To Support Myanmar Democratic Transition, U.S. May Need to Soften Policy toward Military

By Aung Din

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

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

Following the November 8 election, Myanmar’s political landscape has changed dramatically and the country is now stepping into uncharted territory. Both the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won a landslide victory, and the military, known as the tatmadaw and which ruled the country with an iron fist for decades, are about to do things they never have experienced.

Although the NLD won a landslide victory in the 1990 election, the party has never had a chance to hold power. Now, after 27 years, the NLD is going to govern the country. As the new Union Parliament will be dominated by the NLD and its allied ethnic parties, the tatmadaw representatives, who will be appointed by the commander-in-chief and take their allotted 25 percent of seats in parliament, will become an opposition group, a role in which the military has never served. The NLD and the military will have to govern the country together by sharing power, something neither side has done before. Myanmar’s military will have to recognize and respect a civilian president, who will be selected by party leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

At the start, the hope is that both the military and the NLD will try to work within the system of power sharing. However, sooner or later the situation may change.

The military’s leaders might choose one of the following options: (1) maintain the status quo, defend the powers of the tatmadaw outlined in the constitution, block the NLD government at every opportunity, revive the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and try to return to power in the next election. Or (2) the military can stop paying respect to the NLD president, seize political power back from the civilian government by staging a coup and take the country back into international isolation. Or (3) it can accept gradual civilian rule over the military and give up political power over time.

Aung San Suu Kyi and her party may choose one of the following options: (1) try to force the military to give up power immediately and make herself president by using her popular mandate and amend the constitution. Or (2) she can seek to avoid confrontation and work closely with the military leaders to promote positive civil-military relations, which could convince the generals to leave power gradually according to their own schedule.

Which path each side will choose will depend on the pragmatism and wisdom of the leaders of both the military and the NLD. If they can work together, the country can be united, peaceful, and can prosper. If they choose to confront each other, the country could face chaos, disintegration, and deep recession.

The new government has to address a number of pressing problems. For example, the NLD cannot stop the decades-long civil war with ethnic armed groups and move the ongoing peace process forward without the help of the military. The two also need to work together to boost the country’s weak economy. Neither problem can be tackled if the NLD seeks to drive the military from power or if the tatmadaw chooses not to cooperate with the new government.

For the sake of the country’s future, Aung San Suu Kyi will need to establish positive relations with the generals. However, her efforts and diplomatic skills will not be enough if the United States continues to maintain its policy of disengagement with the military.

Many U.S. lawmakers still view Myanmar’s military as a human rights violator and will only move to lift restrictions when the tatmadaw agrees to work under civilian authorities, something which may not happen soon. Some members of Congress blame the military for the ongoing offensives against ethnic armed organizations in Kachin and Shan states. However, the military is not alone responsible for this fighting.

While Myanmar’s armed forces are continuously pushing ethnic troops closer to the border, the ethnic armed groups are trying to expand their areas of control inside Myanmar, some of which they have not controlled before. As a result, armed clashes are unavoidable. The military leadership is blamed for human rights violations in ethnic areas, but the armed ethnic groups are not innocent. These groups also impose heavy taxes on the local populations, recruit child soldiers, steal the property of their own ethnic minorities, lay landmines on farmland, and kill anyone they suspect of being a government informer.

Today, whether we like it or not, the military is a key stakeholder in the transition to democracy and national reconciliation in Myanmar. Engaging with the generals and encouraging them to fully cooperate with the new civilian government will help to build trust between the military and the new civilian politicians in Myanmar. As long as tatmadaw leaders are singled out as villains and excluded from engagement with the United States, they are unlikely to feel incentives to help make the transition smoother and make the peace process more successful. Their frustration with the United States may be directed at the new government and Aung San Suu Kyi.

This does not mean selling weapons to and providing combat training for the military. But the U.S. Congress should not discourage the departments of State and Defense from engaging the military by facilitating high-level visits, exchanging professional experience, assisting tatmadaw leaders in obtaining international exposure, and training some mid-level officers at U.S. military colleges.

Earlier, the hardline position of Congress against the military helped the democracy movement to endure hardship and survive brutal military rule. U.S. sanctions also denied legitimacy to the military regime, which was one of the driving forces prompting the generals to initiate the current transformation from the military rule to constitutional government. But today, the still-hardline position of many in Congress against the military may hinder Myanmar’s national reconciliation process, undermine the efforts of the new NLD government and Aung San Suu Kyi, and prompt the military to take measures contrary to country’s political democratization.

Mr. Aung Din is a former political prisoner in Burma and currently lives in the United States. He serves as a consultant for Moemaka Multimedia, based in San Francisco, and as senior adviser to the Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI), a non-profit organization based in Yangon that promotes the right to information and education. See more information about OMI here.


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