ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon Twitter

Olivia Cable: Myanmar's military marches on, for now

Tatmadaw officers at Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw on March 27 (Photo by Olivia Cable).

Myanmar may have a new, popularly elected government, but for anyone attending the country's Armed Forces Day parade on March 27 in Naypyitaw it may have seemed like nothing had changed.

     Just days before Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy took the reins of government, the event -- bigger and more elaborate than in previous years -- suggested that the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, will remain a formidable force in national politics.

     There are other forces at work. On March 30, Htin Kyaw was sworn in as Myanmar's first civilian president since 1962. Speaking as Suu Kyi's long-time friend and personal choice as her "proxy" president, he called for patience and pledged to work for change, not least to "push a constitution in accordance with democratic norms that will be suitable for our country." Despite leading her party to a sweeping electoral victory last November, Suu Kyi herself is barred from the presidency due to constitutional restrictions against Myanmar nationals with foreign family. Her two sons have British citizenship.

     She has campaigned strenuously -- and unsuccessfully - to persuade the military, which has veto power over constitutional changes through its 25% allocation of parliamentary seats, to support a charter amendment that would enable her to take the presidency. Now, as the NLD takes the reins of office for the next five years, patience is just what the country will have to adopt. The Tatmadaw has already lost some power, reflected in a diminishing share of the overall national budget, but it promises to remain a potent power behind the scenes.

     "The Tatmadaw has to be present with a leading role in national politics with regard to the ways we stand in history and the critical situation of the country," Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Myanmar Armed Forces commander-in-chief, told the crowd at the parade. The Tatmadaw's role, he noted is to "uphold and uplift the national interest."

     Military parades are not purely symbolic, but are spectacles in and of themselves. The site of the parade in Naypyitaw, Myanmar's decade-old capital city, has big historical significance. In 1942, the Burma Independence Army established a camp at Pyinmana, which is now one of Naypyitaw's eight townships. Pyinmana soon became a training, recruitment and intelligence center. On March 27, 1945, General Aung San, Myanmar's late independence hero and father of Suu Kyi, declared that the army would fight the occupying Japanese. This date was known as Revolution Day until 1955, when it was renamed Armed Forces Day.

JSR's color resist

     The Tatmadaw continues to see itself as guardian of the country. Min Aung Hlaing emphasized that the historical coexistence of Myanmar and the armed forces was born from the independence struggle. Under Aung San's leadership, the army was formed in 1941.

     Even so, there is deep-seated distrust within the Tatmadaw toward his daughter. "Before 2012 I liked her. But now, I feel she hates soldiers. I feel she hates some generals because of her speech, her activities. Most of our soldiers were killed by the enemy in the north east of our state [in Laukkai]," one officer told me at the parade ground.

Distrust remains

     He explained that those within the Tatmadaw pay attention to what Suu Kyi does not do when it come to the armed forces, such as not issuing condolences to soldiers killed in fighting rebel ethnic groups. "She showed her mind. So we have seen too many things in these years. So our feelings have changed, slowly."

     Given the role of the then-junta in writing and implementing the 2008 constitution, the armed forces unsurprisingly remains out of the reach of civilian control or oversight. While the new government will have at least 21 ministries, three of those -- border affairs, home affairs and defense -- remain under military control.

     In terms of administration, the NLD will need to work through the government's centralized bureaucracy. If the NLD moves too quickly with political change, the Tatmadaw could make governing very difficult. The pervasive General Administration Department, which falls under the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs, is a case in point. The GAD's primary responsibility is to manage the country's public administrative structure down to the smallest administrative units. Myanmar's 14 state and regional governments were created under the 2008 constitution and rely on the GAD to provide civil servants.

     "The old government was good at making traps and this is especially so in national planning and regulation. They'll make traps with the budget," said one experienced observer in Naypyitaw. "The permanent secretaries who were appointed last year will keep their position in the new government. For those connected with the military, they will make traps when the NLD wants to pass budgets."

     Since the Tatmadaw will maintain its institutional independence and central role in national politics, the NLD will need to work with the generals to make both government and parliament function effectively. The commander-in-chief emphasized this point in his Armed Forces Day speech: "The two main hindrances in democratization are lack of abiding by the rule of law and regulation, and the presence of armed insurgencies. These could lead to chaotic democracy," he warned in a pointed reference to Suu Kyi's efforts to amend the constitution. As the NLD has no direct experience in governing, and has something of an elitist culture, new problems will likely emerge.

     One obvious area of dispute could be the budget. Economic planning has been a lifeline for the Tatmadaw. Since 2011, its revenue has been declining due to losing its monopoly over key sectors. However, with a growing competitive, open market economy, Myanmar's national budget is set to increase greatly. This means that military spending will also increase, which would explain why the Tatmadaw supports economic reform.

     The Tatmadaw has never seen itself as having separate military and political roles. As its structure and function evolve, and perhaps lead to less visibility in frontline politics, the pressure will build for the NLD to deliver results. Until 2011, Myanmar boasted the world's most durable military dictatorship. Today, how the NLD works toward its democratic goals will be Suu Kyi's biggest test over the next five years. It is the NLD which must accommodate the Tatmadaw more than the other way round. As Myanmar embarks on a new era, old habits die hard.

Olivia Cable is an academic researcher at the Australian National University's Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 1 month for $0.99

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends October 31st

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to Nikkei Asia has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more