Renaud Egreteau and Larry Jagan, Soldiers and Diplomacy in Burma: Understanding the Foreign Relations of the Burmese Praetorian State

By Metraux, Daniel A. | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2015 | Go to article overview

Renaud Egreteau and Larry Jagan, Soldiers and Diplomacy in Burma: Understanding the Foreign Relations of the Burmese Praetorian State


Metraux, Daniel A., Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Renaud Egreteau and Larry Jagan, Soldiers and Diplomacy in Burma: Understanding the Foreign Relations of the Burmese Praetorian State. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2013. xiii + 541 pages.

The nearly seven decades since Burma achieved independence in 1948 have been years of increasing misery. Instead of marching forward to new heights of freedom and prosperity, Burma has instead embarked on a hellish descent into recession and economic ruin. The first fourteen years of independence held some promise of democratic government and a stable economy, but a 1962 military coup precipitated a fifty-year crisis that transformed a once-vibrant people and economy into one of the most impoverished and depressed nations on earth.

The military's rule led to the total repression of free speech. The brutal combination of continued economic decline and political repression led to occasional resistance against the government by students and workers, but their demonstrations were ruthlessly crushed. Torture, political imprisonment, and other human rights abuses were all too common. It was not until 2010 that the ruling military announced democratic reforms and abandoned some of the more repressive practices of the previous fifty years.

Burma's Tatmadaw (military) began relaxing some aspects of its harsh rule in 2010, releasing many political prisoners, granting greater freedom to its citizenry, and opening Burma to the outside world, but even now the military retains the reins of power. The military has retreated into the background and has succeeded in avoiding scrutiny by foreign analysts and experts who focus on the nation's supposed transition to democratic rule, but even in the background it retains much of its traditional power.

The overwhelming presence of the military in Burmese life today is carefully documented by two old "Burma hands," Renaud Egreteau, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, and Larry Jagan, a journalist and political analyst based in Bangkok They have produced a very worthwhile study, Soldiers and Diplomacy in Burma, an analysis of the military's control of Burma and its huge influence on the direction of the country's foreign policy.

The authors use the term "praetorian state" to describe the political structure of Burma and the military's dominant governmental role. In its original Roman context, the term "Praetorian Guard" describes an "elitist military unit" that dominates all aspects of life in a given society. They affirm that the best way to describe the role of the military in Burmese society is to label it "a political configuration in which the armed forces--mainly embodied by their high-ranking and senior military officer corps--tend to intervene in the day-to-day politics and enter the broader civilian policy world, to the point of being potentially able to dominate the whole political system" (21). The praetorians regard themselves as the true guardians of the state and the only group capable of maintaining the independence and integrity of the nation.

The authors argue that even though Burma has begun to emerge from isolation and to allow greater freedoms, the country still fits the praetorian model. Although disguised in civilian clothing, Burma's "praetorian guard" still maintains control. Specifically, it retains the three most important government ministries (Home, Defense/Security, and Foreign Affairs) and a quarter of the seats in the national legislature. It also dominates the bureaucracy through ex-military officers. The result is that the military establishment is still the dominant force in making foreign policy and directing the conduct of foreign relations, while opposition groups like the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, while increasingly free to operate, have only token representation in the national parliament. The defense budget has always been much larger than other sectors and continues to grow today under "civilian" rule. …

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