Myanmar’s Military: From Menace to Mediator

Reforms currently underway in Myanmar are often viewed as a thinly veiled attempt at disguising the military rule in its latest incarnation. While the military has moved away from tight control of the country’s day-to-day administration, it has ensured that its core interests remain preserved in the constitution.

Specifically, the military has kept its position as an autonomous entity beyond civilian oversight and maintained an exclusive authority over security matters. The military, the Tatmadaw, remains the most powerful actor in the current system but their role has changed significantly since the 2010 parliamentary elections.

Significant changes in the military’s engagement with civilians, ethnic groups and foreign actors, however, are transforming these previously demonized and persecuted groups into future partners. While reservations and distrust still linger on both sides, the trajectory of these relations will be crucial in the way Myanmar’s political transition evolves.

The military’s initial intrusion into politics was in response to the perceived incompetence and corruption of civilian leaders following independence, a mindset that has remained in the decades since. But since the transfer of power in 2011, interactions with the opposition — specifically the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi — have improved.

The opposition and military members now regularly engage in discussions in parliament. Suu Kyi, while adamant that the military ultimately be removed from politics, realizes their importance in the democratic project and regularly engages with the senior leadership and attends military events. But whether the Tatmadaw are willing to accept civilians (as opposed to their retired brethren currently in government) as potential leaders instead of just partners remains to be seen.

Internal conflicts, some dating back to 1949, began to ease in the 1990s and 2000s. A number of ceasefires emerged with various ethnic groups, in part the result of military expansion, permanent stationing of forces in the borderlands and the deployment of ‘ceasefire’ capitalism. These endeavors continue in the reform era as the government attempts to secure a nationwide ceasefire agreement.

The military, playing an increasingly proactive part in these proceedings, acknowledges the need to legalize ethnic armed groups in some form. But tensions remain over the military’s record of forced labor, relocation, human rights abuses and land seizures — and continued fighting in Kachin and Shan states threatens to undermine ceasefire efforts. Ethnic political parties and the media are increasingly able to express these concerns publicly without fear of military reprisals, which is an indication of the freer climate in which such issues can be addressed.

Still, the ongoing violence between Muslims and Buddhists is a major concern and the military could use it as a reason to remain politically involved.

Myanmar’s relationship with the west, in particular the US, has turned around dramatically in recent years. The Thein Sein regime and the west quickly re-established relations in 2012 when the US eased sanctions and restored ambassador-level relations. The US is tentatively beginning to interact with the reclusive Tatmadaw, allowing them observer status in Exercise Cobra Gold, a multinational military exercise held in Thailand every year, and sending signals that arms sales may be possible if reforms continue.

Other states such as Japan and India are quickly building new relations with the military, offering technical and material assistance as a counterweight to Chinese influence. Significantly, the Tatmadaw is allowing the civilian government to take the lead in foreign policy, including Naypyidaw’s current chairmanship of Asean.

The military has acquired a number of other institutional interests, including controlling political power itself, which it would be reluctant to cede expeditiously. Recent comments by both President Thein Sein and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing support the continuation of the military’s political involvement. A return to more overt forms of military rule would diminish the progress that the reform process has produced.

Although the military is far from a full return to the barracks, improving civil, ethnic and foreign relations will open the state up to deeper discussions such as on constitutional change, security sector reform, national reconciliation and civil–military relations in general, without fear the Tatmadaw will aggressively reassert itself.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent researcher based in Halifax, Canada. This was originally printed in the East Asia Forum, a joint initiative of two academic research networks: the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research and the South Asian Bureau of Economic Research.