In Person

Smooth Civil-Military Relations Should Be The Goal

By The Irrawaddy 25 July 2017

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein said at an event at Yangon’s Sedona Hotel on July 9 that there were no civil-military relations in the democratic era and that the military’s commander-in-chief was the same as the level of director-general according to [state] protocol. The military then released two statements asking the government to take action against U Phyo Min Thein. One of the statements said that U Phyo Min Thein’s reckless and confrontational comments could damage national reconciliation; and that he could cause difficulties for the long-term process that the government, people, and military needed to continually work and improve on. The military used to hold complete power prior to having an elected government. What is your assessment of civil-military relations in our country?

The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Zwa Moe (left) and Ko Ye of the Tagaung Institute of Politics (right) during the discussion on civil-military relations.

Ko Ye: That was a personal remark. But as he is Yangon’s chief minister, people questioned if his words represented the government. NLD [National League for Democracy] spokesperson U Nyan Win said that these remarks were nothing serious. In a political transition – especially from a military dictatorship like in our country – the military still maintains considerable power. What is worse is that that power is guaranteed by the Constitution. Under such circumstances, there is a testing of strength between the two sides in civil-military relations. It happens not only in our country, but also in other countries that undergo transition. For example, in Brazil, the military still maintains power but there is also an elected civilian government called the democradura. While the government is still a hybrid regime, such a remark by a civilian minister can rock civil-military relations.

KZM: Even before the election, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi exercised extra caution in talking about the military. Mostly, she said that her father founded the Tatmadaw [Myanmar Army] and she wanted it to become a respected and reliable army of the people. Lately, she has avoided saying things that could cause controversy. As you have said, it is important to have smooth relations between the two sides. The government can’t take aggressive actions and risk upsetting the military. What actions do you think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will take?

KY: If there is an elected government along with another institution that maintains a strong grip on power, there will be tension now and in the future. But I think that the civilian government will be able to handle this based on its strength, ambition and strategy.

KZM: Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein said that the military commander-in-chief was the same as the level of director-general, but according to state protocol, the commander-in-chief is ranked eighth in the line of succession. What he claimed was wrong. Did he say this because he didn’t understand or was he being confrontational?

YN: U Phyo Min Thein said that there are no civil-military relations in democracies. As far as I’m concerned, civil-military relations exist in every country. In countries like the US, scholars still have to study civil-military relations – to what extent the civilian government can control the army, and to what extent the army resists the control of the civilian government. Scholars also point out that the military, although it is an institution of civil servants, is different from other civil servant institutions by nature. You can’t describe military leaders according to state protocol. What’s more, civil-military relations are more sensitive in countries like ours. Politicians should consider this comprehensively and move carefully for a smooth transition.

KZM: Whether we like it or not, the Tatmadaw has considerable power. There is an exclusive chapter for it under the title of Defense Services in the [military-drafted] 2008 Constitution. Other constitutions might not have such a chapter. It is not strange, as the military held the power in the past. Military leaders view the military as being founded by patriots during the struggle for independence. They see the institution as patriotic and take pride in it. Politicians need to handle this shrewdly.

KY:  The Tatmadaw was born along with the struggle for independence. Tatmadaw leaders refer to it as a patriotic institution formed by hardcore politicians. But then, our country entered into civil war. Countries that face civil war tend to focus on securitization. Security became the country’s top priority.

Before independence, there was a slogan that said that independence was first, democracy was second and socialism was third. In 1958, the caretaker government designed state ideologies, and the concept changed then. Stability and peace became the top priority, followed by democracy and a socialist economy. Stability and security rose to the forefront. The defense budget also increased.

In 1962, the military staged a coup and the situation then changed from securitization to militarization. As militarization increased, as in the case of Indonesia, the military adopted the concept that it must also assume the responsibility for politics and social economics, as well as defense. Later, there was indoctrination in the political ideology that the Tatmadaw would play the leading role in politics. In the early days of the coup, U Ne Win always said that the Tatmadaw would not hold power for long. But that changed, and the provision that the Tatmadaw would play a leading role was added to the Constitution.

