Civilianizing This Militarized Nation Could Take Another Three Decades

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 24 May 2019

Believe it or not, Myanmar’s current political transition to democracy is likely to require another 30-year cycle to complete.

The country’s powerful military seems determined not to leave politics in the near future, even within a decade. Though the former ruling regime embarked on the reform process in early 2011, the military’s leadership has never set a date for its departure from politics.

In fact, the military has set a target of sorts, but it’s so vague no one can really put a date on it. The commander-in-chief of the military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, insists that the military will leave politics after peace has been restored to the country. This isn’t foreseeable at all, in a country that has experienced civil war ever since gaining independence from the British in 1948. The current peace process initiated in 2011 has not achieved any breakthroughs to end the fighting between the military and almost 20 ethnic armed groups that seek autonomy. Of these (10 have signed ceasefire agreements with the government), at least five are still actively fighting the military in their strongholds.

Putting a date on when peace will be achieved in this country seems beyond unthinkable. No one can guarantee that peace will be attained in the next 20 or 30 years. Thus, the military’s official “deadline” for leaving politics is rather indefinite, giving no clue as to when it will actually occur.

Civilianizing a country that the generals have militarized since 1962 is an immeasurable task. It is also the elected government’s main task. That’s what the incumbent government led by the National League for Democracy—formed by de facto national leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988—has been doing since it assumed power in March 2016.

In March this year, the NLD proposed a gradual reduction in the 25 percent of parliamentary seats currently guaranteed to military-appointed lawmakers by the Constitution. It was discussed at a closed-door meeting of the parliamentary joint committee to draft amendments to the Constitution.

The proposal was to reduce the military block in Parliament from 25 percent to 15 percent in the upcoming 2020 election and by a further 5 percentage points at each general election. Optimistically speaking, if the proposal can be materialized, there will be no military appointees in Parliament in 2035. That’s just 16 years away.

Right after the proposal in March, a lawmaker representing the NLD (who spoke on condition of anonymity as participants were prohibited from disclosing details of the meeting) told The Irrawaddy that the ruling party would take a pragmatic approach, knowing it is unrealistic to ask the military to return to the barracks immediately. Everyone knows that is not possible.

We have all seen the strength of the military’s resistance to attempts to amend the charter initiated by the ruling government—and supported by many ethnic parties in Parliament—in recent months. The military simply doesn’t want to amend most of the articles in the Constitution that guarantee the military’s role in politics. Though the top leaders of the military officially insist that they are not against amending the Constitution, they don’t want to see many articles being amended.

Imagine if there weren’t such strong resistance from the powerful military. The democratization process here would be quite a lot swifter than what we are experiencing today.

Let’s get back to reality. The military leadership finds it difficult to accept even the NLD’s pragmatic proposal. It might be too soon for them. If the military doesn’t agree to it and its appointees in Parliament don’t approve it, it will turn out to be wishful thinking in the end. It totally depends on the military leadership. The NLD needs to win over the hearts of the military leaders.

I think the government and the military should act according to the Burmese saying, “You have to kiss each other, even if you’re not in love.” That is, although they don’t like each other, the government and the military have to work together to rebuild the country for the people’s sake—for democratization, development and peace.

So far, however, the NLD government has failed to convince the military leadership to fully collaborate with it to speed up the democratic reform process.

No one can predict exactly when the military will allow the Constitution to be amended and leave politics. Personally, I just want to venture a guess—a guess based on the mindset of the military leadership, their calculations regarding the current political situation, their own political thinking, and the way they have handled politics over the past six decades—that their departure from politics could take something like two to three more decades.

Earlier this month, I was invited to join a closed-door meeting with a senior diplomat to engage in a broad discussion of our country’s politics, human rights situation and other issues. What I shared there was: “After 30 years of our democracy struggle, which started in 1988, I see another 30-year cycle being needed to accomplish what we aimed for 30 years ago.” I went on to explain that the current political situation as of today is just at the halfway point in terms of what we set out to achieve in 1988—to topple the regime in order to establish a democratic government.

Thirty years since 1988, Myanmar has an elected government that must share some powers with the military—not only executive powers but also in the legislative branch, in Parliament. The goal is to have a fully civilian government that is elected through free and fair elections. For that, I said, it will take another 30 years, as we’ve been witnessing how powerfully and strongly the military has resisted collaborating with the government as well as ethnic parties to amend the Constitution.

Using the simplest definition, we can’t call our country a “democracy” as long as the military is still allotted a share of political power in the nation’s parliaments and cabinets without contesting elections, as is the case now.

I look forward to seeing a concrete civilianizing of the once militarized-Myanmar some time around 2050. Well…that would be the ideal development in a Myanmar that was once the perfect Orwellian state. It is my wish that no political situation arises to invite the military to once again disrupt the current political transition.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is the editor of the English edition of The Irrawaddy.

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