Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

All Going According to Plan? the Armed Forces and Government in Myanmar

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

All Going According to Plan? the Armed Forces and Government in Myanmar

Article excerpt

It has become the conventional wisdom in the West and elsewhere that the peaceful transition from authoritarian rule to a more democratic form of government in Myanmar has taken place because of the tireless efforts of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD), the diplomatic and economic pressures brought to bear on the former military regime by the international community, and belated recognition by the generals that Myanmar could not continue down the path of political and economic isolation without becoming weaker and more vulnerable. This narrative suits many of the key actors in this drama, in particular Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters, foreign politicians and human rights campaigners. Indeed, many of them have been quick to take credit for what appears to be a remarkable and, considering the failed democratic transitions seen elsewhere in the world, rare success story. (2) This interpretation of events is not entirely incorrect. However, it denies independent agency to the most important player of all, namely Myanmar's armed forces (Tatmadaw).

There is another way of looking at the extraordinary paradigm shift which has occurred in Myanmar's political landscape over the past decade or so. That is, by recognizing the key developments during this period as steps in a long-term plan drawn up some 15 years ago by the country's military leadership, which willingly surrendered absolute power in order to advance its own agenda and achieve a number of specific ends. If this explanation of the democratic transition in Myanmar is accepted, then it throws a different light on the advent of the NLD government and its relations with the Tatmadaw. It also suggests that the international community can only play a limited role in influencing the country's future transition from a "disciplined democracy" to a genuine democracy. As in the past, that process will be decided by actors within Myanmar, not least the armed forces.

Stepping Back

When Senior General Than Shwe and the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) held national elections in November 2010, and handed over government to President Thein Sein in March 2011, they were not forced to do so. As the most powerful armed force in the land, the Tatmadaw did not fear a major military defeat, or internal unrest. No insurgent group or political movement had the capacity to seriously threaten the government in Naypyidaw. If they had chosen to do so, the generals could have continued to resist popular demands for political change, including by Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, albeit not without difficulty. Nor, despite the claims made by some foreign politicians and activist organizations, was the regime overly concerned by the diplomatic pressures and economic sanctions that had been applied by the Western democracies and various international organizations since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. (3) While some of these measures may have had a modest impact, the regime had successfully sidestepped sanctions by cultivating relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and major powers like China, India and Russia.

Granted, the ruling council was very unpopular and faced some serious domestic problems, but when it handed over power to Thein Sein it was firmly entrenched in power. Indeed, by almost every measure, the military regime in 2011 was stronger than it had been at any time since General Ne Win's coup d'etat in 1962. The SPDC's readiness to relax its grip on power and allow a more liberal form of government to evolve in Myanmar was not a sign of weakness and insecurity, as often claimed by its critics, but of strength and confidence. It was also part of a carefully considered long-term plan.

As far as can be assessed, around 2002 the SPDC concluded that it was in Myanmar's best interests, and the Tatmadaw's, to embrace change. (4) In economic, technical, military and other ways, the country had fallen behind its regional neighbours and the rest of the world. …

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