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Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?
Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Myanmar Tips into New Crisis after Rakhine State Attacks
Myanmar Tips into New Crisis after Rakhine State Attacks
Briefing 143 / Asia

Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?

It was Myanmar’s military that initiated the end of its own dictatorship; to advance stable reform, it needs to continue withdrawing from civilian life.

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I. Overview

Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, has been the dominant institution in the country for most of its post-independence history. After decades of military rule, it began the shift to a semi-civilian government. A new generation of leaders in the military and in government pushed the transition far further and much faster than anyone could have imagined. Major questions remain, however, about the Tatmadaw’s intentions, its ongoing involvement in politics and the economy, and whether and within what timeframe it will accept to be brought under civilian control. Transforming from an all-powerful military to one that accepts democratic constraints on its power will be an enormous challenge.

The Tatmadaw’s institutional perspective is heavily influenced by its role in Myanmar’s anti-colonial struggle – the leaders of which founded the military – and its early post-independence experience. The new country was almost torn apart by communist insurrection in the centre and ethnic insurgency in the periphery. The early years of parliamentary democracy were characterised by factionalism and infighting, which many in the Tatmadaw saw as driven by self-serving politicians having little regard for the national interest. The upshot is that many in the military remain distrustful of civilian politics. This, together with fears about instability at a time of major political change, mean that the Tatmadaw is not yet ready to give up constitutional prerogatives that ensure, through guaranteed legislative representation, that it has a veto on changes to the charter, as well as control of key security ministries, among other things.

Those guarantees, far from entrenching stasis, are what have given the Tatmadaw the confidence to allow – and in many cases support – a major liberalisation of politics and the economy, even when many of the changes impact on its interests. Its proportion of the government budget has been significantly reduced, the huge military-owned conglomerates have lost lucrative monopolies and other economic privileges, and the Tatmadaw is subject to increasing scrutiny, including from the recently unshackled media, on issues such as land confiscation and the way it operates in ethnic areas.

Many observers have assumed that the Tatmadaw would be a spoiler on issues of key interest such as the peace process and economic reform. Yet, this has generally not been the case – although the military's actions in Kachin State, including current deadly clashes, have been deeply troubling. The Tatmadaw’s support for progress in these areas stems from its broader concerns about protecting Myanmar’s sovereignty and geo-strategic interests. Military leaders were deeply concerned in recent years by the country’s growing reliance on China, both politically and economically, and were worried about how they would be able to balance the influence of their giant neighbour. They were also concerned that Myanmar was falling farther and farther behind the rest of the region economically, to them almost as an existential threat. They understood that rebooting the economy and building strategic relationships to balance China required engagement with the West that would only be possible if there were fundamental political reforms, as well as internal peace.

The fact that this is a planned, top-down transition is one of the reasons why it has been relatively untumultuous and may prove to be a sustained opening of the country. Yet, there are many possible future scenarios. Tatmadaw backing for the transition is indispensible, but by no means unproblematic. It too must undergo major internal reforms, to modernise and professionalise, and to transform the practices and institutional culture that give rise to [CO1] abuses of civilians. More fundamentally, it will have to change how it is viewed by many ethnic communities, from the enemy to a national security force that defends the interests of all Myanmar’s peoples. The new doctrine that the Tatmadaw is reportedly preparing may seek to address some of these issues, but little is known about the process of drafting it, nor its content. Much more will need to be done to address the military’s legacy of abuse. If it can provide security for civilians rather than presenting a threat – as it has been more successful in doing, compared with the police, in its response to communal violence – its presence may even be welcomed.

The Tatmadaw’s constitutional prerogatives were no doubt critical in giving it the confidence to embark on this transition, and the commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and key members of the political establishment have said that they will be gradually reduced. There is a strong possibility, however, that the military will want to preserve its political role longer than is healthy. If such undemocratic provisions are in place for anything more than a short transitional period, they risk becoming entrenched, which would be deeply damaging to the country’s future – by entrenching a political role for the Tatmadaw, leaving it permanently outside civilian control and able to privilege its institutional interests at the expense of the country.

Yangon/Brussels, 22 April 2014

A Myanmar border guard police officer stands guard in Tin May village, Buthidaung township, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar on 14 July 2017. REUTERS/Simon Lewis
Statement / Asia

Myanmar Tips into New Crisis after Rakhine State Attacks

The Rohingya insurgent attacks that killed twelve Myanmar soldiers and officials and perhaps 77 of their own number is a serious escalation of a ten-month-old crisis. They make implementation of this week’s recommendations to address Rohingya grievances from Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission both harder and more urgent.

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In the early hours of 25 August, militants from Harakah al-Yaqin – a Rohingya insurgent group that now refers to itself in English as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – mounted coordinated attacks on 30 police posts and an army base in the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, in the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. The government reports that the attackers, equipped with hand-held explosive devices, machetes and a few small arms, killed ten police officers, a soldier and an immigration official. Reportedly, 77 insurgents also were killed and one captured. In response, the military is conducting “clearance operations” across the area and police in rural outposts have moved to more secure locations in case of further attacks. Clashes continue in some locations, and there are reports of vigilantism against Rohingya communities. Both Rohingya and Buddhist residents are attempting to flee the areas affected. Time is not on the government’s side if Rakhine state is to be pulled back from the brink. It must quickly take bold measures to address legitimate Rakhine and Rohingya concerns.

