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Myanmar: The Military Regime’s View of the World
Myanmar: The Military Regime’s View of the World
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Another Landslide Victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party in Myanmar – But at What Cost?
Another Landslide Victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party in Myanmar – But at What Cost?
Report 28 / Asia

Myanmar: The Military Regime’s View of the World

Since coming to power in 1988, the most recent military rulers of Burma/Myanmar have effectively resisted external demands to turn over power to a democratic government.

Executive Summary

Since coming to power in 1988, the most recent military rulers of Burma/Myanmar have effectively resisted external demands to turn over power to a democratic government. Most of the outside pressure has failed to take into account how this government sees and responds to the world beyond its borders. This paper examines the military’s perspective on foreign relations and explains why many current international strategies have failed to push it towards democracy or economic reforms.

The modern state of Myanmar was forged under colonialism and born in the aftermath of World War II. Since inde­pendence in 1947, continuous domestic conflict and the fai­lure of successive governments to forge a stable and pro­spe­rous nation have sustained fears of foreign inter­ven­tion and reinforced a mindset that foreigners are to blame for the country’s many pro­blems.

During four decades of military rule, Myanmar’s leaders have grown increasingly inward­-looking and alienated. They are driven by an obsession with national sovereignty to seek almost total autonomy from international influ­ences. The hall­mark of a foreign policy driven by insecurity has been self-reliance. Since 1962, military leaders have insisted that Myanmar, as much as possible, do things its own way and rely on its own resources. They perceive their country and its problems to be not only unique, but also essentially unfathomable to outsiders. They also exhibit a clear lack of under­standing of international affairs and the motivations, and values of other nations.

The current military regime in principle has reversed 26 years of self-imposed isolation in an attempt to revi­talise the ailing economy and ward off popular pres­sure for political reform. However, while it has relaxed the long-cherished notion of terri­to­rial sanctity, the ideal of absolute sovereignty and perceived need to insulate Myanmar from foreign influence remains. Each opening is accompanied by control mechanisms to limit the negative impact of allowing in more foreigners.

Myanmar’s foreign relations are shaped in this tension between traditional values and current needs. Many outside observers have bought into a kind of conspiracy thinking, which sees the regime to be cooperating with regional governments to undermine the pro-democratic forces. This has given rise to a clash-of-civilisations image that posits the forces of good (i.e. Western democracy) confronting the forces of evil (i.e. Asian authoritarianism). The reality is much more complex and ambiguous.

Some highly practical considerations also shape the approaches taken by the SPDC leadership. One relates to how their commercial interests tie in with national economic development and the drug trade. The regime has obtained vital revenue from reinvestment of narcotics profits. No reform package that does not address personal and institutional economic interests is practical. Another relates to  personal security. The military leaders fear what will happen to them if the political order is overturned. They will continue to frame policies influenced by personal security and will not surrender power without guarantees for themselves and families.

While the military government is locked in a adversarial relationship with Western governments and organisations over democracy and human rights, its leaders harbour a deep-seated wish to be accepted as equals by the developed countries. They are also keenly aware of the impor­tance of attracting Western capital and tech­no­­logy to support military and national deve­lop­ment. Conversely, the junta’s relations with its neighbours, though superficially close, continue to be hampered by historic pre­judices and the generals’ insistence on doing it ‘their way or no way at all’.

Coun­tries like Japan, China, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia, which have provided varying degrees of support for Yangon, have been frustrated in attempts to achieve cooperation from the regime on issues of concern to them. Myanmar’s participation in ASEAN has also been half-hearted at best. The military regime stands largely alone in the world by choice as much as necessity.

