Myanmar’s Military Goes Back to the Barracks

Myanmar’s feared military, the Tatmadaw, which dominated the country’s politics and economy for decades until democracy came in 2010, has been returning to the barracks much faster and more completely than anyone could have imagined, according to a new report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

The civilian government has won praise from government leaders across the planet, although in recent months there has been growing concern over corruption, alarming racial bias against the Rohingya Muslim minority and clear threats to the freedom of the press.

In fact, just how democratic the regime will turn out to be remains a question. Many observers expect the government to evolve into a quasi-authoritarian regime with rigged elections such as those in Singapore and Malaysia.

Nonetheless, a new generation of leaders in the military and the government is behind the transition, according to the report. But, it says, “major questions remain about the Tatmadaw’s intention, its ongoing involvement in the economy and politics, and whether and within what timeframe it will accept to be brought under civilian control.”

The new country was almost torn apart by communist insurrection in the center and ethnic insurgency in the periphery. In a troubling parallel to the current government, “the early years of parliamentary democracy were characterized by factionalism and infighting, which many in the Tatmadaw saw as driven by self-serving politicians having little regard for the national interest,” the report notes, with many in the military continuing to be distrustful of civilian politicians.

The Tatmadaw is not yet ready to give up its veto on changes to the country’s charter that would rein in military power, as well as control of key security ministries, among other things, even though the new civilian leaders, led by Thein Sein, a former general, have cut back the military’s proportion of the fiscal budget, military conglomerates have lost lucrative monopolies and other economic privileges.

The Tatmadaw is also subject to increasing scrutiny, including from the recently unshackled press on issues such as land confiscation and the way it operates in ethnic areas although the press isn’t allowed to act with impunity. In recent weeks, two reportershave been jailed, although by civilian authority rather than military.

Many had assumed that the Tatmadaw, given its enormous economic interests, with bank accounts hidden away in Singapore for top officials, would be a spoiler on economic reform and the internal peace process.

“Yet, this has generally not been the case – although the military’s actions in Kachin State, including current deadly clashes, have been deeply troubling, the ICG report notes. “The Tatmadaw’s support for progress in these areas stems from its broader concerns about protecting Myanmar’s sovereignty and geo-strategic interests.”

In particular, military leaders prior to the handover to civilian control had been deeply concerned about the country’s growing political and economic reliance on China and were worried about balancing China’s considerable influence. In fact, the Chinese were shocked at the outset of the civilian regime to discover that Myanmar was sending its first external military delegation not to China but to Vietnam, with Commander-in-Chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing arriving in Vietnam in November 0f 2011.

They were also concerned that Myanmar was falling further and further behind in one of the world’s most dynamic regions as countries on their periphery including Thailand, Vietnam and others sprinted ahead economically.

“They understood that rebooting the economy and building strategic relationships to balance China required engagement with the West that would only be possible if there were fundamental political reforms, as well as internal peace,” the report notes. “The fact that this is a planned, top-down transition is one of the reasons why it has been relatively untumultuous and may prove to be a sustained opening of the country.”

But while Tatmadaw backing for the transition is indispensible, it too must undergo major internal reforms to modernize and professionalize, and to transform the practices and institutional culture that give rise to abuses of civilians.

“More fundamentally, it will have to change how it is viewed by many ethnic communities, from the enemy to a national security force that defends the interests of all Myanmar’s peoples. The new doctrine that the Tatmadaw is reportedly preparing may seek to address some of these issues, but little is known about the process of drafting it, nor its content.”

For instance, much more will need to be done to address the military’s legacy of abuse before it can regain the trust of the civilian population – especially after bloody crackdowns in 1989, in which hundreds were shot after democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s party overwhelmingly won national elections, and again in 2007 when Buddhist monks were gunned down in the so-called Saffron Rebellion

“If it can provide security for civilians rather than presenting a threat – as it has been more successful in doing, compared with the police, in its response to communal violence – its presence may even be welcomed,” the report continues.

The Tatmadaw’s commander-in-chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and key members of the political establishment have said the military’s prerogatives will be gradually reduced. But, the report warns, there is a strong possibility, however, that the military will want to preserve its political role longer than is healthy. If such undemocratic provisions are in place for anything more than a short transitional period, they risk becoming entrenched, which would be deeply damaging to the country’s future – by entrenching a political role for the Tatmadaw, leaving it permanently outside civilian control and able to privilege its institutional interests at the expense of the country.