Military can still be good state-builders for Myanmar

Only when the Tatmadaw

Since 1988, worldwide public opinion has been firmly against Myanmar’s Armed Forces, the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw have been pressed to let civil society take control of the country’s administration. Nobody would claim that the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ was a success, not even the military officials wanted to be linked to the old government’s policies in the nineties. Likewise, most ex-military holding posts in the current quasi-civilian state don’t want to be linked to the former regime. Acknowledging these views, I argue the military might be and should be of great importance to policy making in Myanmar. Nowadays the Tatmadaw is adjusting itself to protect the country against excessive dependence, or even domination, by foreign powers’ interests and agendas. This could be achieved through national reconciliation, with both civilian and military groups acknowledging each other’s role and making policies together. Also, the country needs to prepare for undesirable but possible outcomes of the liberalization, such as financial instability and lack of competitiveness. For all these challenges, the military can still be important as ‘guardians’ of stability in Myanmar. Attempting to avoid and alienate the Tatmadaw from government would only bring back the politicization that plagued the institution for many decades. Given the abrupt socio-economic changes that are being experienced, the political elites should stay together to repel political turmoil and religious fundamentalism (e.g. the 969 movement).

Recent developments in Myanmar show that the civil opposition is gaining political ground. This was particularly evident after last year’s by-elections results, which saw Aung San Suu Kyi elected to the Hluttaw. The next election is scheduled for 2015 and would be the first time the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been able to run in an election since 1988. Assuming that the results could lead to victory, and a possible majority for the NLD, a new coalition could arise. Although Suu Kyi attended the Armed Forces Day parade in March, her last speeches have criticized the slow pace of reforms and the approach to ethnic minorities, especially towards Rohingya Muslims. The current relationship between Suu Kyi and Thein Sein seems to be more of an ad-hoc pact.

Both sides still resent the fact that NLD was denied the opportunity to participate in the National Convention. Myanmar has an almost unique case of civil society suppression and forced co-optation. During Suharto’s New Order, for example, opposition political parties were always kept in parliament, even if their role was more symbolic than practical. Likewise, the military regime in Brazil also adopted this policy, running bipartisan elections between Arena and MDB. This limited participation didn’t happen during Ne Win’s government, and through the nineties under the military junta, so mutual coexistence between different political groups was never established. Yet, participation in mutual coexistence is not a guarantee for reform. Both Indonesia and Brazil went through political and economic turmoil during the nineties. It’s worrisome that NLD could try to politically alienate their rivals by trying to run policies geared towards mostly popular and foreign support.

The future role of the military in administration

Even if Myanmar expands its own liberalizing policies, the NLD still won’t have much expertise in managing the state, and particularly with regards to national security and strategic views of foreign affairs, like the Armed Forces have done for decades. As Andrew Selth argues, the problem of ethnic armies is less a political problem than a strategic one as all of Myanmar’s neighbors have given shelter to these groups and used them as leverage.  The Tatmadaw has effectively handled ceasefire agreements with some of the groups over the last twenty years, with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) remaining as one of the few major rebel groups engaged in conflict. Yet the KIO are talking with Naypyidaw, too. Regarding managing experience, Win Tin, one of the old leaders of the democratic movement and a close friend of Suu Kyi’s alleged in a recent interview that the NLD is not ready for government.  Also, no future civilian government could have a foreign policy opposed from the view of its military personal. In this important juncture, a window of opportunity has opened for real and enduring reconciliation between the military and the NLD.

The new role of the Tatmadaw also needs to be addressed by all parties. Obviously, the changes we’re seeing are no longer completely due to the army, but are in the hands of former general Thein Sein and his technocratic cabinet. This means that both institutions must agree on their limits and objectives for national security. Other initiatives undertaken by the Junta under Khin Nyunt’s auspices, but shut down after his imprisonment in 2004, was the creation of the Office of Strategic Studies. This agency took responsibility for formulating the defense policy, planning and doctrine.  It was a think tank, which some claimed was the ‘new brain’ of the army, directly involved in the Seven Step Roadmap for Democracy project that set the underpinnings for democratization. These sorts of initiatives need to be instigated again.

