Myanmar’s military transformation

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.

Buddhist monks walk apst soldier Myanmar 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Buddhist monks walk apst soldier Myanmar 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 year.
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 dissolved.
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.
There is 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).
The SLORC 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, 2010.
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 by-elections.
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.
Despite 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 amendment.
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 violations.
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 military.
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.
Future prospects 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 autonomy.
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 amended.
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 long-term solutions.
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.