In Person

The Tatmadaw’s Political Might

By Nyein Nyein 29 August 2018

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Myanmar’s political system is a new structure with old connections that has been dominated by the military, said Dr. Yoshihiro Nakanishi, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, at his talk on Myanmar’s civil-military relations at Chiang Mai University last Friday.

He wrote his first book on Myanmar’s military (Tatmadaw) and its influence on the administration in 2009. It was published in Japanese in 2009 and English in 2013, and is one of the few books written about the Tatmadaw. He is currently working on his second book about Myanmar.

He discussed his experience researching under the former military government as well as the current administration, his perspectives on shifting military leadership and the National League for Democracy-led government with The Irrawaddy’s senior reporter Nyein Nyein.

What interested you in researching Myanmar’s military when you wrote your first book “Strong Soldiers, Failed Revolution?”

I entered graduate school in 2001 and read books and articles on Myanmar politics. Many were about the political conflicts between the military government and [Daw] Aung San Suu Kyi. But there have been very few books written about the military. In 2001, Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. The military was controlling the government and the social order. But there was little analysis of how the military government worked. I understood that the military was politically strong, but it was unclear how the military controlled the whole government or how it made daily organizational decisions.

Fortunately, at my graduate school in Kyoto, some professors had studied military politics in Indonesia and Thailand. They had deep knowledge on the issue and were very helpful in analyzing military politics and relationships between the military and state building. At the time, I thought that Myanmar studies needed different perspectives. Not only should we look at the country’s politics from the oversimplified view of “democratic forces versus military rulers” but also through the political dynamics of intra-state power struggles. Otherwise, it is hard to explain why the military has remained politically influential for so long.

I did the fieldwork for my thesis in 2003-05. At that time, 15 years had already passed since the military launched a coup in 1988. Someone had to explain why the military’s rule is so durable in Myanmar. Because I was young and innocent in a sense, I thought I could say something original. Obviously I was overly confident at the time. Of course, some exceptional work helped me, such as Professor Robert Taylor’s “State in Burma” and Professor Mary Callahan’s “Making Enemies.” Originally, I wanted to focus on the military government from 1962 to 2002-03, but it was impossible to conduct research on contemporary politics at that time. It was very sensitive, so I focused on Ne Win’s rule between 1962 and 1988. After finishing my Ph.D., I published the book.

Have you continued writing about the situation in Myanmar after 1988?

I have written some papers and articles on the military rule after 1988 in Japanese. It was extremely difficult to conduct fieldwork in Myanmar after the mass demonstration in 2007, so I expanded my perspective to compare Myanmar with other countries. Luckily, I had opportunities to visit countries like Pakistan and Indonesia.

Then, Myanmar’s reform started, which I did not expect at all. My prediction was that we should not expect too much from the transition and that it would just lead to a different version of military rule. I wrote that in my book. Years later, I learned I was wrong.

Now, I am writing a book about the political, economic and diplomatic transition in Myanmar. One of my motivations for writing the manuscript is to understand why I was wrong. During my research, I found that many people involved in the reform process expected the same. The drastic change was the result of both intentional and unintentional dynamics between different actors. I want to examine this.

How different is it doing research now as opposed to before?

Totally different! I was in Yangon for a year until this April as a visiting professor at the University of Yangon. When I was a Ph.D. student, I was not allowed to enter the university campus without permission. But now, many foreign scholars can visit the university to meet local scholars and students. I taught undergraduate students a political science course for a semester. I did not have any instructions or limitations about what I could talk about in the class. I could freely design the course and discuss any topic with bright, young students. I know there is still some difference in academic autonomy between Myanmar and developed countries like Japan but it is clear that the freedom on campus has improved markedly. I cannot imagine this current university atmosphere existing prior to 2011.

You have done research on the military’s social media usage, but have you talked to current military commanders?

I analyzed the Facebook posts of Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to get a feel for his public relations strategy or how he built the image of the Tatmadaw. Most of the former commander-in-chiefs liked to keep a low profile, even when they ruled the country. I asked a Burmese audience at Chiang Mai University, “Have you heard Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s voice on TV on the radio or quoted in other media?”Nobody raised their hand.

Since Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s media exposure is exceptional in the country’s history, my Burmese colleague and I read all of his Facebook posts between 2013-17 and categorized them according to topic. Because Facebook now banned him, this research might be rare.

