The hard fact is that Burma’s military is not going to retreat from the nation’s political sphere anytime soon. The top generals have learned hard lessons from their regional neighbors, especially Thailand and Indonesia, about how to keep their guard.
We know this simply by watching the movements of Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. The powerful Commander-in-Chief of the Burma Army has made a number of high-level visits to Bangkok over recent years, a signal of their growing closeness. Sharing a border that has long been host to a civil war between Karen rebels and the Burmese government, it is easy to see that the two governments have plenty to discuss with regard to security and regional integration.
Shortly after Thailand’s military staged a coup in May 2014, Min Aung Hlaing reportedly praised the Thai generals who, as many did in Burma, shed their uniforms in favor of civilian garb and have since kept a tight grip on the reins. The rejection of Thailand’s draft charter earlier this week indicates that the regime will maintain control until at least 2017.
Beyond the mainland, the army chief has also strengthened his relationship with Indonesia, to which Burmese generals and government officials pay regular visits. Informed sources in Naypyidaw told The Irrawaddy that Min Aung Hlaing was advised by Indonesian officials not to prematurely relinquish the grip of the army. The sources said that talks between the two armies held in February 2014 also included some guidance on how to plan military spending.
This advice, the sources said, was then shared upon his return with the National Defense Security Council, Burma’s supreme political authority. For the first time, Burma’s military budget was brought to Parliament in 2013; in years past, the sum has never been disclosed or held to public scrutiny. This year’s budget, approved at US$2.7 billion in January, remains stable though its percentage of the overall national spending has fallen sharply.
The Burma Army still wants more from its friends in Indonesia, returning as recently as early August. Photos shared by President’s Office Director Zaw Htay, also known as Hmuu Zaw, showed a conference attended by Lt-Gen Ye Aung, Indonesian officials, Thant Myint U, a presidential advisor and grandson of the late U Thant, ex-presidential advisor Ko Ko Hlaing, aid worker Debbie Aung Din and Hla Maung Shwe of the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC).
Former aides to ex-Indonesia President Jusuf Habibie and Susilo Bambang, both post-Suharto heads of state, were also in attendance at the closed-door conference hosted by the Institute for Peace and Democracy.
Also in attendance were former Lt-Gen Agus Widjojo, former Foreign Minister Hasan Wirajuda and several other Indonesian heavy hitters. Vice President and current chairman of the Golkar Party Jusuf Kalla hosted a dinner for the attendees.
Interestingly, Widjojo was one of the leading participants of the meeting. No stranger to Burma, he was sent to the country by then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono after a 2007 crackdown on a Buddhist monk-led uprising in 2007, when he met with several high-ranking generals including Snr-Gen Than Shwe. The visit was believed to be premised on attempts to encourage reform. He was also instrumental in restructuring the political and security doctrine of the armed forces in Indonesia.
The bilateral meeting last month followed days after the sudden ouster of Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, himself a former military man, from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The powerful Speaker was no longer trusted by the party to protect the interests of the Burma Army.
Burma’s leadership has studied Indonesia’s dwifungsi (dual function) doctrine and the policies of the Golkar Party. The generals even printed Burmese-language versions of the Indonesian Constitution on which they roughly based their own.
In 1996, Indonesian Ambassador to Burma Poerwanto Lenggono indicated that the Burmese regime aimed to emulate Suharto’s New Order program in three key areas: state ideology, known as Pancasila, the 1945 charter and the dual function of the military.
The Burmese government also closely followed the Indonesian election of 2014, according to an officer close to the President’s Office in Naypyidaw. While Indonesia has come a long way after 16 years of reform, the situation in Burma remains extremely fragile and full of challenges. More importantly, the military in Burma is determined to remain in power.
Informal talk among high-ranking officials in Naypyidaw suggests that Thein Sein intends to remain in charge for a few more years before handing the keys to the commander.”
Our controversial military-drafted Constitution highlights that a core objective of the Union is “enabling the Defense Services to be able to participate in the national political leadership role of the State.” The military is granted a quarter of the nation’s legislature and maintains its grip on the economy.
The generals set out from the start with a long-game plan, and in spite of the praise poured onto the reform process by the international community, there are obvious signs that hardline policy is gaining more favor.
There is no doubt that Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is likely to play a role in the post-election period after a Nov. 8 vote, though that alone doesn’t suggest that he will become the president. Informal talk among high-ranking officials in Naypyidaw suggests that Thein Sein intends to remain in charge for a few more years before handing the keys to the commander. There could also, of course, be an entirely new candidate eyed by the establishment.
More so than before, Min Aung Hlaing seems to be the only Burmese power player with 100 percent job security, and he is far more assertive than “reformist” President Thein Sein. The commander-in-chief is engaged with the press at both the local and international levels and he often travels overseas to meet with diplomats and high-level visits at military headquarters, independent of the President. This clearly indicates that his powerhouse is larger than the government and reaches beyond Thein Sein.
Moreover, Min Aung Hlaing and his people are not giving any indication that they want to reduce the military’s grip on politics and truly hand it over to civilians. They are concerned, however, by the prospect of a victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the general election. So far the only good news is that Min Aung Hlaing has vowed to respect the outcome of the polls, which is exactly what did not happen when the NLD won in a 1990 landslide.
In a recent interview with the BBC World Service, the army chief was asked about how long it would take to withdraw the armed forces from the political arena.
“It could be five years or ten years, I couldn’t say,” was his reply.
With that in mind, it is more important than ever for Burma’s opposition groups and democratic movement to prepare a long game of its own, to remain united and to keep challenging the military’s dominance.