What does Myanmar’s military want?

Author: Adam P. MacDonald, Halifax

The transformation of Myanmar’s political system was completely designed and implemented by the previous military regime. But the military has by and large withdrawn from governing the day-to-day affairs of the state since the transfer of power in 2011 to the Union of Solidarity and Development (USDP) government, a close ally principally comprised of former officers. The exact rationale underpinning this move is uncertain; they were not forced out by overwhelming international pressure, internal strife or defeat in war. The senior military leadership, specifically Than Shwe, simply decided to enact such changes, and then proceeded with their own resignations.

While initial motivations are difficult to discern, what is now important is determining the present military leadership’s views on their roles, responsibilities and rights in the new political system. Specific constitutional conditions combined with the military’s behaviour and official discourse are indicative of four main interests they wish to preserve, regardless of other changes to the state and society. First, the military wants to maintain institutional autonomy to govern its affairs, away from parliamentary or civilian oversight; second, it wants to retain exclusive control over its budget and, third, inhibit attempts to prosecute current and former military members. Finally, the military also wants to fence off certain policy domains, specifically security portfolios, from civilian input.

Constitutional stipulations and representation in Parliament and cabinet have fulfilled these objectives. This indicates that the original architects of Myanmar’s political project wanted the military to remain a powerful, independent and autonomous entity. With these safeguards and protections in place, the military has stood by and allowed the reform process to evolve. Of course, the senior military leadership have emphasised the need for their continued political involvement, but only to interject selectively to protect the ‘interests’ of the state that conveniently coincide with their own idiosyncratic goals.

This is most apparent in the behaviour of military members of Parliament who have not drafted any legislation and only use their block voting power when their interests are at stake. For example, earlier this year the military obstructed parliamentary discussions about the sensitive issue of land seizures in ethnic areas. Senior military personnel have described their parliamentary role as one of a ‘moderator’, remaining politically neutral to ensure the process does not become dominated by one party and to guarantee that feuds between the executive do not become impossible to manage. This role, however, is increasingly seen as a major roadblock to further democratic reforms, specifically because of the persistent threat of civilian government subject to undue military influence. This paternalistic justification of their involvement also demonstrates continued mistrust of civilian authorities’ ability to effectively run the state.

Regardless of who holds power, the military cannot keep these issues under its exclusive purview. The military’s interests will affect the future of Myanmar’s democratic project through their impact on other issues like electoral representation, ethnic inclusion, state building, and economic and social development. The maintenance of these military interests has the potential to impede several key aspects of President Thein Sein’s reform agenda (not to mention that of the opposition National League for Democracy). Areas of particular concern include the large military budget allocation vis-à-vis other desperately underfunded priorities like health and education; the degree of freedom that military commanders enjoy in ethnic regions, sometimes in opposition to government direction (evident in operations earlier this year in Kachin state), complicating the sustainability of cease-fires; ongoing military dealings with North Korea, which threaten newly developed and growing relations with the West; and the military’s ability to restrict further constitutional reforms, specifically those aimed at allowing more citizens to enter the political realm.

In resolving these ongoing issues, it must be kept in mind that the military itself, like all of Myanmar’s political actors, is an evolving entity. Supporting the continued retrenchment of the military from the political sphere, therefore, must be viewed over a long time projection in a series of gradual measures to secure its support of the political system — and not a particular government or regime. The issue most likely to threaten such initiatives is the potential prosecution of former and current military members, which could bind the USDP government and Tatmadaw closer together and delay further reforms. Reformers must constantly balance their pursuit of justice and the practical need of working with these powerful entities.

The military is not exiting the political landscape anytime soon, but unlike other authoritarian forms of government it has a legitimate place to retreat to in the new system — the military is an invaluable institution in most polities. The ascertaining of power by civilian authorities, therefore, is not dependent on the elimination of the Tatmadaw but on a process of gradual re-organisation. The reformers and the military presently may envisage contrasting end-states, particularly as to whether a military political role is required for a ‘disciplined’ democracy. But continued cooperation with civilian members in Parliament is an important development in creating avenues to build mutual trust and respect — demonstrating that change, even small, is underway.

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

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Hunter Marston
15 November 2013 10:44 am

A well-balanced and thoughtful exploration of the issues at hand, Adam. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the military quota in Parliament, specifically if reducing it is feasible and if so, beneficial to parliamentary proceedings. Thank you for sharing your article.

28 November 2013 3:11 am

I would like to point out some salient features of the Burmese army. In 1962 the army took over power blaming politicians and the federal issue and from 1962 to 1988 assumed the military dictatorship under the guise of Burmese way to socialism. When they took over power in 1962 ,army officers assumed they could do better than the politicians. In 1988 the army officers acknowledged their senior army officers incompetency and they assumed they can do better than their previous regime.This mentality of CAN DO ANYTHING is invoked in the army officers mind set as the only-they-can rule mentality. Now in 2013 those same army officers in their early fifties assume that they can do better than their predecessors. Absolute loyalty is the army principal motto. You obey my orders and when you come to my position you will be rewarded like me. Thanks Kyaw aung soe.

Ariful Hussain
26 May 2014 3:41 am
Reply to  kenzokyaw

Surely the real reason is wealth. There are large compounds in Burma run exclusively by the military that show very little evidence of weapons processing/manufacturing → these are therefore assumed to be illicit money-making operations e.g. cutting rare precious stones [for which Burma is famous] and over-seeing other natural resource extraction/operations.

The top-brass pulls in an awful lot of money from these kinds of operations. Since they have virtually no opposition, and can raze a village and clear out it’s inhabitants in order to make way for such a factory, it is extremely profitable for them. There is no reason they would [willingly] give that up.

The Burmese military is staggeringly incompetent, and surely fully aware that they are really just a tin-pot army. They are not in it to “protect the nations borders” or “develop the country”, a job they laughably could not hope to accomplish.

Instead, they are looking to get [and keep] rich. It’s really that simple.