SPEAKING FREELY New roles and relations for Myanmar's military
By Adam P MacDonald
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
There remains widespread skepticism that reforms underway in Myanmar, despite their expediency and comprehensiveness, are simply cosmetic, civilian window dressing masking the institutionalization of military rule in its latest incarnation. Given the longevity and durability of the generals' hold on power in various regime types, this is not an unjustified perspective. Indeed, the military, or Tatmadaw, remains the most powerful
actor in the political system but its role has changed significantly.
The military has changed from being a hegemonic player, previously in exclusive control of all levers of state power, to being a veto player, retrenching from the day-to-day administration of the country but with the power to ensure that - regardless of other changes to the state and society - the military's core interests remain preserved. These interests include maintaining its status as an autonomous entity beyond civilian oversight, exclusive purview over security portfolios, immunity for former and current military members for past deeds, and, most importantly, a veto via parliamentary representation over any proposed constitutional amendments.
The national security narrative, entrenched in the 2008 constitution as safeguarding the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the state, is the major declaratory rationale of the Tatmadaw historic control over the political apparatus. In this vein, the Tatmadaw portrays itself as the only institution capable of fending off international intrusions and preventing internal collapse.
Significant changes in the military's relations with civilian opposition parties, ethnic groups and foreign actors, however, are transforming these previously demonized and persecuted entities into partners within new pathways and processes. Even though mistrust and weariness still exist, the future trajectory of these relations will be crucial in the way Myanmar's political transition evolves.
The military's initial intrusion into the political realm was in response to the perceived incompetence and corruption of civilian leaders to adequately deal with issues of national integrity following independence - a mindset which has remained in the decades since. Since the 2011 transfer of power to a quasi-civilian administration through tightly controlled elections, however, interactions with the opposition, specifically the National League of Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, have moved from confrontations on the streets to dialogue in newly sanctioned political arenas.
In particular, parliament has provided a venue within which opposition and military members regularly engage in intimate settings to create new understandings of one another. Suu Kyi, while adamant of the need for the military's eventual removal from politics, nonetheless realizes their importance in the democratic project and regularly engages with the senior leadership and attends high profile military events. Whether the Tatmadaw, however, are willing to accept civilians (as opposed to their retired military brethren currently in government) as potential leaders instead of just partners remains to be seen.
Myanmar has the unfortunate record of having the world's longest civil war, with some conflicts dating back to 1949. Beginning in the 1990s and 2000s, however, a number of ceasefires emerged with various ethnic groups. They arose in part from the military gaining the upper hand with the expansion and permanent stationing of forces in the borderlands and the co-optation of ethnic leaders via "ceasefire capitalism". These endeavors continue in the reform era, as President Thein Sein's government attempts to secure a nationwide ceasefire agreement.
In these proceedings the military is an increasingly proactive party, taking negotiations seriously and acknowledging the need to legalize ethnic armies in some form. Tensions remain, however, over the military's historical (and to some degree continued) record of forced labor and relocation, human-rights abuses and land seizures. Continued fighting in Kachin and Shan states, furthermore, threaten to undermine ceasefire efforts and highlight the challenges of central authorities controlling front-line commanders.
The increasing ability of ethnic political parties and the media in general to critically scrutinize the military's activities is indication of the freer climate which exists vis-a-vis direct junta rule. The marginalization of the threat posed to the country at large by ethnic conflict is a mitigating factor easing the military's concern about public discussion of such matters. Ongoing violence between Muslims and ethnic Burmans, though, is a major concern and could provide justification for the military's perceived need to remain politically involved.
After the 1988 lethal suppression of popular protests, the ruling junta was subject to wide-reaching Western sanctions and diplomatic isolation. In this period, the regime saw the West, especially the US, as an existential threat focused on their eventual removal from power. This relationship has seen a dramatic turnaround as Thein Sein's government and the West reestablished relations from 2012 onwards, including restoring ambassador-level contacts and the elimination of most sanctions.
The US is tentatively beginning to interact with the reclusive Tatmadaw, allowing them observer status in the Thailand-hosted annual military exercise Cobra Gold and sending signals that arms sales could be possible if reforms continue. Other states, such as Japan and India, are quickly building new relations with the military, offering advantages in terms of technical and material assistance as well as a counterweight to Chinese influence and reliance. Another important change is the Tatmadaw allowance for Thein Sein's government to take the lead in foreign policy, including Naypyidaw's current chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The military is not a benign actor concerned simply with existential threats to the state. Directly and indirectly ruling the state for half a century, the military has acquired a number of other institutional interests, including its control of political power, a lever it will be reluctant to cede expeditiously. After decades of predation of the state and suppression of large sectors of society, the military is wary of leaving its fate in others' hands. It will want assurances that its power will not be completely eroded, even as reformers promote its ongoing withdrawal from the workings of government. Recent comments by both Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing make clear the continuation of the military's political involvement into the indefinite future.
Political reforms have not yet infringed upon the rights, role and areas of authority the Tatmadaw carefully cordoned off for their exclusive ownership in the constitution. Whether the military is willing to shed its praetorian inclinations of determining who rules and by what system will be put to the test in the upcoming 2015 elections. Barring large scale electoral manipulations, there is a real possibility that the opposition NLD assumes power and mounts pressure for constitutional reform that aims to erode or eliminate the military's political role.
Instead of exclusively focusing on the immediate removal of the military from politics, the NLD should prepare to include them in a future civilian government as a necessary step in the country's democratic transition. A NLD-led government would open up new spaces of civil- military relations, including civilian politician involvement in hitherto fenced-off security and military forums, specifically the powerful National Defense and Security Council. The inclusion of both military and civilian personnel in government would bring these entities directly into contact and make them dependent on one another in running the state.
Even a complete elimination of the Tatmadaw formal role in the political arena would not guarantee against future military interventions in the country's leadership. While short term changes in roles and duties are important in marginalizing the military's influence over politics, in the long term deeper normative changes in civil-military relations over issues of legitimacy and authority are required.
Supporting the continued retrenchment of the military from politics will thus need to take place over a long term in a series of gradual measures to secure its support of the new democratic system - as opposed to a particular government or regime. Despite recent improved relations between the military and various political actors, it remains to be seen whether they are willing and able to reconfigure their relationship with an increasingly vocal civil society and public at large calling for greater participation in politics.
Budding new relations with previous excluded and persecuted entities has helped to massage apprehensions among military leaders that they will be marginalized and persecuted in the future. Any return to more overt forms of military rule would undermine the significant advantages the reform process has so far produced for the generals and, whether they like it or not, it is increasingly in its institutional interest to allow the political system to evolve.
Although Myanmar's military is far from fully returned to the barracks, improving civil, ethnic and foreign relations will ultimately open space for more nuanced and complex discussions regarding constitutional change, security sector reform, national reconciliation and civil-military relations in general and have allayed earlier fears of a hypersensitive military aggressively reasserting its past political dominance.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Adam P MacDonald is an independent academic based in Halifax, Canada. He regularly comments on Myanmar's ongoing democratic transition via the East Asia Forum.