The Tatmadaw’s new position in Myanmar politics

Author: Adam P MacDonald, Halifax

Since the 2010 parliamentary elections Burmese politics have entered a new era.

But what Myanmar has become or is moving towards is unclear. New institutions and practices — such as political parties, Parliament, regularly-held elections and relaxations to media censorship — have evolved to become important arenas of discourse, contestation and power. While the military may not have intended to introduce real democracy when it began the process of reform — and Myanmar’s system certainly remains characterised by flaws and numerous undemocratic practices — there is a growing diffusion of power within the system and new political actors are now involved. Many of these had been outcasts and enemies of the state. There is an emerging political multi-polarity, and the military (or ‘Tatmadaw’) is no longer the exclusive repository of power in Burma. While it has close connections to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government, which was handpicked by General Than Shwe before he handed over power, the military has retreated from controlling all aspects of the process and in many respects is almost completely absent. Still, the military retains one critical area of exclusive jurisdiction: it controls the configuration of the state and who can rule.

The Tatmadaw is constitutionally protected as a separate and autonomous entity from the government and is exempt from civilian oversight. Article 20(b) of the Constitution gives the military complete authority over the ministries of defence, interior and border affairs as it appoints all three ministers. Articles 109(b) and 141(b) reserve 25 per cent of parliamentary seats for the military, which in effect gives them a veto over any attempts to alter the Constitution because of the supermajority required for revision. Combined with the requirements of Article 60, the military’s parliamentary presence virtually guarantees that the president and one of the vice-presidents are or were from the military. The new National Defence and Security Council (NDSC), created as the most important executive body, is in effect ruled by the Tatmadaw due to its weighted membership on the committee. While power has been transferred to a pseudo-civilian body politic, Chapter XI of the Constitution allows the NDSC to impose martial law, disband Parliament and rule directly if a state of emergency is declared. The president can give the commander of the Tatmadaw complete power over state resources, including the power to allow conscription from any segment of society. Through these provisions the military has constructed a system that entrenches its independence, maintains its influence over the Cabinet and Parliament, and establishes legal channels for a return to direct military rule if desired. The military, therefore, has moved from a hegemonic to a veto player in the new polity: while not directing the day-to-day administration of government they retain control over any future changes to its Constitution. Most importantly their privileged position and control over the presidency and security matters has been maintained.

Government and opposition reformers pursuing freer and fairer democratic practices (for which constitutional change is absolutely necessary) will have to participate in gradual reform, rather than aggressively calling for radical change. Working within the system is the only way to persuade the military to redefine their position. It is no longer possible to draw a line between democracy activists and the Tatmadaw: there is now a plethora of new groupings with divergent interests. Even former military actors have assumed new institutional identities and interests. In recent cabinet reshuffles more moderates, from within both the USDP and the Tatmadaw, have assumed key roles. While the opposition should approach this development with caution it opens space for interaction and engagement toward real reform. They seem to be awake to the possibilities: Aung San Suu Kyi recently attended a military parade as an act of recognition of the important power and role of the Tatmadaw in Burma’s political process.

As the 2015 election approaches, civil–military relations are critical to the future of the reform process. The question is whether the Tatmadaw is willing or even able to allow power to be assumed by non-military politicians. Unless the military reconfigures its role and purpose this seems unlikely. In practical terms, that means negotiating and compromising on the military’s share of the budget, its representation in Parliament, its control of security portfolios (specifically pertaining to ethnic relations) and the prosecution of current and former military members for human rights abuses. The military will want assurances that its power will not be completely eroded even as reformers promote its ongoing withdrawal from the workings of government.

The military’s withdrawal from everyday administration has opened new political space for multiple parties to become engaged in Burmese politics. But the military’s involvement in politics is not coming to an end anytime soon. Reformers need to understand this reality, and take a cautious but calculated approach to engage the military in pursuing policy changes of mutual benefit in the short and medium term. But transforming civil–military relations has to remain a long-term goal. Without it Myanmar will remain vulnerable to military coups, when what it really needs is a professional military that supports democratic governance.

Adam P MacDonald is an independent researcher based in Halifax, Canada.