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Myanmar's military: Who 'guards the guardians'?

There are doubts that Aung San Suu Kyi can curb the military's peculiar role in Myanmar politics

Military representatives take their places in the new NLD-led ​parliament in Naypyi​taw, Myanmar on March 30. (Photo by Steve Tickner)

Myanmar's armed forces, or Tatmadaw, have long established themselves as the "guardians" of the country's institutions. Their historic roots in the independence struggle and postcolonial civil war are such that it would be hard for their hierarchy to conceive of a political arena in which soldiers had no acknowledged role. Reversing that historical trend and imposing civilian supremacy will be particularly arduous, if not quixotic, in the foreseeable future.

The fierce security operations that the Tatmadaw recently carried out throughout Myanmar illustrates the strength in which the military finds itself today. Despite a partial liberalization initiated in 2011 and the resounding victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in the 2015 national elections, the Tatmadaw remains much in control of policy decision-making.

Myanmar military officers leave ​the new NLD-led ​​parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar on March 30. (Photo by Steve Tickner)

This points to the age-old question: Who can "guard the guardians," especially now that Myanmar is supposedly moving toward a more liberal governance under the NLD administration? "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes" is a classic conundrum dating back to Roman times, and which has long perplexed rulers, philosophers and political scientists.

But the relationship between the military and the civilian authority is more than an academic matter. It has serious implications when a society seeks to move away from the supremacy of an unaccountable institution using the full extent of its might and monopoly on violence to dominate the political process. To meaningfully consolidate a "post-junta" transition, as observed in Myanmar since 2011, a new equilibrium in which the military is incrementally put under a form of civilian oversight must be found.

But Myanmar could not be further from civilian supremacy. Of that there is distressing evidence. Despite a power-sharing arrangement imposed by the military-backed 2008 constitution, the country is yet to create a hierarchical structure for civilian control and the management of its military institution. There has been extensive academic debate over the current impracticality of such designs, given the position of strength, extensive patronage networks, and decade-long political dominance of the armed forces in Myanmar.

Institutional levers

Among the traditional institutional channels used in liberal democracies and semi-democratic regimes for civilian oversight of the military -- the bureaucracy, the parliament, and the judiciary -- none seems to be operational in Myanmar.

To begin with, the elected executive branch and its bureaucracy commonly perform the most thorough scrutiny of the armed forces in democracies. But in Myanmar, the 2008 constitution prevents the president from being the commander-in-chief of the military or exerting any control over it. Instead, that role rests with the army chief himself.

The defense ministry and two other security-related ministries, border affairs and home affairs, also remain under the sole authority of the Tatmadaw. If these ministries are not extensively staffed by civilians, led by a civilian or empowered to scrutinize the activities of the security sector, Myanmar's government will not be in position to check a military institution whose functions are expected to remain stubbornly opaque for years. Without constitutional reform, Myanmar's presidential and ministerial bureaucracy can thus not act as a credible agent of oversight.

Myanmar's military chief, ​Senior General Min Aung Hlaing​, ​enters parliament for the swearing-in of the new NLD-led government in ​Naypyi​taw, Myanmar on March 30. (Photo by Steve Tickner)

An elected parliament offers another channel of civilian control. Through the enactment of specific legislation and the debate over the defense budget, legislatures can play the role of referee. Legislative committees on military and security affairs are also expected to perform the necessary parliamentary oversight of the armed forces. Surprisingly, the 2008 Constitution outlined the possible creation of a defense and security committee in each of the two houses of the Union parliament. Although primarily composed of military-appointed parliamentarians, these committees could also include civilian representatives for a limited period, according to the constitution.

None, however, has been formed since the legislature was revived after the 2010 elections. The current NLD speakers of the house, elected in February, do not seem any more inclined than their predecessors (two retired Tatmadaw officers) to form such committees. Under the constitution, the Tatmadaw is automatically allocated a quarter of all parliamentary seats. But since the constitution bestows on them the right to veto only constitutional amendments (but not basic legislation or any other parliamentary procedures) military delegates could thus not oppose the creation of these defense-related committees. Yet, the "check and balance" mantra professed by elected legislators of the current and previous legislatures still does not seem to apply to military affairs.

Third, the judiciary has long been a primary venue for "guarding the guardians," even in semi-democratic systems. Pakistan has long offered a prime example of a society struggling against the praetorian tendencies of its military through a powerful and relatively autonomous, if disordered, justice system. However, the Tatmadaw remains largely exempt from prosecution by civilian courts. The country's corrupt and inept judiciary continues to prove far from being a potentially defiant and assertive branch of government that is inclined to prosecute military personnel and force more accountability onto the Tatmadaw.

