Can Burma's Military Let Go?


It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic shift of tactics. Less than five years ago, the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, greeted popular calls for change with batons and bullets, crushing the “saffron revolution” with its trademark brutality. But at the weekend, the men in khaki were conspicuous by their absence during elections that were relatively free and that appear to have swept Aung San Suu Kyi and other National League for Democracy (NLD) candidates into parliament.

Nonetheless, it would be naïve to imagine that an institution that held absolute power for the last half century would now meekly accept the role of wallflower at Burma’s democracy party. The military remains a key actor in national affairs, and the reform process can only succeed if the Tatmadaw is made to feel that it, too, stands to be one of the winners in the country’s transformation. And that means two things: that the Tatmadaw has to be compensated for its loss of political power; and that the civilian government has to refrain from crossing any of the military leadership’s red lines.

If the Burmese economy is poised to grow at the pace that some economists are now predicting, then paying off the military should be straightforward enough. The national budget announced in March included a large pay rise for the Tatmadaw: that’s a good incentive for the top brass to stick with Thein Sein’s government, especially given the miserable pay and conditions that Burmese troops currently have to put up with. No less important than the official defense budget are the off-the-books business ventures that the Burmese military engages in. These will become even more profitable as the national economy begins to open up, and, if the Indonesian precedent is anything to go by, turning a blind eye to these often shady money-making schemes will be a necessary evil for the reformist government in the short to medium term.

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While the logic of a military takeover is usually very easy to understand, the logic of why a military government chooses to cede power is far more complex. It will take some years for scholars to build up a complete picture of why the floodgates of reform have been allowed to open so dramatically in Burma after so many decades of military obstructionism.

However, while the Tatmadaw has evidently recognized the need to relinquish sole political power, it no doubt intends to retain some political influence. As Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Burma’s military chief, said in the run-up to the recent by-elections, “performing the duty of national politics” remains one of the Tatmadaw’s priorities. So attempting to extract the military from politics, at least for several years, looks like being the first of its red lines.

What else might provoke the Tatmadaw to halt the country’s democratization? The small scale of the recent by-elections – only 45 seats were up for grabs, out of a total of 664 in Naypyidaw’s upper and lower houses of parliament – was clearly not enough to trigger a reaction. The stakes weren’t unacceptably high.

However, general elections in 2015 could be a different story. An NLD landslide – the likely outcome judging by the by-election results – might trigger a repeat of the 1990 coup, unless the military is given some cast-iron guarantees about the future shape of Burma and the Army’s place within it. What the Tatmadaw surely can’t accept is defeat at the hands of an enemy it has been fighting for 50 years – namely forces that, in its worldview, want to break up Burma. For all his reformist credentials, the ex-general turned president, Thein Sein, presumably shares this outlook.

There can therefore be no question of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD being permitted to take control without the Tatmadaw being made to trust their agenda. This would cover negotiations with ethnic minorities, the military’s future political role, assurances that old regime figures and their families won’t be prosecuted, and probably many other distasteful promises. As Aung San Suu Kyi prepares for parliament, it’s highly doubtful whether that degree of trust currently exists. She has three years in which to build a lot of bridges, or risk another disastrous face-off with a military that will be feeling insecure and no longer in control after the weekend of voting.

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