30 Years on, the Mission of Regime Change Remains a Work in Progress

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 16 August 2018

When the people of Myanmar defied the socialist military regime’s automatic rifles and took to the streets in 1988 to demand democracy, what they were really saying was: “We want regime change.”

Thirty years on, that regime (whether in the form of General Ne Win’s authoritarian administration or the military governments that succeeded it) no longer exists in a technical sense. But in another sense it never really went away. Rather, it conducted a kind of tactical retreat, successfully executing an exit strategy that has allowed its institutions to maintain considerable power.

That’s not to say that this result doesn’t represent at least a partial success for the ongoing pro-democracy movement, which is now three decades old.

On Aug. 8 this year we saw some of Myanmar’s major cities and towns commemorate the 30th anniversary of the nationwide “8888” pro-democracy uprising. As the remembrances wind down, the key question for many people, particularly seasoned political activists, is: “Did the popular uprising achieve the people’s aims?”

The shortening of the lifespan of the military government doesn’t mean that the ’88 uprising achieved its fundamental aim: to persuade the nation’s powerful military to return, once and for all, to the barracks and withdraw fully and permanently from the political arena.

As it unfolded, what did we hope would come out of the uprising in 1988? Most of us imagined that a democratic government would replace the socialist authoritarian regime controlled by Gen. Ne Win; that the military would return to its barracks and withdraw from the political arena; that an elected civilian government would transform the battered country into a prosperous democracy; that all ethnic people would enjoy autonomy and equality and that the civil wars in their states would end; that the country would catch up with Asia’s tigers and enter a new golden economic era; and that Myanmar would be a country that, having recovered its political integrity and unique atmosphere, would be free to try and achieve its aspirations.

Thirty years later, many — if not most — of those dreams still seem farfetched. While we do have an elected civilian government, it does not have a totally free hand. Myanmar today is in a state of confusion.

What we have in Myanmar today is a political forced marriage between an elected civilian government and the powerful military. This political “wedding” was arranged in accordance with the 2008 Constitution, which was drafted by the previous military regime and reflects its desire to maintain a significant role in the political arena, granting it three key Cabinet posts, 25 percent of the seats in Parliament (held by unelected military-appointed lawmakers) and — as we all know — direct control of the local administrations around the country via the General Administration Department.

Unsurprisingly, this political marriage has not been a happy one, and the couple’s extended family — the people of Myanmar — do not approve of it. (Though all acknowledge that the current political situation is an improvement over the previous military regime.) The elected ruling National League for Democracy-led government, led by the country’s de facto leader, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and its supporters have been trying to amend the undemocratic Constitution since it took power in March 2016. The aim is to remove or reduce the role of the military in the political arena in order to achieve the democratic federal union that ethnic people and their political groups have been asking for.

However, the military leadership resists this effort; in fact it sees one of its main duties as safeguarding the constitutional order. The result is a political stalemate. It is Myanmar’s fundamental political problem and appears likely to last for the foreseeable future.

A key question arising from the election of the NLD-led government, which took office in 2016, was: “Will the new civilian government have control over the military?” The answer has turned out to be “No.” The military has retained a political power that goes beyond autonomy in purely military matters. And it is the only key institution in the land with the constitutional power to approve or veto amendments to the Constitution.

This year, the undemocratic Constitution celebrated its 10th anniversary, having survived objections from many quarters since its approval in a referendum organized by the former regime. Today’s political situation and the country’s direction is shaped by this Constitution and the political system it decrees.

The ongoing constitutional crisis poses a gigantic problem for the incumbent government, as it will for any future administration.

For that reason, the approaches and strategies adopted by the country’s incumbent political leadership is crucial. If they are politically weak and not smart enough to find a solution, the current democratic transition is likely to fail. We’ve seen many politically immature performances by some high-ranking officials of the NLD government. Many people, including voters in their constituencies, are disappointed with such performances. Ethnic people are also disappointed at the NLD’s treatment of them and their parties. And they see a government-led peace process in deadlock. Many businesspeople complain that the economic situation is not good.

The NLD government is running out of time, with only two years of its tenure left. It has to reform itself to satisfy the public to some extent amid both expected and unexpected challenges. Some expectations, such as constitutional amendment, will take time to fulfill, as long as the military resists. But the government should try to bring about concrete changes in people’s daily lives by, for example, improving the economy.

Meanwhile, as the 2020 election approaches, we have yet to see any strong or mature political forces emerge from the ’88 generation who could potentially sweep a majority of the vote, though it’s still too early to predict.

On the other hand, might we expect any individual or group from the former military regime, or from the formerly ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party that it formed — or indeed from the current top military leadership — to step up as reform-minded and capable leaders?

It appears not, unsurprisingly. No one from those institutions appears to hold any promise at all when it comes to achieving the country’s ultimate goal of amending the undemocratic Constitution and building a democratic federal union.

In the past, some expected that a new generation of more moderate military leaders would emerge who would be willing to accept more democratic norms. Yes, there might be some moderate officials in the military, but they have never shown a willingness to demonstrate political views that differ from their superiors. Armed forces commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, as the top military leader, is still the sole decision maker when it comes to whether the institution will withdraw from politics.

One thing is certain: The country must not return to military rule, or to rule by the associated political groups that share its political stance. Former General U Thein Sein’s government may have opened the country up to a degree, but ultimately none of these groups is fully committed to achieving the Myanmar people’s real aspirations. Given their conservative mindset and ideology, they do not seek to push for a democratic federal union with equality, autonomy and civil rights.

Ultimately, the 8888 movement will persevere in its efforts, using the various means at its disposal, short of disrupting the current democratic transition, to achieve its aims. But as it implements its policies and executes its strategies, it will definitely need more capable people, decisive leaders and better strategies for dealing with the military.

Like it or not, the experiences of the past 30 years have taught us that rebuilding a nation and changing a political system is a long process requiring sacrifice and unwavering commitment.

The goal of the country’s current democratic transition is still to gradually phase out the power of the military in politics.