Assuaging the armed forces in Myanmar

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) has won an outright majority in Myanmar's new Parliament. Requiring just 329 out of the 664 seats in the two-house Parliament for a majority, the NLD has to date secured almost 400 parliamentary seats. The NLD is now in a position to form a government and elect its preferred candidate for president.

While the NLD's decisive electoral victory signals a major repudiation of military rule and the armed forces' electoral machine, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, it also comes against the backdrop of the most significant set of political reforms Myanmar has seen in recent memory.

In the last five years, the armed forces (also known as Tatmadaw) had released more than 1,000 political prisoners, including Ms Suu Kyi, who was freed in 2010 after two decades of house arrest. Legal changes followed and allowed the NLD to re-register as a political party. The NLD participated in the April 2012 by-elections and Ms Suu Kyi was elected as MP.

The junta also relaxed media controls, ending pre-publication censorship and dissolving the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division. The Peaceful Assembly law enacted in 2011 allows for freedom of movement and association, and gave civic organisations room to thrive.

President Thein Sein's administration notably too has managed to draft individual ceasefires with more than a dozen ethnic armed groups.

However, despite these momentous reforms, the spectre of military intervention looms large. Indeed, the Tatmadaw's intentions remain ambiguous.

Paradoxically, the key to sustaining democratisation in Myanmar is not to curtail or make demands of the Tatmadaw. Democratic consolidation is instead likely to be more successful by assuaging the military. Much of the road ahead will depend on Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD's ability to compromise, and for her to curtail personal ambitions and chagrin for the armed forces (as exemplified by her comments that she will become the country's de facto leader, acting "above the president").

While outgoing President Thein Sein has promised a smooth transition of power, doubts arise due to what happened the last time the NLD won Myanmar's full elections. Following the vote in 1990, the Tatmadaw did not cede power. Instead, the elections ushered in almost 25 years of military rule. The junta put Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest, suppressed dissent and sealed the country from the rest of the world. This year, will the military keep its promise and hand over political power?

Paradoxically, the key to sustaining democratisation in Myanmar is not to curtail or make demands of the Tatmadaw. Democratic consolidation is instead likely to be more successful by assuaging the military.

Much of the road ahead will depend on Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD's ability to compromise, and for her to curtail personal ambitions and chagrin for the armed forces (as exemplified by her comments that she will become the country's de facto leader, acting "above the president").

Successful transitions to democracy often require some form of a pact or compromise among the main political protagonists. Democratic consolidations rarely occur with revolutionary overthrows - as can be seen from the lack of successes in the Middle East and North Africa following the 2011 Arab Spring.

Pacts may be formal or informal agreements. They are essential because they set the rules of governance and are the basis of mutual guarantees for the vital interests of the parties involved in the political transition. These compromises provide a way forward for the transition to democracy by creating a sense of procedural consensus.

Pacts reduce uncertainty and provide information for the involved parties as they transit from the old order to the new.

An agreed set of the "rules of the game" helps decide "who gets what, where, when and how", ensuring then a win-win outcome for all involved.


Compromises can provide guarantees that the armed forces' wide-ranging economic and political interests would be secure in Myanmar's newly democratic setting. When assured of their fates and wallets, further political liberalisation could occur in the future. -PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

When countries like Myanmar democratise, an over-riding concern for the outgoing elite, in this case, the Tatmadaw, would be their institutional well-being. Socialised with an entrenched "us-versus-them" siege mentality, a salient consideration for the military would be punitive actions against those complicit in prior repressive activities. This siege mentality is exacerbated by a continuing belief that civilians are dangerously misguided and that past military interventions were for the greater good of the country.

These fears of prosecution are not unfounded. Since the early 1990s, there have been calls from the domestic opposition and the international human rights community to bring members of the junta before human rights tribunals or for them to be tried by the international criminal courts in absentia. Such fears would have been reinforced by international developments, such as the establishment of the International Criminal Court of Justice, and prosecutions against Chile's General Augusto Pinochet or Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic.

Pacts can allay the Tatmadaw's fears that they would suffer the same fate as these dictators.

Compromises can also provide guarantees that the armed forces' wide-ranging economic and political interests would be secure in the newly democratic setting. When assured of their fates and wallets, further political liberalisation could occur in the future.

For a start, Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD should refrain from amending Myanmar's 2008 Constitution. This military-drafted charter holds the key to the Tatmadaw's foothold in politics. It contains provisions for their influence in Parliament, guaranteeing the armed forces

25 per cent of parliamentary seats. The 2008 Constitution also ensures the military a role in choosing the president and the right to seize political power again under certain conditions. As the Constitution cannot be changed without more than 75 per cent of Parliament's approval, the document effectively gives the military a veto.

The generals should retain the management of the defence, interior and border affairs portfolios. This will give the Tatmadaw continued control of the nation's security apparatus. More importantly, it allows the military a continuing role to shape security policy towards the armed ethnic conflicts in the country - vital in the military's self-perception as the guarantor of Myanmar's territorial integrity.

The new civilian government should not attempt to interfere in the economic interests of the Tatmadaw. While Parliament gets to approve the official budget of the armed forces, it should resist having oversight over defence expenses, including off-budget sources of military spending from the sale of Myanmar's vast natural resources, which are permitted under a special law.

The Tatmadaw controls two of the country's largest conglomerates, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and the Myanmar Economic Corp, which have stakes in manufacturing, external trade, tourism, finance, banking, mining, gem trade, construction, real estate and retail operations. With the prospect of the removal of more sanctions and increased investment, economic growth in a newly democratic Myanmar will make the Tatmadaw even wealthier. Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD will need to avoid rolling back these economic prerogatives.

The main goal of these concessions is to create clear and distinct civilian-military spheres of influence. In doing so, the incoming civilian government can then make everybody, including the military, feel that they have a vital stake in the future of Myanmar.


•The writer is associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2015, with the headline 'Assuaging the armed forces in Myanmar'. Print Edition | Subscribe