Some retired officers kindly accepted my interview offer. Because of the change in government in 2016, people who were involved in the reform process after 2011 could speak with me. And there are scholars, analysts and research organizations that work on Myanmar security issues and civil-military relations. There are also memoirs of retired military officers. Discussions with them and study of this material helped me examine the current political role of the Tatmadaw.

As you know, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been talking a lot about amendment of the military-drafted Constitution, which will not be possible without cooperation from the military. Is there any way to persuade them to cooperate?

It is very difficult, of course. Even under U Thein Sein’s administration, the proposals for constitutional amendment were refused by the Tatmadaw. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi seems cautious in her relationship with them. This does not surprise me because the Tatmadaw is highly autonomous. She has to manage these delicate relations to run the government. It must be tough trying to amend the Constitution to create a more democratic political system at this time.

But I think there is room for both sides to agree of some technicalities regarding the Constitution. It has more than 450 articles, many of them having nothing to do with democratization. One possibility is to discuss amending these articles to adjust the Constitution to the environment in which the state operates.

In Japan, constitutional amendment is also always controversial. One of the reasons is that many are still afraid of unpredictable consequences. But discussion of it is not taboo anymore. Myanmar people can broaden the focus of constitutional amendment to create shared a platform to engage the public in constitutional discussions from various perspectives.

As you wrote, the military played a key role in the administration from the 1960s to the 2000s. What is your assessment of the military’s current political role in the country?

The military is still politically powerful, as everyone knows. However, its role in daily administration declined after the transition in 2011. After the NLD came to power, interesting changes began happening at the local level even though the local administrations, especially at the township level, are basically under the control of the General Administration Department (GAD) of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The home affairs minister is an active military general, so he is unlike other ministers in terms of the military’s influence. But some NLD members of Parliament are trying to change local administrations by encouraging adjustment in the relations between the public and the GAD. If Parliament can encourage dialogue between these two sides, it could help improve the government’s capacity and undermine historical distrust in the government. This could gradually and fundamentally change the nature of politics in Myanmar.

Human rights groups globally blamed Myanmar Army Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing as the person behind military operations in northern Rakhine State. Bur the West, including the US, imposed sanctions on other senior commanders. To what extent are these sanctions effective?

The current sanctions will not affect the economy or people’s lives in Myanmar. There is the possibility that Western countries and international organizations will put more pressure on Myanmar’s government and military soon. The current sanctions are the beginning of harsher ones.

If strong evidence is found of human rights violations committed by Tatmadaw troops in Rakhine State, and it is thought that the government does not have the intention of capacity to investigate the issue, Myanmar will face diplomatic trouble internationally. Japan, China and ASEAN countries are adopting more constructive approach on the issue, but I am not sure that they do not expect an escalation of trouble in Rakhine and in international relations.

You said the NLD government had “policy miss-prioritization,” when prioritizing peace over the economy. Could you elaborate on this?

I think they should have prioritized both. When I was invited to a small debate at a local NLD office last year, the party members were discussing whether to prioritize peace or economic development. I think the government could have done both. The approach is different.

For making a nationwide ceasefire agreement, you need complex coordination among very different stakeholders including ministries, the Tatmadaw, ethnic armed organizations and so on. I think coordination capacity is one of the government’s weakest points regarding policy. Relatively speaking, policy coordination for economic reform would have been easier than for a ceasefire agreement.

And Myanmar’s advantage is that the more economically developed central Burma is safer while there are violent conflicts in other states. I don’t think we should accept economic disparity in regions and state, but economic development in the central area could affect other regions in a positive way through job creation and increasing government revenue. People in the government are now aware of this. I hope they will create an efficient division of labor within the government to tackle both issues.

The majority of the general public in Myanmar is very generous to the NLD and its rule. It is, of course, because of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s charisma as a political leader. But also people know that the NLD had to spend most of its resources and energy for surviving under the suppressive political situation for two decades.

As many observers say, they are less experienced in running the government. It is true, but we need to remember that few chances have been provided for them to gain experience in politics and administration. With popular support and strong unity inside the party, the current government has the potential to speed up the momentum of the reforms. Post-transitional countries usually do not expect such a consolidated and stable ruling force, even though it is based on personal rather than institutional leadership. It is time for them to strategically tackle the difficult challenges without fearing confrontation.