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INTERVIEW

Zoltan Barany: ‘People Will Always Have to Be Conscious of the Military’

The esteemed University of Texas military scholar discusses the future of military involvement in Burma’s political affairs.


University of Texas Professor Zoltan Barany is a leading scholar on military matters. His recent work has investigated how militaries negotiate their withdrawal from positions of power and are made accountable to civilian governments in the wake of democratic transitions. Earlier this year, he wrote on what lessons Burma could draw from other countries in the region that had lived through long periods of military rule, concluding with a bleak assessment of the challenges ahead for democratic reformers. 

Ahead of November’s landmark general election, Barany has returned to Burma to meet with military personnel and political leaders. He spoke to The Irrawaddy this week in a conversation that explored the future of military involvement in political affairs, the possibility of transitional justice for the victims of human rights crimes, and the government’s attempts to negotiate a nationwide ceasefire agreement with the country’s myriad armed groups.

You wrote in April that democracy activists in Burma could perhaps take heart from the rift that had emerged in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP] between President Thein Sein and Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann. Do you consider the sidelining of Shwe Mann in August to be a setback?

I think it’s a potential setback because of the way it happened. The style was reminiscent of the worst days of the junta. I think there was potentially some calculation on the part of the National League for Democracy [NLD] that he might be a potential candidate who could be acceptable to the military but also to the NLD—he was more moderate and they could work on some things, there was some cooperation between the two parties.

Do you believe that there is a section of the military’s leadership that would like to see a faster pace to political and economic reforms?

I’ve been fortunate to speak to some recently retired military people on my trip, and I was a little disappointed to find that, especially on the highest level, dissent is not appreciated. My understanding is that anyone who is propounding views that are too far from the views of the president, the commander-in-chief and so on, will not last very long. I think that if this happened to Shwe Mann—whose authenticity as a reformer and a moderate has of course been questioned—I imagine it will happen to others who offer more reformist views than what is acceptable. At this point, I am skeptical.

I don’t think the military is a monolithic body. There are parts of the military that really do understand—perhaps they are not looking at it in these terms—but the magnitude of the tragedy that they visited upon this country, which in 1962 was very ahead of Korea and Thailand in terms of economic development. I think the military—part of the military, at least—is willing to entertain the idea of a transition to civilian power, but very slowly, very incrementally, and making sure that in the process they never lose control, that the way it happens is in the way they want it to happen and there’s not going to be some sort of a rally or big surprise to them like Tiananmen Square.

I think that the longevity is important because of the extraordinary penetration it allowed the military into everything—society, culture, the economy, corruption … Even now, more than 25 years later, people like the commander-in-chief say with utter conviction that people are not mature enough for a democracy, and think nonsense like that. I think that, like in many other dictatorships, they live such isolated lives that they don’t quite understand how the rest of the society works. You go to Naypyidaw, I think that’s a good illustration of this kind of separateness from the rest of the country.

You’ve also written that South Korea’s move from military rule was helped by the transitional presidency of Roh Tae-woo, a former general who had earlier helped to suppress a pro-democracy uprising in 1980. You credit him with facilitating the military’s disengagement from politics and the introduction of parliamentary oversight of defense spending. Do you think that these sorts of transitional figures, with a pedigree in both military and politics, are important in countries like Burma?

Very important. From what I understand, Aung San Suu Kyi has understood that as well, and tried to establish these personal relationships with Thein Sein and so on. What you have here is, I think, a situation that is far less promising than the Korean situation, where the military never had the kind of role that it had in Burma.

It’s not very wise to look for some Jeffersonian democrat; that’s not going to happen. Whoever you can ally yourself with is going to be very questionable—whose authenticity might be called into question, like Shwe Mann. But I think he at least appeared to be a promising start for this kind of a relationship. Maybe it shows that he was very particularly placed, that it went too far—that even that was too much of an accelerated process for the military.

When you’re in this authoritarian, dictatorial environment, the person and the personality always makes a difference. In a democracy, it really doesn’t matter who the prime minister or the president is in the big picture; nothing really radical is going to change. It makes a huge difference who the leader is of an authoritarian state that is, hopefully, moving away from authoritarianism.

Why do you believe Indonesia is an instructive example for democracy activists in Burma?

Indonesia is a case where the military is out of power. In the 2014 election—which admittedly were pretty contentious and the main candidate who lost was a former general—you had a united opposition. Once the opposition was united, they were able to extract concessions from the military. But I think you also needed a military that was willing to entertain being slowly moved out of power. So initially, of course, the generals played a huge role in that transition, but by now there is basically no military intervention in Indonesian domestic politics.

Now, there have been compromises. In a democracy, the generals are not going to be involved in defense and foreign policymaking, whereas in Indonesia that is still happening. In a democracy, you’re not going to have military control of enterprises, commercial activity and so on. But these are reasonable given the context. You always have to look at the context and the reality on the ground.

