All Going According to Plan? The Armed Forces and Government in Myanmar.

AuthorSelth, Andrew

It has become the conventional wisdom in the West and elsewhere that the peaceful transition from authoritarian rule to a more democratic form of government in Myanmar has taken place because of the tireless efforts of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD), the diplomatic and economic pressures brought to bear on the former military regime by the international community, and belated recognition by the generals that Myanmar could not continue down the path of political and economic isolation without becoming weaker and more vulnerable. This narrative suits many of the key actors in this drama, in particular Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters, foreign politicians and human rights campaigners. Indeed, many of them have been quick to take credit for what appears to be a remarkable and, considering the failed democratic transitions seen elsewhere in the world, rare success story. (2) This interpretation of events is not entirely incorrect. However, it denies independent agency to the most important player of all, namely Myanmar's armed forces (Tatmadaw).

There is another way of looking at the extraordinary paradigm shift which has occurred in Myanmar's political landscape over the past decade or so. That is, by recognizing the key developments during this period as steps in a long-term plan drawn up some 15 years ago by the country's military leadership, which willingly surrendered absolute power in order to advance its own agenda and achieve a number of specific ends. If this explanation of the democratic transition in Myanmar is accepted, then it throws a different light on the advent of the NLD government and its relations with the Tatmadaw. It also suggests that the international community can only play a limited role in influencing the country's future transition from a "disciplined democracy" to a genuine democracy. As in the past, that process will be decided by actors within Myanmar, not least the armed forces.

Stepping Back

When Senior General Than Shwe and the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) held national elections in November 2010, and handed over government to President Thein Sein in March 2011, they were not forced to do so. As the most powerful armed force in the land, the Tatmadaw did not fear a major military defeat, or internal unrest. No insurgent group or political movement had the capacity to seriously threaten the government in Naypyidaw. If they had chosen to do so, the generals could have continued to resist popular demands for political change, including by Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, albeit not without difficulty. Nor, despite the claims made by some foreign politicians and activist organizations, was the regime overly concerned by the diplomatic pressures and economic sanctions that had been applied by the Western democracies and various international organizations since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. (3) While some of these measures may have had a modest impact, the regime had successfully sidestepped sanctions by cultivating relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and major powers like China, India and Russia.

Granted, the ruling council was very unpopular and faced some serious domestic problems, but when it handed over power to Thein Sein it was firmly entrenched in power. Indeed, by almost every measure, the military regime in 2011 was stronger than it had been at any time since General Ne Win's coup d'etat in 1962. The SPDC's readiness to relax its grip on power and allow a more liberal form of government to evolve in Myanmar was not a sign of weakness and insecurity, as often claimed by its critics, but of strength and confidence. It was also part of a carefully considered long-term plan.

As far as can be assessed, around 2002 the SPDC concluded that it was in Myanmar's best interests, and the Tatmadaw's, to embrace change. (4) In economic, technical, military and other ways, the country had fallen behind its regional neighbours and the rest of the world. In order for Myanmar to maintain its independence, security, economic growth and national prestige, the country needed to become more open, more modern, more prosperous and more respected internationally. This was also seen as a way of letting some of the steam out of the pressure cooker that was Myanmar society, which for decades had been bottling up demands for greater personal freedoms, increased access to the outside world and more foreign goods and services. At the same time, the Tatmadaw wanted to shed some of its responsibilities for the minutiae of government and to become truly professional (the armed forces' Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing preferred the term "a standard army"), armed with modern weapons and equipment. (5) It also hoped that it might once again be able to forge relationships with the armed forces of the Western democracies and, eventually, gain access to their superior technology.

To achieve all these ends, Myanmar had to make the transition from direct military rule to a more democratic form of government. The generals were not prepared to hand over power completely, as they did not feel they could put their trust, and the fate of the country, in an inexperienced, fractious and potentially hostile civilian administration. This had happened during the so-called "democratic era" (1948-62), with what they saw as disastrous results. The generals were also acutely conscious of failed political transitions in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere in the world, and were determined that such crises would not occur in Myanmar. However, a limited, carefully controlled, top-down process of gradual democratization promised to deliver the outcomes they sought. Accordingly, the armed forces leadership devised a seven-point "roadmap" that envisaged the "step-by-step and systematic" implementation of a transition to what was described as a "discipline-flourishing democracy". This plan was announced by Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in August 2003.(6)

As later explained by SPDC spokesmen, the first step in this plan was the recall of the National Convention, which had been formed in 1992 to draft a new constitution, but suspended after the NLD representatives walked out in 1996. The second step was the implementation of a scheme to introduce what was called a "genuine and disciplined" democratic system. The third step was the drafting of a new constitution in accordance with the principles laid down by the National Convention. The fourth step was the holding of a national referendum to endorse a draft constitution. The fifth step was the election of the various legislative bodies (Pyitthu Hluttaws) that were to be outlined in the new national charter. The sixth step was to convene the provincial (State and Region) and national assemblies. The last step in the SPDC's roadmap was described as the construction of "a modern, developed and democratic state" by elected representatives, the government and "other central organs formed by the Hluttaw". (7)

Setting aside questions raised by the nature of this process, and the final result, it can be argued that over the next eight years the military regime did precisely what it had promised to do. Despite pressures to amend or abandon the roadmap, from both within and outside Myanmar, it was followed closely. Military spokesmen emphasized that it was the only viable path to political reform. A new constitution, ostensibly drafted by the National Convention but clearly reflecting provisions pre-determined by the military leadership, was put to a referendum in 2008. According to figures later published by the SPDC, it was endorsed by 92.4 per cent of the country's 22.7 million eligible voters. (8) Elections for both provincial and national legislative assemblies were held on 7 November 2010. In part because the NLD boycotted the poll, the result was a landslide victory for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which won almost 80 per cent of the seats contested at the national level. All new members of parliament (MP) were sworn in the following January, and in March 2011 the combined houses elected former general Thein Sein as president.

Continuing this process, by-elections were held on 1 April 2012 to fill 48 seats left vacant after MPs had resigned to take up ministerial appointments, or died. The NLD, which was re-registered for the elections in December 2011, claimed that fraud and rules violations were widespread, but the party still won 43 of the 45 seats available on the day. (9) One successful candidate was the party's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. On 8 November 2015, another general election for both provincial and national assemblies was held. By all accounts, it was reasonably free and fair. (10) The result was a landslide for the NLD, which secured 390 of the 491 seats (or 79.4 per cent) contested at the Union level. (The NLD also secured 476 of the 629 seats in the 14 State and Region assemblies). (11) The NLD's majority in both houses at the national level ensured that it could elect the new president. Under the 2008 Constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi could not take this position, as her two sons were foreign nationals, but the post of state counsellor was created especially for her. Even before the elections she had made it plain that, if denied the top job, she would consider herself "above the president", and act as Myanmar's de facto leader. (12)

Critical to the seven-step roadmap was the promulgation of a new constitution, which set out the basis for the Tatmadaw's continuing role in national politics. One quarter of the seats in all provincial and national assemblies were reserved for serving military officers. This effectively gave the armed forces the power of veto over any proposed constitutional amendments. The Ministries of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs were reserved for senior military officers appointed by the...

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