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DVB Debate: How balanced are the civil and military powers?

Friends or foes? Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi (left) and military chief Min Aung Hlaing. (PHOTO: DVB)

Since Burma’s transition to civilian rule began more than five years ago, the relationship between the country’s government and its armed forces has been a subject of intense interest to observers of Burmese politics.

Under the administration of former President Thein Sein — who was also a former general and a senior member of the junta that ruled until 2011 — the line between civilian and military rule was often far from obvious.

With the National League for Democracy (NLD) now in power, however, there is an expectation that the Tatmadaw, Burma’s armed forces, will play less and less of a role in non-military matters. But after half a century of army rule, and with a constitution in place that enshrines a permanent place for the military in the country’s politics, it remains unclear what sort of balance of power will emerge between civil and military powers in Burma.

In this episode of DVB Debate, our panel offers differing perspectives on the role of the military in Burmese politics and the prospects for cooperation between the armed forces and Burma’s new civilian government.

On the panel: Political analyst Dr. Tin Maung Than; Kyaw Zaya, a Rangoon Division MP and former military general; Soe Myint Aung of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies; and Soe Myayarzar Lin of the Rakhine Women’s Union.

Dr. Tin Maung Than started by noting that the NLD and the military, despite their differences, have a common cause: bringing peace to Burma.

“It is time for NLD and military leaders to work together. It seems they are generally in the same situation,” he said, adding that, because of the many challenges Burma faces in its efforts to achieve peace, both the government and the military have naturally chosen unity over democracy as the country’s greatest priority.

“How long it takes to get peace depends on how much we are working for reconciliation and unity. Rule of law, civil war, diversity and religion are all problems, so the government needs to decide what the priority is — unity or democracy. Experts say unity is much more important than democracy for countries with these problems. The NLD government and military chose unity, so democracy seems weak.”

Kyaw Zaya, however, noted that while both sides — civilian and military — ultimately want the the same thing, they differ on one key issue: constitutional reform.

“The new NLD government wants national harmony, but the military does not have a time frame to amend the constitution,” he said, pointing to the reluctance of Burma’s generals to remove themselves from politics.

The reason for this, according to Soe Myint Aung, is that the military has long seen itself as primarily responsible for maintaining national unity, and is accustomed to acting as a law unto itself.

“The military think they are chief of the country and the military is like a small country within the country, fighting with other ethnicities,” he said, adding that the armed forces doesn’t have an exclusive role in maintaining security: “Here CSOs [civil society organisations] and the political community are very important to work for security and safety.”

Meanwhile, Soe Myayarzar Lin argued that Burma’s ethnic minorities are more interested in autonomy than in the central government’s promises of unity: “Minorities want their own government for their own places. They are fine by themselves. We should be able to consider what they want and do what they are asking.”

Tin Maung Than conceded that minority groups often feel that the government doesn’t share their priorities, but seemed to suggest that this could change through the process of ongoing dialogues aimed at achieving a new balance of powers.

“Sometimes, minorities feel the new government is not working for them. The NLD leaders’ way of thinking and that of the minorities are different,” he said. “Anyway, since there will be political dialogues, the constitution and the rights of minorities will be discussed together. The new government is firstly trying to have political dialogue, then they will discuss everything to solve the problem.”

One problem with the army’s involvement in the peace process is that it’s not always clear how much authority military negotiators actually have.

“Ethnic armed groups and some important leaders from the military are meeting to make peace, but without the top leader, [Commander-in-Chief Senior General] Min Aung Hlaing, it will never work, because he makes the final decision,” said Kyaw Zaya.

It is also unclear who the army is accountable to. In theory, said Tin Maung Than, civilian oversight is possible under current laws; but in practice, however, it’s another story.

“Two articles in the current law say, if needed, CSOs can form legal oversight committees on military activities, but it seems that the military is still controlling these committees,” he said.

For Soe Myint Aung, the fact that the military acknowledges the civilian government’s authority is a major step forward, but only the first of many that need to be taken if the country is to make real progress.

“We welcome the military saying they will work with and under the government. The speakers from the government and the general from the military would like to work in order to get peace step by step, to achieve goals such as the military leaving politics and amending the constitution. They said they would be going step by step, but I do not think it is necessary for things to move in sequence,” he said.

Returning to his earlier point about security not being the exclusive concern of the armed forces, Soe Myint Aung argued that it was more important to get to work immediately addressing issues of greater concern to ordinary Burmese citizens: “Nowadays, security isn’t about safety, it’s about having jobs and clean water. If we have this kind of security, we can change other things. We do not need to wait for peace. We can start now.”

Getting the final word, Tin Maung Than noted that, whether it’s going fast or slow, the country is making progress: “Myanmar is not a democratic country yet, but we are moving forward.”