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Country on a leash

Military MPs in Burma's parliament (Photo: DVB)

To this day, Burma’s military wields great power. The root of the dominance of the institution also known as the Tatmadaw, which considers itself to be the only stabilising force in the country, lies in the country’s 2008 Constitution.

Under this carefully crafted and elaborately structured charter, the defence services’ dominance and independence is enshrined: military influence over the executive and parliamentary branches of government is laid out, and its ability to control sub-union administration and all branches of the government is established.

The Tatmadaw has a deep historic distrust of politicians and civilian governments, and feels that the public is politically ignorant – easily swayed and manipulated by politicians. Consequently, the military, through the 2008 Constitution, has established, a ‘leash of control’ over any civilian government.

“We can not reasonably expect that any sudden overhaul of the system – an attempt to shake off the leash – will succeed in the foreseeable future.”

The ‘Roadmap to discipline-flourishing democracy’ drawn up by Gen. Khin Nyunt in 2003 exemplified this distrust, which even extends to the current nominally civilian government, despite it being mainly composed of former generals and ‘comrades in arms’.

Guardian of the country: Within the 2008 Constitution, the Tatmadaw is given principal responsibility for the charter’s safeguarding, the non-disintegration of the Union, the non-disintegration of national solidarity, and the perpetuation of sovereignty. Thus, the Tatmadaw sees itself as the guardian of the country.

Answers only to itself: The military is granted the right to independently administer all of its own affairs. Whereas in most democracies, the president or prime minister is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and exercises authority through a defence ministry, under Burma’s 2008 Constitution, the president is not the commander–in-chief and does not directly control the Tatmadaw. In essence, the Tatmadaw is its own master.

The selection of its commander-in-chief: The appointment of the commander-in-chief is subject to the approval of the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC), a majority of whose members are under the control of the armed forces. The military commander-in-chief is not accountable to any authority.

The selection of president and vice-presidents: The president is indirectly elected by an electoral body composed of three separate parliamentary committees. One committee is composed of members of parliament (MPs) from the pyithu hluttaw (House of Representatives); another is composed of MPs from the amyotha hluttaw (House of Nationalities); and the last is composed of Tatmadaw MPs nominated by the military commander-in-chief. Each of the three committees nominate a presidential candidate. Afterwards, the full pyidaungsu hluttaw (Union Parliament) votes for one of three candidates. The candidate with the highest number of votes is elected president, while the other two are elected as vice presidents. Therefore, among the president and two vice presidents, one is directly chosen by the Tatmadaw.

The selection of ministers: The military has complete authority over the security sector of Burma through its exclusive nomination of the ministers of the defence, home affairs, and border affairs.

“The Tatmadaw has a deep historic distrust of politicians and civilian governments, and feels that the public is politically ignorant.”

The National Defence and Security Council: Should a ‘state of emergency’ be declared, the Constitution allows the NDSC to impose martial law, disband parliament, and exercise direct rule over the legislature, executive government and judiciary. The NDSC consists of 11 members, five of whom are required to be serving Tatmadaw officers: the president; two vice presidents; lower house speaker; upper house speaker; commander-in-chief; deputy commander-in-chief; minister of defence; minister of home affairs; minister of foreign affairs; and the minister of border affairs.

The suspension of rights during emergencies: The commander-in-chief can, during a state of emergency, restrict or suspend fundamental rights.

Changes to the Constitution: The Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Union Parliament) is bicameral. In each house, 25 percent of the members are military representatives appointed by the commander-in-chief. The 2008 Constitution requires approval from more than 75 percent of MPs for any constitutional amendment, which gives the Tatmadaw the power to veto any changes. Military officers are obliged to follow orders from their superiors and not vote independently.

Control over pardons and amnesties: Members and allies of the Tatmadaw are protected by ability of the president to grant pardons and amnesties with the blessing of the NDSC. Those who are less friendly with the military, however, can have such pardons denied.

Law does not bind the Tatmadaw: The 2008 Constitution gives the commander-in-chief authority over all legal matters concerning the military, as well as the ability to offer amnesty to any previous or serving member of government (including the Tatmadaw) who committed any crime, as long as it was in the line of official duty.

Military influence at state-level: Burma is divided into 22 administrative subdivisions, which include seven states, seven regions, six self-administered zones, one self-administered division, and the capital territory. Each state and region has its own parliament with one-third of members appointed by the commander-in-chief. As in the Union Parliament, the military controls the necessary majority.

Control of all internal and border security forces: The military appoints the ministers of security and border affairs of state-level governments and, through its control of the Ministry of Home Affairs, is directly responsible for the Myanmar Police Force, prisons, civil defence forces, and national intelligence, meaning it controls all the security sectors of the government from the union to sub-union levels.

Influences civil service at all levels of government: Right down to ward and village-tract level, the General Administrative Department of the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs oversees decision-making.

This is the architecture of the military’s control – the ‘leash of control’ deeply embedded by the SPDC in the 2008 Constitution for their “discipline-flourishing democracy”.

That the Tatmadaw must approve any amendment to the Constitution is a key issue for Burma’s ethnic armed groups. These rebel militias are seeking security sector reform in their peace negotiations with the government in concert with the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of armed soldiers after the implementation of any national peace accord.

For this leash to be loosened, any civilian government must prove to the military their stability and ability to govern the whole country. There must also be sustainable peace with the ethnic people, with the Tatmadaw controlling all the armed forces in the country.

For these reasons, we can not reasonably expect that any sudden overhaul of the system – an attempt to shake off the leash – will succeed in the foreseeable future. Instead, politicians, civilian governments and other stakeholders should work to incrementally expand its length. Pulling against the leash will only cause it to be tightened.

Moe Gyo is a political consultant and strategist working for Strategic Border Consulting in Mae Sot, Thailand.