Thu 16 Aug 2012
Filed under: Military,Opinion
After a drawn-out selection process, Myanmar’s military parliamentarians have appointed Admiral Nyan Tun as the country’s new vice president, a choice that may help to consolidate President Thein Sein’s position and signal a shift in the military’s position on his ambitious reform agenda.
The highly anticipated appointment came after the disqualification of the previous frontrunner, Myint Swe, a perceived hardliner aligned with the previous junta’s senior leaders, and amid widespread speculation about whether the next vice president would strengthen or weaken the hand of reformers in government.
Over a month behind schedule, Nyan Tun’s appointment was announced on Wednesday by the National Assembly. Following constitutional requirements that the president and two vice presidents must be civilians, Nyan Tun resigned his military commission before being sworn into office the same day. He was nominated by military representatives who represent 25% of parliament and was approved by Armed Forces Commander Vice Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
General consensus on the nominated candidate must then be given by the National Defense and Security Council, which is headed by the president and composed of the speakers of both houses of parliament, key ministers and the commanders and deputy commanders of the armed forces.
Yangon Division Chief Minister and former Lt General Myint Swe was initially chosen in July but was dropped from consideration after it was revealed that his son had taken citizenship in Australia. Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution expressly forbids Myanmar citizens whose relatives or spouses hold foreign citizenship from becoming president or vice president.
Ironically, the rule was initially viewed by the opposition and independent Myanmar watchers as a legal ploy to keep opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from ever holding high office due to her marriage to now deceased British citizen Michael Aris. Suu Kyi was elected to parliament earlier this year after spending nearly 16 of the past 21 years under house arrest.
The senior post became vacant after the resignation of Tin Aung Myint Oo for “health reasons” on July 1. The former general was reportedly suffering from throat cancer, but many observers perceived his resignation was forced due to his opposition to Thein Sein’s reform efforts. Tin Aung Myint Oo was widely viewed as the leader of a hardline faction of former and current military officers opposed to reform and known for corruption.
His resignation also notably came in the wake of statements by senior government leaders calling for top officials to work to promote democratic reforms and better serve the interests of the people. Both Thein Sein and the Speaker of the Lower House, Shwe Mann, had made recent statements about reining in government corruption.
Tin Aung Myint Oo’s resignation and Nyan Tun’s appointment also coincide with an expected cabinet reshuffle that many observers believe will aim to strengthen Thein Sein’s reformist camp by expelling ministers and deputy ministers who are perceived as not adequately supporting reform.
Myanmar’s new first vice president, 58-year-old Nyan Tun, joined the military as part of the 16th intake at the Defense Services Academy and graduated in the 1970s. There is little public information on his subsequent military career besides a brief stint in the 1980s with the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence, the former military intelligence office, and his attendance at the elite National Defense College.
In June 2008, he replaced Vice Admiral Soe Thein as navy chief. At the time, Soe Thein’s removal was believed to be motivated by his mishandling of the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster, particularly his failure to mobilize a naval response to American and French warships that floated near the country’s coast.
The US and French vessels had ostensibly come to offer aid but the previous military regime, fearing the humanitarian offer could be a pretext for a military invasion, declined the offer even as millions of its citizens had been displaced by the killer storm. Promoted to vice admiral in 2010 and admiral in 2012, Nyan Tun remained commander-in-chief of the navy until his appointment as vice president.
Some analysts believe the choice of Nyan Tun may indicate a shift in the military’s political position. While there were other military candidates to choose from based on seniority and connections within the armed forces, especially the army, most of them had public image problems internationally related to their roles in the previous ruling junta.
Among the apparent frontrunners who were ultimately overlooked was Minister of Home Affairs Gen Ko Ko and chairman of the Union Election Commission retired Lt General Tin Aye. Both men have been implicated for alleged human-rights abuses by troops under their command while fighting insurgents in Karen State. In his role as Chief of Military Ordnance until resigning in April 2010, Tin Aye was also a key player in securing military hardware from North Korea, procurements that have earned the diplomatic ire of the United States.
Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Vice Senior General Soe Win was also apparently tipped for the post. Close to former army commander and the previous junta’s second-ranking official Vice Senior General Maung Aye, Soe Win’s tenure as commander of the Northern Command in Kachin State was tainted by corruption allegations. In his current position, he is partly responsible for the ongoing fight against the insurgent Kachin Independence Organization, a counter-insurgency campaign that has been attended by human rights abuses.
Even Thein Sein’s supposed favorite, Lt General Hla Htay Win, the current Armed Forces Joint Chief of Staff, is known for his dubious past. He was a former commander of the key Yangon-based Light Infantry Division 11 and later the Yangon Regional Command, both of which are responsible for security in the former capital. During the 2007 monk-led “Saffron Revolution”, Hla Htay Win was a key commander in suppressing the protests – although there were rumors at the time that he had resisted orders to open fire on the protestors.
Myint Swe, the former frontrunner for the post, was contentious due to his role in the arrests of former intelligence chief Khin Nyunt and former dictator General Ne Win. He was also head of military intelligence for a spell and later commander of Bureau of Special Operations 5, which oversaw security for Yangon and the capital at Naypyidaw. In this role, he also oversaw the bloody crackdown on the 2007 demonstrations. Myint Swe’s initial selection, later thwarted by his son’s citizenship issues, was motivated in part by his apparent ability to straddle the line between hardliner and reformer camps.
Comparative clean hands
Nyan Tun, on the other hand, hails from the navy, a much smaller and far less controversial segment of Myanmar’s armed forces. The navy has played only a small part in the various counterinsurgency operations against ethnic and communist insurgents since the 1950s, when most of the rebels were pushed away from coastal regions and major waterways.
The navy has long been sidelined by the army and its leaders have often been mistrusted by the army’s top brass. During the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations against military rule, many navy personnel from around Yangon joined the demonstrations, which were later bloodily suppressed. The majority of the military members who defected after the crackdown were from the navy.
The navy was restructured after 1988 and in recent years has significantly upgraded its capabilities through increased budgets, allowing it to expand with newly sourced vessels, weapons systems and equipment. Still, like the air force, it remains very much a lesser service compared with the army. Its officers are widely seen as less hardline politically and most have not served on the front lines against insurgents – both negative points to army officers who see frontline service as a badge of pride.
The navy also does not carry the same stigma of human-rights abuses and corruption as the army. Although there are recent reports compiled by exile-run human-rights groups of land confiscation and extortion by naval units, proportionally they are believed to have impacted on a far smaller portion of the population, largely confined to the coastal regions in Rakhine and Mon States and Tenasserim Division, than army-backed land grabs.
Nyan Tun’s appointment thus studiously avoids the possible image problems in the international eye that could be associated with an army officer. Analysts note that Nyan Tun does not have a reputation for corruption, nor does he have a record of human-rights abuses. As a member of a branch of the armed forces noted for its past support for political change, his appointment may signal a strengthening of the government’s reformist camp. Unlike his predecessor, Nyan Tun also has a measure of international exposure, mostly to neighboring countries and on naval business.
His relationship with the military, however, will be closely watched. Although he is believed to be loyal to armed forces commander Vice Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and close to Senior General Than Shwe, he does not have personal close ties to the army and significantly is not a former field commander.
As a navy serviceman, he does not have direct access to any particular strong clique within the army, from where most of the country’s political power still resides. There is already initial speculation about how willing he will be to safeguard the military’s – and especially the army’s – prerogatives. His handling of these issues will no doubt impact on the amount of respect and deference given to him by military leaders and their appointed representatives in parliament.
Nyan Tun’s appointment also raises speculation about how much residual control Than Shwe retains over the military and the country’s fast-evolving political process. Although Nyan Tun is believed to be close to the former junta strongman, Than Shwe likely could have pushed Myint Swe through despite the citizenship controversy of his son or championed the cause of one of the other more controversial, hardline army officers.
Instead, Than Shwe and other military leaders have seemingly opted for a compromise choice in Nyan Tun. It all points towards grudging, if not tentative, military support for Thein Sein’s widely lauded reform efforts.
Brian McCartan is a freelance journalist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.