The durability of the Burmese military establishment can be explained in reference to several key bulwarks. In military parlance, these might be referred to as ‘defensive lines,’ employed to ensure the army’s preeminent position.
The first key attribute of power is its monopoly of force, selectively applied both in actuality and through intimation. But even this asset has its political limitations, and other strategies are needed to safeguard the military’s role.
Enter the 2008 Constitution which for the army stands like the proverbial fortress on the hill. The military believes that as long as the charter remains intact, it has no reason to feel nervous. It can feel secure behind the fortress walls and watch over political machinations in the valley below.
Outside this fortress, yet more defensive lines are deployed to defend the system. One of these is represented by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), formed to contest Burma’s last general election in 2010.
However, after the party’s poor performance in 2012 by-elections, it became obvious to the military-dominated establishment that additional strategies were needed.
To this end, the government has allowed, if not fostered, the rise of Buddhist nationalist group, Ma Ba Tha, to help defend its position.
The group, known in English as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, has increasingly waded into the political arena, with prominent monks at recent rallies denouncing Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Proxy political parties are another way the USDP—and by extension the military—can shore up its position. These parties may win some parliamentary seats in the coming Nov. 8 election and then be called on to support the military-backed party in the legislature, including, most significantly, the selection of the president.
Just how close some of the over 90 contesting political parties are to the USDP is difficult to assess.
One of the largest parties in terms of candidate submissions, the newly formed National Development Party, is led by former presidential advisor Nay Zin Latt. The Myanmar Farmers Development Party is another large entity rumored to be a USDP proxy.
There are also several coopted ethnic parties that could prove crucial to the ruling party’s fortunes post-November.
Pro-regime militias are yet another government bulwark, permitted to pursue their varied business interests, both legal and illegal, in return for loyalty to Naypyidaw.
Some of these armed groups could play an obstructionist type role ahead of the election, as exemplified by the recent warning issued by Zakhung Ting Ying, the leader of the New Democratic Army–Kachin, against NLD candidates campaigning in his constituency.
A final block in this defensive architecture is embodied by the military’s penetration of state institutions and the economy. Wherever you look—the home affairs ministry, the police, the general administration, the judiciary, the electoral commission, the human rights commission—ex-military men have assumed high-ranking roles.
A similar situation is evident in the economy, with military-backed conglomerates and cronies with deep links to army officials. Once it became obvious that the ruling party might lose the coming election, the military has made additional efforts to inject more ex-officers into state institutions and strengthen its position in the bureaucracy.
With these well-planned defensive lines in place—the constitution, proxy political parties, militias and influence in state institutions and the economy—the military can feel confident in its position.
There are several important conclusions to deduce from this resilient architecture.
Firstly, the military and the USDP are not the same, but they share a symbiosis of interests. The USDP will protect the vested interests of the military, and the military is ready to endorse USDP-led government.
But the military institution is not overwhelmingly dependent on the ruling party—as evident in the various other strategies of control explained above. Therefore, even if the USDP does not win the election, the military does not need to stage a coup.
Many political and economic elites have also been coopted; given a small stake in the system and therefore an interest in defending the status quo.
But in this system, individual powerbrokers are not important. If necessary, they can be quickly replaced, as was former ruling party leader and ex-general Shwe Mann.
The guardians of this system have shown a remarkable capacity for advanced planning, strategy and patience. They have also shown flexibility; an ability to change course if one or another strategies are failing.
Burma’s opposition parties themselves need to develop better long-term strategies and stamp their own vision on an improved system of governance and society. Governance through force and cooption cannot last forever.
Igor Blazevic is a researcher in the Center for Democracy and Culture.