Checks and balances

The Tatmadaw appears to have grown even more independent recently. A continuing impression of military and police impunity is clearly imprinted in the collective mind of the people, as well as of many observers of Myanmar's civil-military relations. And this despite the recent trial and conviction in September in a military court of seven Tatmadaw soldiers accused of murdering civilians. The seven, four of them officers, were sentenced to five years in prison with hard labor. In addition, civilian courts have long been used by the Tatmadaw to prosecute any citizen criticizing the army or undermining its morale. During General Ne Win's caretaker administration between 1958 and 1960, the military leadership painstakingly sent to trial every single parliamentarian, journalist or community leader that had disparaged the Tatmadaw. The situation has not changed much.

If not in the courts, in parliament or through the civilian bureaucracy, Myanmar today is left with only one towering figure in position to instill the skills and attitudes necessary to the check the military: Aung San Suu Kyi. In November 2015, the NLD was elected on a simple political platform: change. Major constitutional reforms stood high in the party priorities, and the electoral consecration of a Nobel Laureate who had spent years under house arrest was a promise of stronger scrutiny of the powers that be.

A Burmese army soldier during clashes with ethnic armed groups in Mon State, Myanmar. (Photo by Steve Tickner)

And indeed, when earlier this year the NLD introduced in parliament the "State Counselor Bill," clearly to design a policy role for Suu Kyi, it was confronted with vehement military opposition. Barred from the presidency because of a constitutional clause preventing citizens with a foreign spouse or children from presidential office, Suu Kyi instigated the legislation to circumvent the constitutional ban by creating a special institutional place "above the president" -- similar to a prime minister in a semi-presidential system. Both houses easily passed the bill.

Puzzled, even furious, the military-appointed representatives, with just 25% of seats in parliament, knew they could not vote the bill down. But they stood up in protest and even boycotted the vote in the lower house. One brigadier deplored what he called "democratic bullying." At that point, Suu Kyi appeared to be on a collision course with the military, which had so far exclusively controlled the modalities and pace of the post-junta transition.

However, Suu Kyi and the NLD have since toned down their confrontational tactics. Serious talk about constitutional reforms has been postponed. Indeed, ethnic politicians and civil society leaders have expressed new concerns about the closeness of views between Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw regarding the trajectory of the peace process -- and her recent defense of the military's sweeping crackdown in Muslim-dominated Rakhine State following Oct. 9 attacks on police posts by Islamic militants.

The NLD administration has maintained an uneasy silence over the recent surge of fighting between the military and ethnic armed forces in the northern Shan and Kachin regions. The international community meanwhile has deplored Suu Kyi's handling of issues such as the military crackdown in Rakhine State, and the continuing plight of the region's mainly stateless Rohingya Muslim minority. In early December she enraged human rights groups with her defense of the military and her rejection of accusations of rampant human rights abuses.

Government troops on the move in northern Shan State during clashes with ethnic armed groups, Myanmar: (Photo by Steve Tickner)

Why does the NLD seem now more reluctant to politically neutralize the armed forces and push back on their political clout? Is Suu Kyi outlining here her own long-term strategy for democratization, where the taming of the military becomes a lesser imperative? There is indeed a myriad of opportunities for the Tatmadaw to undermine the workings of the new administration. Suu Kyi thus seems ready to bet on a cozier relationship with the Tatmadaw to get other things done first.

She is also aware of the limitations of her own supporters, an army of faithful followers, but for the most part shorn of both capacity and experience to offer a credible and ready-to-work alternative to the military and bureaucratic circles that have dominated Myanmar's state apparatus for so many decades.

The Tatmadaw therefore continues to position itself as "caretaker" of the country's political process, without proper oversight. Civilians would however be wise not to wait for the next move by the generals to consolidate the transition at work, and even less to expect them to reform the military institution by themselves, while designing civilian control on their own terms.

Of the various possibilities, the creation of parliamentary committees on defense and security, which would include civilian MPs, would be a first trust-building initiative enabling more interaction on security-related affairs between the civilian and military authorities. Greater and more open discussion in parliament on the defense budget would be another necessary step forward.

But armed forces around the world tend to staunchly resist civilian oversight, including in democracies such as the U.S. The imposition and respect of civilian control in the early stage of a democratization process more often than not depends on the skills, popularity and deference possessed by a particular politician. If not Aung San Suu Kyi, who else is there in Myanmar?

Renaud Egreteau, a Myanmar scholar, is the author of "Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar (OUP, and Hurst, 2016)".

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