Military Budget Cuts ‘Could Raise Tensions’

By Patrick Boehler, Reform 29 August 2012

The Burmese government must address the ever-reducing income of its armed forces to stave off tensions in the country which until recently was ruled by a military junta, claims a political expert.

The armed forces, officially referred to as the Tatmadaw, “are finding it difficult to get rations and things, so they need more resources from the budget,” Dr. Tin Maung Maung Than, a senior research fellow at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.

In the fiscal year 2012-2013, the government aims to reduce the military’s funding to 14.5 percent of total expenditures, from 23.5 percent in the previous year, notwithstanding an undisclosed defense fund. President Thein Sein has also ordered the Tatmadaw to rein in unpopular arbitrary taxation used to generate extra income in ethnic border areas, said Tin Maung Maung Than.

“The commander-in-chief [Vice-Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing] has also stopped the military business even in the central areas, except the two big companies that have been formed legally,” he added, alluding to the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and Myanmar Economic Corporation Ltd.

“There has to be some kind of quid pro quo between the civilian lawmakers, who want to cut the budget, and the military, who wants to expand its operational budget, because of these problems,” he said.

The scholar, who wrote the book State Dominance in Myanmar: The Political Economy of Industrialization, points to the possibility of cutting down the number of units within the armed forces to reduce its financial footprint.

“In the past, the retired officers would go to civil service,” said Tin Maung Maung Than. “But many of the army officers parachuted into civil servant positions are not fit for the job. Will the private sector absorb them? I don’t know.”

“The question of cutting down the army size is not a simple one,” said the academic, who has established ties to the higher echelons of the military leadership. “Once it’s grown, it’s very hard to cut down.” The Tatmadaw is generally understood to have an active force of 350,000 troops.

Tin Maung Maung Than does not see a military coup as a likely outcome to the quagmire. “I don’t think generals want to get themselves into ruling a country that has been opening up. It is not easy to rule this country by force anymore.”

However, “it is best that the democrats don’t push the military leadership to a corner,” he warned. “I would rather have that kind of directional change than one that upsets the whole balance.”

Tin Maung Maung Than sees the Tatmadaw still very present in Parliament after the next general election in 2015, even though perhaps at a lower ratio than the current 25 percent prescribed in the 2008 Constitution. There would also likely be less military officers in ministerial positions, he added.

“Ex-military officers will not be taking off their uniforms and instantly shooting into these places,” he said. “They might take part in elections as Union and Solidarity Party candidates and become politicians in their own way first.”

The expert saw Monday’s cabinet reshuffle of nine ministers by Thein Sein, in which 15 new vice-ministerial positions were also added to the inner circle, as “half-a-step forward.” The move has been largely interpreted as a push to accelerate the president’s reform agenda.

“It will be difficult to carry such a big cabinet,” he said. “If you want to make a drastic change, it means you are condemning the original group, which more or less has been put in place by the previous regime, which means you are condemning the previous regime. No one wants to do that at the top.

“A lot of people will say that it wasn’t enough, but there will always be people like that.”

Tin Maung Maung Than shared his views with The Irrawaddy after giving a lecture at Chiang Mai University titled “The Tatmadaw and Myanmar Reforms: The Elephant in the Room” which was held under the Chatham House Rule, not allowing for attribution of anything said during the lecture itself.