Kok ​ang rebels along the Chinese border in 2015.(Photo by Steve Tickner)

     Likewise, Brig. Gen. Kyaw Kyaw Soe, who was seconded to the upper house in August 2015 to replace a retiring officer running in the November elections, will continue to occupy his seat in the new legislature. There is also the interesting case of Brig. Gen. Tin Soe, who has moved from a regional parliament to the Union assembly. He was an army colonel when first assigned in January 2011 to the Kayah state parliament. He left the provincial assembly in June 2013, but re-entered legislative politics in May 2014 as an appointee in the lower house. He was reinstalled there as a one star general last week.

     All senior officers belong roughly to the same generation: Born in the early 1960s, they were commissioned officers in the early and mid-1980s but transferred to bureaucratic roles in the armed forces later on. They are currently deputy regional commanders, heads of military training schools or in the Office of the Chief of Military Affairs. Officers from the army dominate, as in the outgoing parliaments. Even the assembly of the coastal Thanintharyi region does not boast a single delegate from the Navy -- only the parliaments of Yangon, Irrawaddy, Rakhine, Bago and Mon have naval representatives.

     The Air Force has, however, benefited from a surprising elevation, with the recent appointment of two brigadier generals from its ranks in the Union legislature: Brig. Gen. Than Lwin in the lower house and Brig. Gen. Kyaw Swe Oo in the upper house. This may be attributed to the allegedly rising influence of the Air Force Commander-in-Chief Gen. Khin Aung Myint. Air Force representatives will also sit in the provincial assemblies of Magwe, Irrawaddy and Yangon.

     The military legislative bloc in Yangon's regional assembly will be led by a brigadier general (who happens to be Than Shwe's son-in-law). Echoing the composition of the outgoing legislatures, however, a single army colonel will act as whip in each of the other 13 provincial bodies. There is no need for the Tatmadaw to appoint higher ranking officers in the local parliaments because the military does not hold veto powers there.

     Lastly, three female officers will be present in the legislatures. Two army lieutenant colonels, San Thida Khin and Soe Soe Myint were appointed in January 2014 to the lower house and will continue to sit there. Also keeping her post in Yangon's parliament is Major Hnin Yu Kyaw, also assigned there in early 2014.

     The upcoming national legislature may prove very different from the first post-junta parliament, which is about to end its five-year term. In the new parliament, the appointed military legislators will appear as the most cohesive opposition bloc. Military delegates will enjoy a little more than 25% of the seats for now (due to postponement of voting in several constituencies in the November poll), while the defeated Union Solidarity and Development Party will be a distant third parliamentary bloc with only 8% of the lawmakers.

     The military certainly expects tougher legislative discussions and constitutional debates than in the outgoing legislature. Article 20(f) of the 2008 Constitution states that the Tatmadaw is ultimately responsible for safeguarding the Constitution. Thanks to its reserved seats, the Tatmadaw thus holds a constitutional veto. It can block any potential amendments, which would need a super majority of more than 75% to pass.

     The military legislators exerted their veto in June when they blocked five of six amendment proposals put forward -- including changes to article 59(f), which bars Burmese citizens from presidential nomination if they have foreign spouses or immediate family, as Suu Kyi does. The Tatmadaw surely intends to pay great attention to the constitutionality of all legislation proposed by the incoming government.

     Constitutional amendments apart, military appointees cannot impose a decisive "veto" on any other legislative activities. Far from being an immobile and obstructive force in parliament, military delegates have over the past five years attempted to interact with and work alongside their civilian colleagues -- including the NLD. They have not proven to be proactive and high-flying lawmakers, though. Only a few draft bills were submitted by military legislators. Bills focused on security issues were drafted by the army-controlled ministries of home affairs and defense.

     With a legislature now dominated by the NLD, the military delegates may decide to intervene more openly. The fact that three major generals will sit in the house points to a greater capacity for decision-making by the military delegation. It also signals that the NLD cannot reasonably hope to provoke divisions within army ranks. The ability of the military bloc to act as a powerful obstructive force in parliament should thus not be underestimated.

     The Tatmadaw may, for example, make systematic use of petitions to the Constitutional Tribunal, thereby delaying the legislative process. This may well be the case if the government proves daring enough to try to dismantle the military's political and economic domain. In any case, very few long-standing observers of Myanmar politics expect a serene parliament that could lead to the disengagement of the military from the legislative process. For the moment, that remains out of the question.

Renaud Egreteau is a 2015-2016 Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC.

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