Given that context, I think that these seem to be relatively reasonable compromises. Especially in a situation where they have a pitiful military budget, where the state is not able to provide the funds that they need for operational expenses; they rely on these commercial activities.

In Burma, for the foreseeable future, people will always have to be very conscious of the military. There will have to be a formal or informal liaison system so that [politicians] understand the military’s intentions and have very close relations so they know what the military thinks. I really think the key is to keep moving in the right direction. In a place like this, where the leverage of the military is so immense, you have to make sure that you don’t antagonize them unnecessarily. One doesn’t like them, but you have to keep the big prize in front of you, and that’s to have a functioning democracy. It’s not going to be perfect, but obviously no democracy is perfect.

Several people I talked to in the military and political leadership said that they thought there would be assigned [parliamentary] seats for the military for two more electoral cycles. For me, the big thing is to be very gradual and incremental, while of course using opportunities that come up.

Do you believe there is any hope for some measure of transitional justice as the military withdraws from the political scene?

No. I mean I understand, it’s a very good question, but no. You can only do that when the military gets marginal.

I think of this question with the example of Augusto Pinochet and Chile. It’s similar to the extent that when the military went out of power, they had a tremendous amount of leverage. There were public opinion polls that showed that 40 percent of the population regarded Pinochet well. When he went out of power, you couldn’t even dream about that. And yet here we are, 20-something years later, every single one of those generals, and even colonels and even majors, who committed something that could be justifiably called human rights abuses are in jail, and have been held accountable.

I think it’s a very important question that should never be forgotten, but I think that for now, for the sake of moving forward, it’s a non-starter.

Regardless of the practicality, many democracy and rights activists in Burma have been to jail. There has been a seemingly endless and well-documented pattern of human rights abuses over the last 25 years. The perpetrators remain not just in the senior ranks of the military, but also in ministries and the Parliament. Do you believe that people who have suffered under military rule would accept having to postpone or abandon their search for justice?

Yes, I do. It’s happened in many other places, and it goes back to something that we all learn as children: that life is not fair. It’s horribly unfair, and it’s incredibly unfair to the people of this country. But again, what is the alternative? Like you said, it’s extremely extensive. It’s not like you can have an isolated group of 10 people who were members of some operation and they did horrible things. I mean, everybody did horrible things, to thousands and thousands of people. My translator, at a talk that I gave here, told me he had been in jail for 22 years, and in circumstances that are, in my understanding, as bad as it gets.

In countries like Chile and a lot of other places, the people who suffered were venerated in society, openly and publicly. I think it’s very important to hold them up as the heroes of the previous period and, to the extent possible, make sure they are able to lead decent lives, make sure they are not destitute, to have a public campaign and teach about them in schools, how much they suffered.

The military will see that and it will irk them, but that’s alright. Having said that, in the foreseeable future, having them put on trial just seems unimaginable and unimaginably unwise.

There is the example of the Rettig Commission in Chile, which was basically a truth and reconciliation commission. Everyone understood at the time it could not put military officers on trial, but it was a very important symbolic gesture and it suggested to people that [the Pinochet era] would not be forgotten. Investigations started about who disappeared and how, and the commission was working while the military was still extremely powerful but no longer in government. To the extent that it’s possible to pull off, that would be a really good thing here.

The government has once again raised the prospect of a nationwide ceasefire agreement, suggesting that an accord could be signed in October. From time to time, ethnic armed groups have raised the proposition of keeping separate armies and autonomy over border control, and the issue is likely to come up again during post-ceasefire peace negotiations. Do you believe keeping separate forces is workable?

I think it’s a really bad idea. I don’t think it’s workable, and if I were the military commander-in-chief, I would oppose it tooth and nail. The good idea would be to have a federal army, but in a sovereign state, you can’t have several armies. No state would stand for that, and no democracy would stand for that. What is reasonable is to incorporate segments of the ethnic army into the Burma Army. Of course, I think the Burma Army is way too large already—500,000 soldiers, or some ridiculous number—so it has to be reduced, and some of these people from the various ethnic armies, after some long negotiations, could be integrated into a federal army. But for these ethnic armies to have jurisdiction in any way, I just don’t think that’s a good idea on any level.

One of the things that helped precipitate Burma’s civil wars after independence was the removal of ethnic minorities from the senior ranks of the military. What reforms would the military need to undertake to allow ethnic minorities to assume leadership positions?

This has been done in many post-civil war contexts—although having said that, none as complicated as in the Burmese case. For instance, if you think of Bosnia, there are only three ethnic groups, whereas there are many more players here. But they have rotating leadership, rotating commands, initially they would have single ethnicity battalions but then slowly that would change. [Another example is] India, after colonialism.

It is a very complex issue but I think it is doable, but on both sides you would have to have some sort of willingness to work through something that will probably take years and years. I think the most important thing is that the process is moving along. But it is something that must be addressed, because there will not be stability unless these things are done.