International actors, who aim to induce the SPDC to liberalise or in other ways work to improve the welfare of Myanmar’s people, face major obstacles:

  • Myanmar’s rulers are deter­mined not to bow to outside pressure. They refuse to accept significant foreign mediation or any other form of ‘intrusive’ inter­national partici­pa­tion in the solu­tion of its political problems. They have  shown little will to learn from the experience of other countries or take foreign advice, even on technical matters.
  • The sense of outside threat creates a barrier of suspicion, which greatly affects the junta’s interpretation of international policies and hampers the work of foreign agencies, organisations, and companies in Myanmar.
  • The military leaders remain proudly aloof, partly blind to the possibilities presented by cooperating with the outside world. They conti­nue to believe that Myanmar both can, and might be better off to, uphold the traditional emphasis on self-reliance.
  • The strong disposition to look inwards for solutions, compounded by fear of subversive ideas, creates an almost insurmountable barrier to import of knowledge. Myanmar has been little influenced by foreign intellectual trends, including on human rights, economic development processes, and so forth.
  • Few, if any, governments or organisations have the access and goodwill necessary to influence Myanmar’s leaders. The few foreigners who have established positive rapport have done so as individuals and are inevitably sworn to secrecy.

There is no doubt that foreign governments and organisations have a critical role to play in Myanmar, which has immense capital, technology, and knowledge needs. However, in the highly nationalistic environment, they are destined to operate at the political margin for the foreseeable future.

Given this situation, and while it remains vital to work for restoration of democracy, it may be more practical to focus as an immediate goal on facilitating a gradual loosening of military control over political and economic activity. This approach would aim to transform relationships first – among members of the regime, between the regime, state, political parties, and population, and among people in general – and institutions only secondly. It would include immediate action to alleviate the huma­ni­tarian crisis, which over the last few years has caused more and more people to sink into despair, diminishing the prospects for positive change. 

Tackling a closed regime so hostile to outside ideas presents enormous policy challenges and there are no quick fixes. But slower incremental steps may defuse the paranoia and win more influence than demands for rapid change that have repeatedly been rebuffed.  More can be done to expand contacts and so prepare the ground for later political reforms.

Bangkok/Brussels, 7 December 2001

A woman casts her vote at a mobile polling station inside her home in Yangon on 29 October, 2020, as advance voting in the country's elections began for elderly people. Sai Aung Main / AFP
Q&A / Asia

Another Landslide Victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party in Myanmar – But at What Cost?

The National League for Democracy is set to win a second term following Myanmar’s 8 November elections – its second competitive polls since absolute military rule ended in 2011. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Richard Horsey reflects on the implications for the country’s conflicts.

What do the initial results indicate?

The full official results of Myanmar’s 8 November general elections have yet to be announced, but it is already clear that, as expected, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has scored another landslide victory. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party has not only won virtually every seat in the central Burman Buddhist heartland, which constitutes its traditional stronghold, but also increased its haul of seats in many ethnic minority areas. The main national opposition party, the military-established Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), suffered an even more humiliating defeat than in 2015. The ethnic minority parties had mixed success in various states, but they fell far short of their aim of becoming kingmakers in the new parliament. As for the crop of new opposition parties that were hoping to establish themselves as credible alternatives – led by a collection of ex-generals, NLD malcontents and social activists – they do not appear to have won a single seat.

The NLD landslide is largely the result of Aung San Suu Kyi’s immense popularity among Myanmar’s Burman Buddhist majority, who see her as having sacrificed so much in the past to challenge military rule that her government’s performance over the last five years is only secondary. While the Rohingya crisis has demolished her image abroad, her personal defence of Myanmar against accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019 has, on the contrary, enhanced her aura at home, as has her prominent leadership of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But while the NLD’s victory was never really in doubt in light of this unwavering support for its leader among the Burman Buddhist majority, its strong wins in many ethnic areas, for reasons that will be pored over by analysts and ethnic parties in the weeks ahead, has come as a huge blow to ethnic parties. This result sets up the post-election period for deeper division between ethnic minorities and the Burman Buddhist majority, and potentially, further conflict.