KZM: Gen Ne Win seized power with the coup in 1962, and then went to a civilian administration according to the 1974 Constitution. But the problem was that the civilian administration was formed with former generals and the ideology didn’t change. It seemed that only the uniforms changed. The 2011 [quasi-civilian] government was the same. Ex-general U Thein Sein took power of the civil administration and his government was also full of former generals.

KY: The Tatmadaw has maintained a strong political ideology during successive periods that the country is under its guardianship. This is a major challenge to full civilianization. I believe that the most important aspect of civil-military relations is that the civilian [government] must be able to control the military. How? ‘Democratically,’ according to a scholar. And civilian politicians must accept that democratic way. Smooth civil-military relations should be their goal. But both civilian politicians and the Tatmadaw need to think about how to realize that vision. Only then, will a full democracy be created.

KZM: As you have said, the country’s politics are in a delicate state, and there is every possibility of a U-turn or setbacks. No doubt, the elected politicians need to be judicious.  The political liberation process started in 2011, and it is fair to say that its success depends greatly on military leadership’s willingness to allow democratic transformation. What is your assessment of the current military leaders?

KY: Studying the civil-military relations of other countries, I found that not only does the civilian [government] push for change; the military – once a democratic transition is underway – also tries to introduce changes that match the transition. For example, in Indonesia, after the fall of Suharto in 1998, the Indonesian army started to think about how to change. In a democratic transition, both sides have to think about how to introduce democratic changes without causing tension. Rather than the civilian [government] forcibly pushing it, the military needs to make changes incrementally and voluntarily.

Also, the current military leaders are working to establish a standard army and they are expanding their international ties. In April, [army chief] Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing visited Austria and Germany; last month, Russia; and recently, India. They are trying to improve the military’s image. But the civil war is still ongoing. And the military has deep-seated distrust in civilian politicians. They have concerns about their ability to protect state stability and security. We can see the military trying to enhance its image while deepening trust with the civilian government at the same time.

KZM: So, speaking of the military enhancing its image, the Tatmadaw founded by Gen Aung San had a good reputation prior to the country’s independence. But the military has gotten a bad name at times, and it shouldn’t forget this if it wants to improve its image. Military leaders know this. The military staged a coup in 1962, which was followed by a military administration. Then there were protests in 1988, followed by a crackdown on protestors and another military administration. There was increased militarization over the years, and the country and the world said that there had been considerable human rights violations committed by the military. If military leaders want to win the respect of the people, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said, it seems they have to take constructive actions. Do you think that could work?

KY: While the military wants to enhance its image and restore its dignity, it is not willing to make radical reforms – only gradual ones. This is contradictory. The idea of limited reforms and the idea of improving its image are in conflict. We need to think about to what extent the military leaders are willing to change. On the other hand, civilian politicians need to raise their political capital and political capacity to restore democratic civil-military relations. The other side [the military] wants to enhance its image, but it also has concerns about reforms, so it has only made limited reforms. The government has political capacity given to it by the election. But, partly because of its short time in office to date, it has not shown a strong performance yet.

KZM: I see people in our country locked in a situation that they find difficult to break out of, which is that the military is a strong institution guaranteed by the Constitution. The Constitution granted it a full political role at the national level. Then, an elected government emerged. People fully support the civil administration, but the reality is that the military still holds the power. And the government wants the military to go back to the barracks. According to famous Chinese philosopher and military general Sun Tzu, the ultimate destination of civil-military relations is civilian control of the military. The civilian government will have complete control of the country, and the military is only meant for State defense. But in the case of our country, it seems we have yet a long way to go to reach this stage.

KY: Yes, I agree. The military said at the Union Peace Conference under U Thein Sein’s government that it would try to achieve peace within three to five years. It also signaled that it would quit politics after permanent peace was achieved. Now I’ve noticed that its message has changed a bit. It is difficult for the government to build peace within one term; peace is a long process. It will take more than three or five years. We will have to wait a while for political institutions to have complete control of the military in civil-military relations.

KZM: We are talking about control, which military leaders won’t like or accept. As far as I’m concerned, the most important thing is smooth relations and mutual understanding between the two sides. Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein’s remarks caused controversy. Both sides need to exercise restraint in the interest of the people. Thank you, Ko Ye!