Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Sept. 18 marked 30 years since the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] staged a coup. In the post-independence period, the Tatmadaw has held power for around 60 years. And the 2008 Constitution grants it a political role in the country. In other words, it is fair to say that the Tatmadaw holds [political] power. I’m joined by 88 Generation student leader U Ko Ko Gyi and executive director Ko Ye of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies to discuss whether the Tatmadaw will still be playing a role in the political leadership of the country 30 years from now. I’m The Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
As I’ve said, the Tatmadaw has ruled the country for around 60 years, and it still holds certain powers under the Constitution. The assumption is that the democratic transition is reducing the political role played by the Tatmadaw over time in order to ensure [an eventual] civilian administration. Ko Ko Gyi, when do you think the political role of Tatmadaw will diminish?
Ko Ko Gyi: It is difficult to predict a time frame. It will depend on the efforts of the concerned leaders. The civilian-military problem in our country is a tripartite problem. The Tatmadaw entered politics under the pretext of [ending] a civil war. The ethnicities demand equality and a federal Union, but the [government and political actors] are not just negotiating with them; at the same time there is also a need [for them] to negotiate with the Tatmadaw, taking into account its perspective on [what it sees as a] civil war. The Army chief said that the Tatmadaw would retire from politics after the country achieves peace and the armed conflict ends. He has linked the ethnic armed struggle with the Tatmadaw’s participation in politics. So, to answer your question, it depends on how fruitful the efforts of the civilian, Tatmadaw and ethnic leaders are.
KZM: Ko Ye, you have studied civilian-military relations for a long time, and learned a lot about the military leaders and the history of the country. What is your assessment of the concepts and sentiments of the military leaders? How long will it take for them to make the decision to retire from their political leadership positions?
Ko Ye: My study of the Tatmadaw’s participation in politics is based on the fact that our country is very militarized because of the civil war. The military is involved not only in the political leadership of the country; it is involved in various sectors. The military is involved in the bureaucracy and administrative mechanisms. And its involvement is systematically arranged. Taking a look at our closest neighbor Thailand; the military frequently stages coups there. According to our study, more than 94 percent of the ministers between 1974 and 1988 in Myanmar were military officials. Civilian ministers only accounted for some 5 percent. There were frequent military coups during the same period in Thailand, and the military had a strong influence there. The Thai military held 25 percent of the cabinet seats from 1974 to 1979. But civilian ministers accounted for more than 50 percent. And through 1988, the Thai military’s percentage of cabinet portfolios fell to 23 percent as more businesspeople came into the cabinet. In our country, the political leadership is militarized and the bureaucracy is also militarized. According to statistics, a total of 1,724 military officials were transferred to ministries, including people’s councils, between 1974 and 1988. And the situation was even worse after 1988 when the country was under a dictatorial military regime. The whole administration was controlled by military officials. So, there is a long tradition of pervasive militarization. Under such circumstances, the military developed its political ideology. This ideology has two elements—one is political doctrine and the other is political interests. The doctrine is about guardianship—the belief that “I’m the only [institution] that can provide proper leadership and manage the country well; I’m the only one that can save the country from the brink of breaking up.” And in terms of its interests, these combine national interests, institutional interests and business interests. The political ideology is developed from these two. That ideology is found in the 2008 Constitution. So to answer your question, it depends on two points—how much can we reduce militarization and how much can we change their ideology?
KZM: As everyone knows, the Tatmadaw has full control. The National League for Democracy [NLD] government, or civilian government, came to power in 2016, but the Tatmadaw maintains its position under the Constitution. At least we have got a space. [But] democracy is about 100 percent control by a civilian government elected by the people. Military leaders understand this. What strategic and tactical actions can political forces—of various parties—do to make military leaders accept that and make changes? Otherwise, we are likely to continue to see what people call a hybrid military/civilian government for the next 60 years, as we have for the past 60 years. What can be done to avert this?
KKG: I’d like to add some points to what Ko Ye has discussed. The Tatmadaw developed an ideology to justify its political leadership. It used the civil war and the threat of a break-up of the Union as an excuse. It built its ideology on that. And the interests followed the ideology. It trumpets national interests, but these have become intertwined with the interests of the establishment and individual interests. At the same time, it holds up the threat of the Union breaking up. It has used this threat to justify its role in politics, saying it is necessary because of national security. Politicians need to thoroughly understand the foundation of the military. If we are to reduce its role, we have to first strengthen ourselves. It seems now as if we have been fighting a war without an army. There are resentment and grievances against the military about its repression and imprisonment of us. It is easy to talk about national reconciliation, but in reality it is hard to achieve. We have enough courage to dare to take risks in opposing the military, but were are weak when it comes to finding an answer.
