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Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?
Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications
The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
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

NLD party leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives for Myanmar's first parliament meeting after the November 8 general elections, at the Lower House of Parliament in Naypyitaw, 16 November 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Briefing 147 / Asia

The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications

Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide electoral victory was a historic success for Myanmar. To meet the high expectations that resulted, the country’s new leaders will need to balance carefully ties with China with those with the West, credibly lead a fragile peace process and above all handle wisely their relations with a still-powerful army.

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I. Overview

The 8 November elections were a major waypoint in Myanmar’s transition from authoritarian rule. Holding a peaceful, orderly vote in a context of little experience of electoral democracy, deep political fissures and ongoing armed conflict in several areas was a major achievement for all political actors, the election commission and the country as a whole. The victorious National League for Democracy (NLD) needs to use the four-month transitional period before it takes power at the end of March 2016 wisely, identifying key appointees early so that they have as much time as possible to prepare for the substantial challenges ahead.

Its landslide victory, with almost 80 per cent of the elected seats, means Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will have an outright majority in both legislative chambers, even after the 25 per cent of unelected seats held by the armed forces is taken into account. This will give it control of law-making and the power to choose the president – a position that the constitution bars Suu Kyi from taking herself. The incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) suffered a crushing defeat, as did most parties representing minority ethnic groups.

The vote represents a huge popular mandate for Aung San Suu Kyi and comes with equally high expectations that she and the NLD will deliver the needed political and economic changes. It will not be easy to meet those expectations. First, Suu Kyi will have to build a constructive working relationship with Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. The military retains considerable executive power, with control of the defence, home affairs and border affairs ministries. Success in everything from the peace process to police reform and further political liberalisation will depend on the cooperation of the armed forces. With longstanding mutual suspicions, that relationship could easily get off to a bad start, particularly if Suu Kyi chooses a proxy president without the credibility and stature required for the top job, as she has suggested she would.

Beyond this, the NLD will want to demonstrate that it can meet the expectations of the people by bringing tangible changes to their lives. It can tap into enormous domestic and international goodwill and support, but its limited experience of government, a shallow pool of skilled technocrats and the difficulty of reforming key institutions all constrain how much can be achieved quickly. This is particularly important given that the party has done very little policy development work to date.

It also may prove difficult for the new administration to focus on producing positive changes, given the range of problems the country faces, any of which have the potential to spawn crises. Serious armed clashes continue in Shan and Kachin states, threatening to undermine a fragile peace process. There are signs of macro-economic turbulence, with weak policy tools available to mitigate it. And the situation in Rakhine state, where most Muslim Rohingya were disenfranchised, is intractable and potentially volatile; any moves the NLD government makes on this issue will come under particular nationalist scrutiny.

There will also be international relations challenges. Suu Kyi and the NLD will need deft diplomatic skills to steer Myanmar’s continuing re-engagement with the West, while maintaining good relations with a more assertive China concerned that its interests are being harmed. They will have to be particularly adroit, given perceptions that they have an inherent pro-Western bias. Western countries must do their part to help make this rebalancing succeed. They have an important role to play in supporting positive change in Myanmar but need to be cognizant of domestic and regional sensitivities involved.

Yangon/Brussels, 9 December 2015