Myanmar's strongman gives rare BBC interview

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Media captionSenior General Min Aung Hlaing: ''I will respect the result if they (the opposition) win fairly''

In a rare interview, Myanmar's commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing tells the BBC that the military will not step back from politics until a peace deal is reached with all the country's ethnic armed groups - but it will respect the results of the forthcoming general election even if the opposition win.

Is Senior General Min Aung Hlaing the most powerful man in Myanmar?

Quite possibly.

He has control over how and where the army wages war, coupled with far reaching political powers.

In accordance with the military drafted constitution the 59-year-old has the right to appoint key ministers, choose a quarter of the MPs in the parliament and - as events last month showed - the ability to block any attempt to erode that power.

Getting an interview with him was not easy.

Why Myanmar's elections matter

For decades the Burmese army has regarded the foreign media, and the BBC in particular as an enemy of the state, too close to the pro-democracy movement.

But there have now been four years of reforms and we've opened a bureau in Yangon. So, in hope rather than expectation we sent our letter off.

The first response came back a month later. We'd fallen at the first hurdle having foolishly used the phrase "Burmese" rather than "Myanmar" army.

Having remedied that there then followed a series of increasingly bizarre meetings.

Late-night rendezvous, USB sticks handed over in coffee shop car parks and dark walks taken along Nay Pyi Taw's yawningly empty streets. I felt like a drug dealer.

There were no emails exchanged, and I never learnt the phone number or even the surname of the contact I was dealing with. But it was clear that unlike his predecessor Than Shwe, this senior general wanted to talk.

Charm offensive

The most recent picture of Than Shwe shows him learning to use an iPad with a young relative - but the thought of him taking an active interest in Facebook and social media would have been laughable.

Image caption The military still retains its grip on Myanmar's political life

Min Aung Hlaing is different. Like many of the country's senior leaders his aides actively curate a Facebook page, paying for sponsored posts that stay near the top of congested Burmese news feeds.

He's got more than two 220,000 "likes" and provides updates ranging from which aircraft have been purchased to social projects he's visited.

It's part of a charm offensive, he told me, to reconnect the people and the army.

"If the people get the right information about the army they will understand us," he said, after thanking me for my Facebook follow.

"They'll see the military is defending the interests of the people and implementing the interests of the people and defending against threats to the country."

Min Aung Hlaing is charismatic, and there's a ready smile during the interview. It's in marked contrast to the much cooler style of President Thein Sein when I spoke to him in March of this year.

'True wish'

But there's an uncompromising message.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still barred from running for president

A clear thread running through our discussion was that as long as political parties played by the rules of Myanmar's so called "disciplined democracy" then the carefully limited space for debate and political activity would remain.

But there was no sign that he wanted to reduce the military's grip on Burmese political life and truly hand over to civilians.

That will need to wait, he said, until ceasefires and peace deals have been concluded with all of Myanmar's many ethnic armed groups.

"It could be five years or 10 years - I couldn't say," he said.

Those who've watched the glacial progress of talks with ethnic armed groups fear it might take much, much longer to disarm and reintegrate everyone.

One clear and positive message was that there would be no repeat of 1990 when a landslide victory for the NLD was ignored and annulled.

The ruling USDP are facing electoral disaster - but its relationship with the military has soured in the last two years, making a partisan intervention less likely.

"I believe the election will be free and fair," Min Aung Hlaing said. "That is our true wish. We are committed to helping make that happen anyway we can. When the election commission announces the result we have to respect it. Because it will have been democratically done."

Presidential ambition

But thanks to an infamous clause of the constitution the leader of the party that seems certain to win can't become president. Despite her best efforts to build bridges with the army, Aung San Suu Kyi is still barred and that appears unlikely to change.

Min Aung Hlaing's name has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, and he told me he was planning to retire when he turns 60 next year.

So would he stand for president if asked?

"The duty of the soldier is to serve the country in whatever role," he said coyly, while noting that he had 40 years of experience.

A final decision would depend on whether he meets the qualifications (he does, Suu Kyi doesn't), and whether he's asked. It was a "yes" in all but name.

Whether he gets that chance will depend on how the election pans out.

With a quarter of the Hluttaw's (parliament's) seats already under his control he has, if he wants it, a bye to the final three, and a guaranteed job at least as vice-president.

Whether he is then voted into the presidency will depend on the makeup of the Hluttaw. In addition to the military bloc he'll need the support of some elected MPs .

That may prove a big ask, and if the NLD falls short of a majority it's possible that Thein Sein would be better positioned to reach out to ethnic parties and secure a second term.

Although a nationwide ceasefire has proved elusive, the current president has earned plaudits for his efforts to deliver peace.

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