Another indication of change is the new attitude from the Tatmadaw’s future generation. For instance, the recent private statements of Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services, to diplomats that he wants to “guide the military from its former roles in administration and governance to a narrower set of ‘professional’ duties defending the national constitution and territory”. Taking account of these developments over the years, one can expect that the Tatmadaw is progressively being de-politicized to meet the requirements of a modern army, while keeping an eye on the changes in nation’s politics as the country’s ‘guardian’. Of course, this is not a time-scheduled process. But critics of the reform process should remember that even Thailand’s ‘beloved democracy’ is probably more unstable after successive coup d’états  since 1932.

The importance of military associated entrepreneurship

Not less important are military companies and those businessmen linked to the Junta (pejoratively called ‘cronies’). The cause of the exaggerated nationalism in the anti-colonialist struggle during the 1930s and 40s was the relegation of the Burmese to ‘third class’ citizens. The Burma/Myanmar economy has always been weak. We can appreciate that the task of ensuring that capital arriving in Myanmar stays in the country, generates wealth for its own citizenry, and is reinvested in strategic sectors (like power and infrastructure) will be assigned to these companies and the ‘cronies’ associated to the interests of the state. This kind of development occurred in Indonesia, where most of the sensitive sectors of the national economy remained as state-owned enterprises. In Brazil, many of the state companies were privatized in the 90’s, but some sectors like banking, oil, power and energy were modernized and became partly public. Companies associated with military regime grew quickly under Lula’s government and now manage a great share of construction licenses, for example, making contracts abroad in South America and Africa.

One example of this new model of ‘cronyism’ in Myanmar is Zaw Zaw, the chairman of the Myanmar Football Federation and founder of Max Myanmar Group (which is currently working in the development of Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project with India, among other projects). He worked for several years in Japan before returning. He reportedly has connections with Maung Aye and Than Shwe’s grandson, which supposedly allow him access to benefit from state concessions. Recently in an interview reflecting the spirit of the new generation of Myanmar entrepreneurs, Zaw Zaw indicated support for the ongoing reforms and praised the involvement of Suu Kyi in the political process. More substantially, he urged the government to improve the education system, especially universities, and to stimulate initiatives that create jobs. Other major issues discussed included his full commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility and taxation.

Avoiding ‘liberal hysteria’

More broadly, on macroeconomic policies, the (ex) military could prevent excessive hysteria from liberalization. The Tatmadaw proved itself as one of the most anti-dependence governments in modern times, even isolating the country from foreign aid, and avoided alignment during the Cold War. Hysteria over liberalization can be seen in reaction to the premature commitment of Myanmar to further integration in ASEAN Economic Community by the end of 2015. The country possibly won’t meet the minimum requirements of competitiveness and productivity in the next two and a half years, and this could be a tragedy for the already massive unemployment and poverty spread by the country. In the field of logistics, for example, the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index puts Myanmar in 129th place, whilst Cambodia occupies the 101st position, Indonesia is 59th, and Thailand is 38th. With these issues in mind, the state must also progressively take up welfare support that is currently performed by NGOs and other assistance programs. The government must assist in areas it seldom, or has never reached before. The improvement of the bureaucracy to implement the reforms will be further facilitated through policies enabling the return of the Burmese Diaspora, whose members often studied abroad and would certainly be useful in state construction.

Ultimately, there’s still a long way to go for political reconciliation, economic development and the rebuilding of institutions, but all of these processes are intimately linked and will be achieved more easily if both the military and civil society recognize their respective importance in the transition. The history of Myanmar has proved that neither can live without the other, so they have to sit together and work not for themselves, but for the good of Myanmar.

Erik H. Ribeiro is a master’s candidate at the Postgraduate Program in International Strategic Studies (PPGEEI), Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Brazil.