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Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?
Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
WSJ: Asia’s New Insurgency
WSJ: Asia’s New Insurgency
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

Impact Note / Asia

WSJ: Asia’s New Insurgency

Crisis Group’s Myanmar report on 15 December 2016 revealed the emergence of a game-changing Muslim insurgency in the country’s Rakhine state. In this Editorial, the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Page introduced the report to readers as evidence of how Burma’s abuse of the Rohingya Muslims has created violent backlash.

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal on 19 December 2016 under the headline Asias New Insurgency.

Even as Burma has made dramatic progress toward democracy and pluralism, the military has waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority. The government has forced more than 100,000 into squalid camps and prevented them from receiving aid.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled abroad, many losing their lives in the process. Another million are still in western Burma’s Rakhine state, but they have difficulty finding work because the government stripped them of their citizenship in the 1980s.

As government troops take revenge on civilians, they risk inspiring more Rohingya to join the fight.

Now this immoral policy has created a violent backlash. The world’s newest Muslim insurgency pits Saudi-backed Rohingya militants against Burmese security forces. As government troops take revenge on civilians, they risk inspiring more Rohingya to join the fight.

A report last week from the International Crisis Group (ICG) describes the new insurgent force that carried out a well-organized October attack on three border-police bases in Rakhine, killing nine police officers and setting off reprisals from the military.

Called Harakah al-Yaqin, Arabic for “the Faith Movement,” the group answers to a committee of Rohingya emigres in Mecca and a cadre of local commanders with experience fighting as guerrillas overseas. Its recent campaign – which continued into November with IED attacks and raids that killed several more security agents – has been endorsed by fatwas from clerics in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the Emirates and elsewhere.

Rohingyas have “never been a radicalized population,” ICG notes, “and the majority of the community, its elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive.” But that is changing fast. Harakah al-Yaqin was established in 2012 after ethnic riots in Rakhine killed some 200 Rohingyas and is now estimated to have hundreds of trained fighters.

The government decision to disenfranchise all Rohingyas before the vote likely drove more recruits into the insurgents’ ranks.

The military response to Harakah al-Yaqin is making Rohingya life even more desperate across northern Rakhine. The ICG cites “reports of suspects shot on sight, burning of many houses, looting of property and seizure or destruction of food stocks – as well as of women and girls raped.” Satellite photos show at least 1,500 buildings recently burned, while aid workers and journalists have been kept away. Some 30,000 Rohingyas are newly displaced.

Burma’s government is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon and Nobel Peace laureate whose party swept last year’s landmark election, but she governs under a constitution imposed in 2008 by the old military junta. Its antidemocratic provisions bar her or any other elected official from controlling the military or the defense and border ministries, so last year’s election had little effect on the Rohingya. The government decision to disenfranchise all Rohingyas before the vote likely drove more recruits into the insurgents’ ranks.

Can Ms. Suu Kyi prevail on the military to exercise restraint and, in the longer term, begin bringing the stateless and desperate Rohingya into Burma’s national life? Does she want to? So far she’s done little beside speaking with foreign leaders and appointing former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head a commission of inquiry. Without significant changes in state policy, Rakhine’s incipient insurgency could grow into a jihadist threat that spreads beyond Burma’s borders.