Myanmar: The Future of the Armed Forces
Myanmar: The Future of the Armed Forces
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Five Years On, Rohingya Refugees Face Dire Conditions and a Long Road Ahead
Five Years On, Rohingya Refugees Face Dire Conditions and a Long Road Ahead
Briefing 21 / Asia

Myanmar: The Future of the Armed Forces

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest on 6 May 2002 has generated some optimism about political progress in Myanmar. It remains to be seen, however, whether all political actors will be able to translate the new cooperative atmosphere into actual compromises in key policy areas.

Executive Summary

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest on 6 May 2002 has generated some optimism about political progress in Myanmar.[fn]This briefing uses the official English names for the country, as applied by the UN, most countries outside the U.S. and Europe, and the national government – that is, “Burma” for the period before 1989 and “Myanmar” after 1989. The same criteria are used for other place names such as Rangoon (now Yangon). This should not be perceived as a political statement or a judgement on the right of the military government to change the names. In Burma/Myanmar, “Bamah” and “Myanma” have both been used for centuries, being respectively the colloquial and the more formal names for the country in the national language.Hide Footnote  It remains to be seen, however, whether all political actors will be able to translate the new cooperative atmosphere into actual compromises in key policy areas.

This briefing focuses on some of the most critical issues that will have to be dealt with in a political transition – the composition, management and responsibilities of the Myanmar armed forces (the Tatmadaw) as a military institution. First, it reviews the ongoing expansion and modernisation of the Tatmadaw, and lays out the visions of respectively the State, Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the National League for Democracy (NLD) for the armed forces of the future. Secondly, it considers the prospects for a compromise between the two protagonists that satisfies core values on both sides; it outlines the possible contours of such a compromise, and it identifies key problem areas.

Since 1988, the military government has carried out an ambitious expansion and modernisation of the armed forces. As a result, the Tatmadaw today is an entirely different organisation from that of a decade ago.[fn]An earlier ICG report Burma/Myanmar: How Strong is the Military Regime? (Bangkok/Brussels 21 December 2000) suggested that there was a serious over-stretch in the Myanmar military. Although there are clearly areas of weakness such as the retention of forces, central control over troops and low morale among lower-rung officers that impact on its real operational capabilities, our present assessment is that the military has the firepower and ability to deal with internal uprisings and with ethnic insurgencies. There is no force that could effectively challenge its grip on power and given its monopoly of coercive capacity, there is now little resistance to its rule from the population. See also ICG Asia Report N°27, Myanmar: The Role of Civil Society, 6 December 2001.Hide Footnote  It is now able not only to crush civil disturbances in the cities and respond to periodic guerrilla attacks in the countryside, but also to conduct much larger and more effective counter-insurgency operations. For the first time in its history, it also has the means to carry out extended conventional operations in defence of Myanmar‘s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

While the military government faces pressing concerns from both within and outside the country, including serious economic problems, the SPDC has given clear signs that it is determined to continue its comprehensive defence improvement program. Whatever differences members of the military hierarchy may have over other policy questions, they share a vision of the Tatmadaw being the envy of its regional neighbours, and capable of defending Myanmar against even the most sophisticated and well-equipped adversaries.[fn]For an analysis of the mindset and policies of the SPDC, see ICG Asia Report N°28, Myanmar: The Military Regime's View of the World, 7 December 2001.Hide Footnote  There also seems to be a shared conviction that – regardless of any changes that might need to be made in the way the country is governed – the armed forces should remain the ultimate arbiters of power in Myanmar and have all the means necessary to impose their will on the country.

The NLD, which has operated under enormous restrictions including the imprisonment of most of its leadership, was slow to formulate and articulate its views on defence issues. Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders, however, have made repeated references to the place of the armed forces in Myanmar society, and in 1999 these views were incorporated into a formal defence policy platform, which clearly set out a broad vision for the Tatmadaw under a democratic government. In some key respects, this vision is not too different from that of the military hierarchy. Yet, given the profound differences between the two sides in their approach to governing and defending Myanmar, there is also a considerable divergence of views. The NLD, for example, favours smaller, more professional armed forces under full civilian, political control. Particularly contentious issues would likely include the role of the powerful intelligence apparatus, the question of amnesty for members of the armed forces guilty of human rights violations, and the ideological foundations and indoctrination of future members of the armed forces.

The NLD has made it clear that it is ready to discuss the position of the armed forces under a democratic government. The military leaders, however, remain convinced that they alone have the right and the ability to decide such core issues as the size, shape and management of the armed forces, which not only constitute their main power base, but also are central to their self-image and world view. Thus, they have dismissed the NLD’s attempts to devise and promulgate an alternative defence policy not only as having little worth but, more importantly, as having no legitimacy. Indications are that advice from foreign governments and independent groups on this subject is accorded much the same treatment.

On the amnesty issue, even though Aung San Suu Kyi has already made it clear that a NLD government would not engage in a campaign of reprisals against serving or retired members of the Tatmadaw, these assurances have so far failed to meet the concerns of the officers most likely to be affected.

To outside observers, it would seem to be in the long-term interest of the Tatmadaw itself to reach an accommodation with the NLD and other political forces that would reduce the opprobrium it currently faces both domestically and internationally. Yet the military hierarchy appears to feel that it is already capable of defending its own policies and – despite the costs to the wider community – sees continuing high levels of defence expenditure as both necessary and justifiable. It believes that the armed forces are behaving honourably, holding the Union together, maintaining internal peace and stability, and defending the country against diverse external threats. The senior ranks of the armed forces thus do not share the sense of urgency felt by the international community over the need for a compromise with the democratic opposition, at least not in the critical area of national security.

Bangkok/Brussels, 27 September 2002

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.