Myanmar: How the military still controls the country, not Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar: How the military still controls the country, not Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar: How the military still controls the country, not Aung San Suu Kyi

Updated 24 September 2017, 6:15 AEST

In the debate over whether Aung San Suu Kyi should do more to stop the violence in Myanmar, it's often pointed out that she has limited power to intervene — the "de facto leader" has widespread support, but the army still rules the joint, writes Liam Cochrane.

How quickly it's all changed for Aung San Suu Kyi.

During those long, lonely years under house arrest, BBC radio was one of the few intellectual lifelines, keeping her in touch with global events and, perhaps, humanity.

On Tuesday, as she arrived to give a speech about Myanmar's treatment of Rohingya Muslims, a BBC reporter asked, "are you an apologist for ethnic cleansing?"

She strolled by, ignoring the question, as is so often her way these days.

Her seeming disdain for the media has only sharpened the criticism, as has a feeling of betrayal — how could a Nobel Prize winner be overseeing a nation on the brink of genocide?

In the debate over whether Ms Suu Kyi should do more to stop the violence, it's often pointed out that she has limited power to intervene.

But why?

Isn't she the much-loved leader of Myanmar?

The answer is yes and no.

She has widespread popular support and some control over government, but the army still rules the joint.

There are three main ways the military maintains power and the least-known, most boring-sounding aspect is one of the most important.

I'll get to the insidious tentacles of the General Administration Department (GAD) in a moment, but first, the fundamentals.

Why we call her 'de facto leader'

Aung San Suu Kyi spent more than 15 years under house arrest before being released in 2010, going on to lead her National League for Democracy to a landslide victory at elections two years ago.

But a clause in the constitution forbids her from becoming president.

It bans anyone with foreign family members from taking the top job.

Aung San Suu Kyi married British historian Michael Amis (who died in 1999 while she was under house arrest) and had two sons.

The clause is widely considered to have been written into the 2008 Constitution just for her, a glass ceiling installed by the junta to keep 'The Lady' down.

But in a deft political move, she gave the presidential job to a trusted friend and created the new role of State Counsellor, making no secret that her position was more powerful.

Despite the recent international backlash against her, Ms Suu Kyi is still widely popular within Myanmar, especially amongst the Buddhist Burman majority, but also amongst many of the 135 ethnic groups.

She's not the President, but she is the de facto leader of the nation.

Army green slice of the pie

The junta also made sure they retained a quota of seats in Parliament.

The constitution provides that 25 per cent of seats in Parliament are given to the military.

When the new Parliament met last year, this was visibly apparent.

Many MPs arrived in their traditional ethnic attire — an excited kaleidoscope of colours, exotic hats and pride — and sat in contrast to the large bloc of stern-faced soldiers in their dark green uniforms.

While Ms Suu Kyi's party can easily pass normal legislation, the army bloc makes it almost impossible to amend the constitution.

Importantly, that constitution makes sure the military keeps control of the three key ministries — Defence, Border and Home Affairs.

Unlike Australia, where the Prime Minister is the commander-in-chief, Myanmar's army operates completely independently of the Government.

The guns and the borders are the exclusive realm of the Generals.

Then there's the Home Ministry.

The General Administration Department

Under the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry, there exists a far-reaching bureaucracy whose power is hidden behind a bland name — the General Administration Department.

This is the structure that handles the registration of things — from births, deaths and marriages, to land purchases, even elephants.

It collects tax and resolves disputes.

It's the everyday contact point for most citizens who deal with the Government.

GAD's tentacles reach right down to the local level, giving the military information-gathering capacity and practical power across more than 60,000 villages.

"No other government organisation has such a wide presence in the country," The Asia Foundation wrote in a 2014 report.

"Even the Tatmadaw [army] is not spread among the general population to the same degree."

Rather than reform the army's role in the bureaucracy, the Home Ministry has strengthened it, early last year creating a new 'director' position to sit above the civilian deputy-director role at the district level.

Ms Suu Kyi's NLD party controls the other ministries but after years of corruption and inefficiency, getting them to perform and deliver services is not easy.

As a politician, Ms Suu Kyi must strike the delicate balance between reform and not upsetting the army, who could re-take the country at any moment using the power of the National Defence and Security Council.

Stockholm syndrome?

A final note on the power struggle between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military.

She has a complex relationship with the army.

Her father — a national hero who battled colonial British but was assassinated weeks before independence in 1948 — was the founder of the army.

While it was the generals who kept Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest, cruelly preventing her from seeing her sons and dying husband, she is surprisingly positive about the military.

Part of this no doubt stems from the political reality of having to deal with them to get anything done in the country, but it seems to go further than that.

The Rohingya insurgency in Rakhine state has been a public relations dream for the army — with many who once railed against them now vocal in their support for the institution they see as a defender of the nation.

While soldiers, police and vigilantes kill and burn, the bulk of the criticism is directed towards the only Myanmar name most people know outside the country — the deified Aung San Suu Kyi.

The calls for her to speak up, to do more, have merit.

But they should be understood within the wider context of her limited power and the political tightrope she must walk.