The further erosion of the USDP’s support does not come as much of a surprise. The party has failed to reinvent itself as a credible alternative to the NLD, which would imply shedding is military links and association with the authoritarian past. It would also mean offering a coherent challenge to the government’s performance – on the economy, social issues or, more recently, COVID-19. Over the last five years, the party has not been effective at putting forward any policies to show how it would do things differently. The upshot is that most Myanmar voters see it as a party of the past, as the results indicate. On 11 November, the USDP held a press conference claiming that the elections were not free and fair and declining to accept the outcome. So far, however, it has presented no convincing evidence to back up its claims. Given the extent of the NLD’s landslide, the electorate’s view of the USDP appears unambiguous.

If the NLD victory was a foregone conclusion, what was at stake in these elections?

Elections in Myanmar are not taken for granted. For most voters, this time was only the second in their lives that they could vote for the party of their choice, after over five decades of military rule. Despite the public health risks from COVID-19, voters in most areas turned out in large numbers, indicating that they saw casting their ballot as an important opportunity and a civic duty. For the Burman Buddhist majority, the vote was also an opportunity to reaffirm their confidence in and reverence for Aung San Suu Kyi as their leader.

Over the last couple of years, ethnic parties have been merging, and organising, in the hope that they could attain some real influence through these elections.

But many other communities feel that they have not been well served by the NLD in its first term. The most marginalised of all are of course the Rohingya, 750,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh since 2016 after a brutal military crackdown. The estimated 600,000 who remain in Rakhine State continue to face severe discrimination, and the community was almost entirely disenfranchised in this poll. But many other ethnic communities, who considered the NLD a potential ally ahead of the last election, now also feel let down by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, which once in power treated them more as adversaries, failed to consult them and promoted a Burman nationalist agenda – for example erecting statues of nationalist hero Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, in their areas. Over the last couple of years, ethnic parties have been merging, and organising, in the hope that they could attain some real influence through these elections.

Why was voting cancelled in many ethnic areas?

The election commission’s decision to cancel voting in a large number of ethnic minority-dominated areas for security reasons resulted in some 1.5 million voters being denied the chance to cast their ballots in various parts of the country. This decision most significantly affected Rakhine State, as well as some parts of Shan State and – to a more limited extent – several other ethnic areas.

These cancellations were very controversial, particularly in Rakhine State. Not that cancellations were unjustified: the security situation in Rakhine State is objectively grave, not only because of the armed conflict that is raging between the security forces and the Arakan Army, but also because of political violence – the most recent example being the Arakan Army’s kidnapping and continued detention of three NLD candidates from Toungup township. The problem, however, is that the commission is a partisan body, appointed by the government. Its decisions are not transparent, the process behind the cancellations is not consultative and the rationale is not explained publicly.

In theory, future by-elections could remedy the problem, but in practice the security situation means that is unlikely.

Since many of the areas cancelled are Rakhine party strongholds, where the NLD was almost guaranteed to lose, many local people have been crying foul, claiming that the election commission is biased. Adding to the suspicion is the lack of cancellations in nearby conflict-wracked Paletwa township, in southern Chin State, traditionally an NLD bastion. With elections only being held in the south of Rakhine State and the state capital Sittwe, most parts of the state have been denied representation. In theory, future by-elections could remedy the problem, but in practice the security situation means that is unlikely.

What are the likely political and conflict consequences of these results?

Although the results of these elections are broadly similar to those of 2015, with a large parliamentary majority for the NLD at both central and most sub-national levels, the consequences will be very different. Myanmar’s first competitive election in over five decades was a historical moment of enormous hope and unity, but the 2020 elections risk being divisive. While Aung San Suu Kyi has, during her first term as the government’s de facto leader, consolidated support among her Burman Buddhist base, she has, at the same time, alienated many minorities. Minorities are disappointed in her for treating them as adversaries rather than allies and failing to consult them on decisions that affect their lives.

The winner-takes-all electoral system amplifies the sense of marginalisation, leading some minorities to be increasingly disillusioned with electoral democracy.

