Thursday, March 26, 2015

Myanmar's military preserves its autonomy, for now

Myanmar's constitution, under which the current administration of President Thein Sein was created in 2011, has all the characteristics of a modern republic, but regime opponents see the continued autonomy of the army -- and its political role -- as anomalies. The result has been faltering efforts to amend the constitution, many of them aimed at reducing the role of the military before elections are held later this year.

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks in front of a statue of her late father, Gen. Aung San, in his hometown of Natmauk, on Feb. 13. It was the 100th anniversary of his birth. © Reuters

     Despite the army's still-pervasive power, the speed and thoroughness of the transition from military authoritarian rule to a system with most, if not all, the features expected of a "democratic" system have surprised many observers and analysts. They see the transformation in the country as being driven by forces outside the historical experience and understanding of the armed forces leadership. A closer reading of the country's politics since 1988 reveals that the army had a long-term plan to achieve the kind of reforms we are seeing today, laid out far in advance but discounted by most outside observers and political opponents of the military.

Protector of the state

It is in the history of the armed forces and their role in protecting the state from threats to its internal security, territorial integrity and external security that the basis of the transformation can be found. The army, with its roots in the Burma Independence Army founded under Japanese auspices in 1941, sees itself as the protector of the state. Arguing that past interventions were essential to resolve political crises that threatened unity and territorial integrity, the military now sees its role as that of a "balancer," or stabilizing force, in the face of an unknown future. Ensuring the continued viability of the armed forces and the security of its leadership is an ongoing concern for the officer corps.

     The 20 years between the 1990 general election, won by the opposition National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi but subsequently annulled by the junta, and the 2010 general election, boycotted by the NLD and won by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, were spent by the armed forces creating the conditions that enabled the transition from military to constitutional rule.

     The process was organized like a military campaign, with the element of surprise and perpetuation of control the uppermost priorities. The army did a very poor job of explaining its intentions. This made it difficult for the military's opponents, both at home and abroad, to understand its strategy and tactics, especially in the light of its reputation for brutality -- notably in putting down anti-government demonstrations in 1988.

     The army's view of post-independence history is that, on several occasions, it has had to intervene to re-establish political order -- the 1948-52 civil war, the 1958-60 caretaker government, the 1962 coup amid the Cold War and separatist pressures, and the 1988 bankruptcy of the economy. As a result, it argues that it has a duty to continue to serve as a "balance" to ensure the continued stability and effectiveness of the government.

     Until Myanmar's military is assured that the new republican order can function in a manner that does not threaten territorial integrity, security and stability, it will insist on maintaining its autonomous role while developing its capacity to function as a modern professional armed force.

     The army leadership is thus closely scrutinizing the evolving political scene. Only when it feels confident that future elections will result in stable governments that can manage the country's fissiparous politics will it start to relinquish control. The current chorus of demands by students, monks, minority religious leaders, indigenous groups and international nongovernmental organizations for the government to resolve longstanding problems -- as well as the recurrence of armed conflict with ethnic groups seeking autonomy on Myanmar's northern border -- create the kinds of political chaos that previous elected governments attempted to appease. The demands were unacceptable to the army and the result was not peace.

Plausible vs. impossible promises

Given how Myanmar's military leadership understands its role in history, the formation of an acceptable government after the 2015 elections and ongoing efforts to reach a political settlement with numerous ethnic insurgent groups will determine the speed and degree to which the army allows its autonomous role to be undermined or terminated.

     Political party leaders in the brief period of democracy, after the end of British colonial rule in 1948, promised the impossible. In the runup to the 2015 elections, they will have to walk a fine line between what the army will accept and plausible promises to a public that has, perhaps, excessively high expectations.

     If they promise the impossible, the army leadership may decide that the political order is not yet mature enough to allow it to lessen its grip. Only the army can end its own role in Myanmar's politics, and that decision is dependent on its perception of the civilian political elite's ability to manage the future.


Robert Taylor is a visiting professorial research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming "General Ne Win: A Political Biography."


No comments:

Post a Comment