September 18 marks the 24th anniversary of the military takeover of Myanmar in
1988. It was the third major military intervention in Myanmar’s political
history since independence.
At that time, the country was still
officially called Burma, the government changed it to Myanmar the following
The military’s first intervention was in 1958 when civilian prime
minister U Nu invited the military to form a caretaker government, stabilize the
country and hold general elections. The then army commander-in-chief, General Ne
Win, acted as interim prime minister.
The military’s second major
intervention was in 1962. Unlike the first intervention, it was a coup that
ousted the democratically elected government. Prime minister U Nu was arrested
along with his cabinet members and the national parliament was
The 1988 military takeover marked the end of Ne Win’s
authoritarian regime and the emergence of a generation of new military leaders
in Myanmar politics.
How political transition took place is key to
understanding the present dominant role of military in politics.
a clear pattern of how the military transformed itself from one form to another.
First, the military ruled the country under the Burma Socialist Program Party
(BSPP), then the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) with its
official political party, the National Unity Party (NUP).
government then transformed into the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)
with its political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The
SPDC was formally dissolved on March 30, 2011 after the inauguration of a new
government led by president Thein Sein of the USDP on March 29,
Present situation Despite the military’s successive
transformations, there has not been actual power transfer. The present
government was established in accordance with the 2008 constitution, drafted by
delegates selected by the military government.
Myanmar politics is shaped
by the outcome of the 2010 general elections and the 2012
In 2010 elections, the USDP won in a landslide victory. In
the 2012 by-elections, except for the disqualified candidate in Northwest
Sagaing Region, NLD won in 43 out of the 44 seats it contested.
NLD’s overwhelming electoral victory, the combined strength of all opposition
groups in the parliament remains an insignificant force to challenge or threaten
the USDP-led government.
All the three branches of government –
executive, legislative and judicial, are dominated by former generals and
military-backed USDP members. Some of the significant privileges of the military
are the reservation of 25 percent of seats in parliament without election, the
power to dismiss government in case of national emergency, and the requirement
of more than 75% of votes in the parliament for any constitution
Moreover, all security-related ministerial portfolios such as
defense, home affairs and border affairs are held by members of the USDP. The
National Defense and Security Council is the most powerful executive branch of
the government as enshrined in the 2008 constitution. The 2008 constitution also
ensures immunity for generals regarding their past actions and human rights
In July this year, the parliament formed a 109-member
committee to review some of the major concerns of the country’s constitution in
view of the upcoming general elections in 2015. The committee includes lawmakers
from the NLD, USDP and representatives from the 25% of seats allotted to the
The committee, among other things, attempts to address two
pressing electoral concerns – removing or modifying the clause that prevents
Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming the country’s president, and allowing states to
choose their own chief ministers.
The committee will submit a report on
its findings to the parliament before December 31.
Despite the ongoing tangible democratic reforms, it is still early to suggest
that the process is irreversible.
The government has reached cease-fire
agreements with a majority of the armed groups, but there is no guarantee for an
amicable political settlement with ethnic minorities on the question of
Moreover, there is no guarantee that the present quasi-civilian
government will amend the 2008 constitution to remove the inherent role of the
military in politics.
There is uncertainty regarding whether the 2015
election will be free and fair. There is also no guarantee that the constitution
that guarantees 25% of parliament seats to the military will be
There is every reason to be optimistic about the democratic
reforms, but given the nature of Myanmar’s historical problems and the inherent
role of its military in politics, there are also reasons to be critical about
Though it is still premature to predict the possible
outcome of the constitution review committee and how the military-backed USDP
will approach the 2015 general elections, one thing is certain: the military
intends to remain an integral element and play a vital role in Myanmar politics,
at least for the foreseeable future.
The author is general secretary of
the US-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of
South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Burma/Myanmar.