A first-past-the-post system like Myanmar’s magnifies the victory of the winning party. As a result, the ethnic minority parties, and the communities that support them, are likely to feel further sidelined by electoral politics. In 2015, this phenomenon was eased by their expectation that the NLD would be a natural ally in their fight for equality and autonomy. But they have now come to see the ruling party as an adversary, governing in the interests of the Burman Buddhist majority. The winner-takes-all electoral system amplifies this sense of marginalisation, leading some minorities to be increasingly disillusioned with electoral democracy. This perception is dangerous, as it could easily lead to an escalation in armed conflict: some groups may be tempted to resort to insurgency rather than electoral politics as a way to fight for communal rights.

A particular source of concern is Rakhine State, which is in the grip of the most destabilising conflict the country has experienced in decades. Initial results there indicate that despite the vote being cancelled in most of its strongholds, the ethno-nationalist Arakan National Party (ANP) has managed to win the largest bloc of seats in the regional parliament, by flipping a number of seats in the south previously held by the NLD. These pickups were not enough, however, to give the ANP a majority in the local parliament, and the next NLD government in Naypyitaw is likely to appoint an NLD-led government in the state, as it did in 2015. That will enrage many Rakhine people, a recipe for further armed conflict and political violence.

The NLD would likely win some good-will among ethnic minorities by taking a different approach in its second term: appointing representatives of minority parties to lead state governments in Rakhine and other states where those parties won the largest bloc of seats would carry immense political symbolism, and open new channels for constructive dialogue with ethnic leaders.

What hopes for the stalled peace process during a second NLD term?

Ending the decades-old armed conflicts that affect various parts of the country was a top priority in the NLD’s 2015 electoral campaign. But progress has been elusive. The central parts of the country, where the Burman majority live and which constitute the party’s electoral base, have been little touched by the violence. There is neither a significant national peace movement nor a political imperative to solve the underlying issues of discrimination and marginalisation of minorities. Against this backdrop, progress is likely to be slow and difficult. In the absence of strong political will to fundamentally rethink and reinvigorate the peace process, and a new tone and consultative approach toward minorities on the NLD’s part, the conflict could even escalate further in the coming months and years, particularly in Rakhine State.

In the absence of strong political will to fundamentally rethink and reinvigorate the peace process [..] the conflict could even escalate further in the coming months and years, particularly in Rakhine State.

The peace process, which implies negotiating simultaneously with a myriad of ethnic armed groups that have different interests, was always an issue on which the government was unlikely to have quick or easy success. But there is much that the first NLD government could have done to reach out to minorities, consult with them on decisions that affect their lives and build consensus on a way forward. The second term, which will start at the end of March, offers a new opportunity to do so.

What about relations between the NLD and the military?

The last five years have been characterised by an unlikely accommodation between the military and the NLD: the long-time adversaries were forced into an uncomfortable cohabitation on account of the constitution giving a significant political role to the military – including one of the two vice president positions, control of the three security ministries and 25 per cent of parliamentary seats at both central and sub-national levels. Relations remain tense and distrustful. In the lead-up to the polls, the commander-in-chief alarmed many Myanmar people by criticising the quality of electoral preparations and hinting that he might not accept the result. He eventually moderated his tone once election day arrived, and the scale of the NLD victory will, in any event, have likely shot down any potential questioning of the results’ legitimacy. Ironically, the commander-in-chief’s comments may have actually amplified the NLD’s success, both boosting turnout by the party faithful and convincing wavering voters to back the incumbent party, thereby expressing their opposition to the military’s interference in politics.

Despite the tensions, over the last five years both sides have come to the conclusion that they do not represent an existential threat to each other. The fact that both share a similar socially conservative, Burman nationalist outlook has also helped prevent relations from breaking down. The military will be in no mood, however, to give the government easy victories on the peace process or constitutional reform – particularly when it comes to diluting the army’s political role. Progress on those fronts over the next five years therefore remains very unlikely. It is improbable even if the present commander-in-chief steps down at the end of his term in mid-2021, as chances are close to nil that any of his potential successors would have a very different view on these issues.