This episode represents a very serious escalation in the conflict and was preceded by a significant rise in tensions in northern Rakhine. The insurgent group launched its first operation in October 2016, when it conducted a complex, deadly, coordinated attack on three border police bases in northern Rakhine state. A months-long, heavy-handed military response followed, including a new deployment of Myanmar army troops. As a result, some 87,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh and, in February 2017, a UN investigation concluded that there had been grave and widespread abuses by the military that “very likely” amounted to crimes against humanity. A domestic investigation has rejected these claims.

The path to a long-term solution is clear, if challenging. It has been set out in considerable detail in the final report of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission, released on 23 August and welcomed by the government. It involves addressing the legitimate grievances of the Rakhine, while ensuring freedom of movement, access to services and livelihoods, political participation and citizenship rights for the Rohingya. The recent attacks have created a far more difficult political context for the government to implement these recommendations, but have also reinforced the urgency of doing so.

[T]he Myanmar government has not moved quickly or decisively enough to remedy the deep, years-long policy failures that are leading some Muslims in Rakhine state to take up violence.

The current crisis was neither unpredicted nor unpreventable. The anti-Muslim violence of 2012, and the emergence of the new insurgent group last year were both clear signals that the volatile dynamics of Rakhine state urgently need a political, not just a security response to address the concerns of all communities in the state. Yet the Myanmar government has not moved quickly or decisively enough to remedy the deep, years-long policy failures that are leading some Muslims in Rakhine state to take up violence. These include extreme discrimination by Myanmar’s society and state as well as a progressive erosion of rights and barriers to obtaining critical identity and citizenship documents, the community’s disenfranchisement before the 2015 elections, its gradual marginalisation from social and political life, and rights abuses. These factors, in combination with the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Rohingya communities that resulted from separate violence in 2012, and the military crackdown last year that targeted civilians, create an environment where ARSA can increase its legitimacy and recruiting base among local communities and more easily intimidate and kill Rohingya who disagree with it and lack any real protection from the state. 

There are clear lessons for the Myanmar government from the previous episodes of violence and from the present crisis. Crisis Group has noted repeatedly that an aggressive military response that is not part of a broader political strategy and policy framework will only worsen the situation. In the immediate future, if the military response is not to entrench worsening cycles of violence, it must respect the principle of proportionality and distinguish between insurgents and Rohingya civilians. It must provide protection to all civilians caught up in or fleeing the fighting. And it must provide unfettered access to humanitarian agencies and media to affected areas, lest it contribute to a dangerous, violent polarisation, increase alienation and despair, and enable provocative misinformation to take hold.

Crisis Group has noted repeatedly that an aggressive military response that is not part of a broader political strategy and policy framework will only worsen the situation.

ARSA’s violent actions inevitably will harm, not help it, despite its claims to be fighting the Myanmar state – and not Rakhine civilians – for the Rohingya cause. ARSA will face international censure for the violence of its attacks, which will increase if it seeks to improve its fighting capacity. The Myanmar government formally declared it a terrorist group under national law on 25 August. This has limited legal implications but will placate nationalists who have been calling for the government to be unequivocal on this point. It also means that Myanmar is likely to increasingly present this as a fight against transnational terrorism rather than domestic insurgency. In short, by resorting to violence, ARSA’s leaders are hardening social divisions and biases against the Rohingya, and increasing anti-Muslim sentiment across Myanmar.

ARSA are well aware that their latest attacks are likely to provoke a strong military response and political backlash, as they did in 2016, which will greatly harm Rohingya villagers. That almost certainly is its aim. Despite its claim that it is “protecting” the Rohingya, it knows that it is provoking the security forces into a heavy-handed military response, hoping that this will further alienate Rohingya communities, drive support for ARSA, and place the spotlight of the world back on military abuses in northern Rakhine state. A disproportionate military response without any overarching political strategy once again will play directly into ARSA’s hands.

There is no evidence that ARSA’s goals or members support a transnational jihadist agenda, despite indications that the group may have received some training from members of such outfits. That will not stop those who resent all Muslim groups and grievances from characterising it as such. On the other side, another harsh military response and the continued displacement of scores of thousands to camps in Bangladesh will create conditions ripe for exploitation by transnational jihadists. 

The deepening crisis in Rakhine state threatens to sweep aside all other priorities.

The costs of failing to address the roots of the crisis inrease every day. The impact will not fall only on Rakhine state, but on Myanmar as a whole, where anti-Muslim sentiment and Buddhist nationalism are on the rise, threatening fragile communal relations. The government has many other urgent issues to deal with, including its complex peace process with multiple ethnic armed groups and the difficult job of steering the economy and ensuring greater prosperity for all the people of the country. The deepening crisis in Rakhine state threatens to sweep aside all other priorities, as it will continue to dominate both domestic debate and international engagement with Myanmar.