Civil-Military Relations in Myanmar: At a Low Point, but Hope Is Still Alive

By Aung Din

Myanmar Army personnel form an honor guard. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

The relationship between civilian politicians and the military in Myanmar today is at one of its lowest levels ever. The roots of this mistrust date back to the early period of Myanmar’s independence and the beginning of the civil war.

The military staged a coup and took power in 1962, using the excuse that the country was facing a crisis due to the incompetence of the civilian government. Myanmar’s military was deeply dissatisfied with how the army was managed and divided by various civilian politicians in the period following independence. But 48 years and three successive military regimes proved that the military as the holder of political power was no better than civilian politicians, and in some ways worse.

The emergence of a pseudo-civilian regime in 2011, based on the 2008 constitution, would have been a good chance to build positive civil-military relations in Myanmar, if both sides had taken advantage of this opportunity and worked together within the new system for the sake of the country. However, the democratic opposition, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, did not see it that way. She assumed that the military was weak and kept using public and international pressure to force the military to vacate power immediately.

In many cases, such as the communal crisis in Rakhine State, the brutal crackdown at the Letpadaung copper mine, student protests against the national education law, and relations with China, Aung San Suu Kyi has acted like a real politician. But when it comes to the military, she behaves like an activist, using the tactics of organizing mass rallies and naming and shaming the military for taking supreme power without the consent of the people. The military has responded with the same attitude, by treating her in an equally adversarial manner, and expectations for possible positive relations between the two sides has dissipated. Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent decision to support her ally, speaker of the Union Parliament Shwe Mann, who was removed from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) leadership last week through a mid-night emergency meeting of USDP leaders under the presence of security forces, makes the distrust even worse.

Some politicians in the USDP — who were former generals, rose to power with the backing of the military, and owe the military for everything they have achieved — have begun trying to undermine that original base of support. This makes the military distrust civilian politicians, even their former leaders, more and more. It was the reason why Shwe Mann, who would like to be the next president, was ousted from the USDP’s leadership on August 12.

If there is no improvement in civil-military relations in Myanmar soon, any efforts to make the military give up political power and work under a civilian administration will be almost impossible, at least in the next 10 years.

The 2015 elections will bring new government leaders in Myanmar not only at the national level, but also at the state and regional levels. The power balance in these bodies will be changed from being dominated almost exclusively by the USDP to a more level playing field with other parties in many cases. The role of the USDP will be reduced from the dominant party to one of several major parties. The USDP might still be the ruling party, but it may not be able to rule the country without cooperation and power sharing with major opposition parties.

The role of the National League for Democracy (NLD) will also change from a minor opposition party to either the ruling party, a party sharing power, or a major opposition party. In any case, the NLD will become an important political force with significant strength to shape the future of the country. The roles of various ethnic parties will also be enhanced. They will have more representatives in the Union Parliament and state parliaments, more bargaining power in electing leaders of parliament and the president, and some ethnic parties might obtain enough traction to control their respective state parliaments.

The period after the elections will provide a good opportunity to build positive relations between the military and the NLD. The party will have more power at various levels of government, and the military will likely have little choice but to engage with political parties other than the USDP, including the NLD, in making decisions about the country’s affairs.

The first move of the NLD will be critical. If the NLD approaches the military with an attitude of cooperation, that could provide a good start to more positive civil-military relations in the coming years. But so far, Aung San Suu Kyi has indicated that her first move in the new parliament will be challenging the military by submitting a draft bill to amend the constitution, especially Section 436, which outlines more than 75 percent of lawmakers’ votes are needed for amendments, and Section 59(f), which bars her and others whose immediate family members and spouses are foreign citizens from holding the presidency.

According to the constitution, a draft bill to amend the constitution needs to be submitted by 20 percent of the representatives in the legislature. In the current parliament, the NLD does not have enough seats, and therefore Aung San Suu Kyi has had to rely on speaker Shwe Mann to take the lead. But in the new parliament, her party will surely have more than enough seats to be able to table draft amendments alone. The military will oppose such constitutional amendments and will again be cast in a role creating distrust among the people. If Aung San Suu Kyi follows this tactic repeatedly, the military will lose patience and consider taking back power from civilian politicians, which could mean staging another coup.

The 2008 constitution is not a democratic one. Even so, the separation of powers to different players, the setting of term limits, and the holding of periodic election are big changes. It is not democracy, but this is definitely a process of decentralization and provides an opportunity to build trust between military and civilian politicians and test if they can work together within a new system of power.

The 2015 elections offer the opportunity for the country to successfully pass from the first phase of decentralization (2011-2015) to the second (2016-2020), which should be welcomed and encouraged. Hopefully the second phase brings more freedoms and more public participation in politics, as well as more mutual understanding between the rivals for power. If the second phase is better than the first, one can see Myanmar entering a path toward democracy with the third phase of decentralization beginning in 2021.

Mr. Aung Din is a former political prisoner in Burma and currently lives in the United States. He is serves as a consultant for Moemaka Multimedia, based in San Francisco, and as an adviser to the Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI), a nonprofit organization based in Yangon which promotes the right to information and education – an imperative to get every citizen engaged in Myanmar’s transition towards a future in which peace prevails and democracy prospers. See more information about OMI here.

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