KZM: It is fair to say that the Tatmadaw took total control from 1958 to 1960 and then from 1962 to 2016. Now, we have a hybrid government. Under the Constitution, it has 25 percent of seats in the Parliament and three ministerial positions, and can also appoint a vice president. When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi answered a question about the probability of a military coup during a lecture in Singapore recently, she did not give an exact answer. But she never said it is unlikely. In Thailand, the military has staged coups some 18 times. The Tatmadaw is still granted considerable power by the Constitution, but are military leaders likely to stage a coup on the pretext of instability in the country, and of its sovereignty being at risk?
Ko Ye: If so, it is not good [for the country]. It wasn’t easy for the military to take on its current role, and it won’t be easy for it to give it up. It has had to make arrangements for the long term. Once it takes on the role, it can’t give it up easily.
KZM: The difference between the military leaders of other countries and our country is that in Thailand, the military only takes control for a maximum of two government terms. But in our country, it takes control for 30 to 60 years. This might be a reason. Their mentality is different.
Ko Ye: To play a long-term role, one has to build institutions. As the military gained power through the coup, the institutions are authoritarian institutions. Erik Meyersson released a study in 2016. It is quite interesting. He studied 232 coups in 94 countries from 1950 to 2016, and pointed out that those coups seriously affected economic growth. Some argue that a coup has nothing to do with the economy. Some point out the case of Chile, where the “Chicago Boys” [a group of right-wing, U.S.-educated Chilean economists] managed to boost the economy. But after studying all 232 coups, [Meyersson] came to the conclusion that coups seriously delay economic growth. And in the countries that experienced the coups, per capita GDP declined by between 1 and 1.3 percentage points within 10 years of their coups. So, he said that coups have grave implications. Taking a look at GDP growth in our country, it was around 4.9 percent between 1962 and 1965. That figure was partly driven by the previous era [the previous civilian government]. Between 1965 and 1969, under the management of generals, GDP dropped to 2.2 percent. From 1969 to 1970, it further declined to 1.3 percent, but it rose sharply in 1974 to around 4 percent. But the number was lower than that of the 1962-1965 period. GDP increased further to around 6.5 percent in 1980. It then became relatively stable. But in 1987-88, as you know, it dropped to -1.7 percent. It fell steeply. It is said that the country only had 300 million kyats in reserve currency. The population growth was 2.1 percent then, but economic growth from 1962 to 1988 was just 1.7 percent. So, economic growth lagged behind population growth. After 1988, the official [GDP growth] figures released by the government were 12 or 13 percent. But agencies like ESCAP [the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific] said it was just over 3 percent. At that time, even countries like Laos had GDP growth of 6 percent, and we had just over 3 percent. So, we have had bitter experiences. According to studies, coups bring about bitter experiences. So I think a coup is not something we even want to consider.
KZM: To sum up, there is still no answer as to how to reduce the role of the military in the next 30 years.
KKG: It is not that there is no answer at all.
KZM: I mean we can’t give a timeframe. As I’ve said, democracy is 100 percent control of the country by a civilian government elected by the people. There is no answer for the time being as to when we will see that day.
KKG: It is hard to predict the time frame. It will depend on the degree of effort [to bring about change].
Ko Ye: In my view, to reduce militarization, there is a need to broaden the role of political parties and civilian government. For that to happen, political parties and political forces must form a strong alliance. Chile is an example in this regard.
KZM: We are weak in that regard.
Ko Ye: In Chile, the constitution was changed 15 years after the transition [to democracy] started. Then, the civilian government purged the military leadership. The military leaders could do nothing. They were overcome during those 15 years by the forging of a strong alliance between civilian political forces. And it is important that civilian politicians have vision. In my view, politics is about managing hopes and materializing a vision. It is not just about a power game. So, if civilian politicians can manage this well and urge the military to professionalize, then we will be able to see a better situation eventually.
KZM: Thank you for your contributions!