Guest Column

Discipline in Myanmar in the Time of Global Pandemic

By Mon Mon Myat 31 March 2020

As military representatives recently opposed charter amendment in Myanmar’s Parliament during a global pandemic, it brought to mind the words of German sociologist Max Weber, who described the nature of military discipline: “They are trained to shoot and stop shooting on command. …. individual thought or contemplation is never tolerated in a disciplined force.”

But are they trained to protect the lives of citizens? Why didn’t Weber say this in his essay?

Military lawmakers in Parliament are trained to safeguard the Constitution at the command of their higher-ups, not to follow their individual consciences. Their votes count towards a collective cause, under a “one race, one voice, one command” system. Individual thought is not tolerated in any military’s chain of command, including that of the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known.

The charter was drafted under the State Law and Order Restoration Council military government, with the aim to “establish a political structure that could create a civilian government in line with the Tatmadaw’s idea of nation building,” as Ye Htut mentions in his book about Myanmar’s political transition. The most important characteristic of military culture, “discipline”, is even included as a basic principle of Myanmar’s charter: the “flourishing of a genuine, disciplined multi-party democratic system.”

Weber observed discipline has “one commonality.” Ancient Egypt’s rulers, the pharaohs, used discipline to manage thousands of slaves while building giant pyramids. Mine owners in the late Middle Age controlled miners with such discipline. Discipline enforced among enslaved Africans on sugarcane plantations during the Americas’ colonial period and among modern factory workers is the same, according to Weber.

Note too that discipline is not democratic—and it is often anti-democratic. Nearly automatic discipline is something that every army imbues in 16 and 17-year-old boys through the rigors of basic military training. This is where young boys learn to march, exercise and kill on command, without reference to anyone except their commanding officer. This is of course the discipline that the military officers bring to Myanmar’s Parliament, where disciplined military officers habitually obey their commanders, and not the people, or their own consciences.

It is unsurprising that the recent attempt by the National League for Democracy (NLD) government to amend the charter has failed because the Constitution was designed only for the disciplined force of the army and for a government in line with the army, but not for majority rule or rule by a charismatic figure like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Two main obstacles in the 2008 Constitution—the Tatmadaw’s control of three key ministries (Defense Services, Home Affairs and Border Affairs) and its ability to hamper constitutional amendment—are the brainchild of former senior general Than Shwe, as Ye Htut observes.

With one single phrase in Article 436 (a), the charter is locked up: “it shall be amended with the prior approval of more than seventy-five percent of all the representatives.” This simply means that the charter cannot be amended without the consent of at least one military lawmaker.

In the process of disciplining the army or the modern factory, “the human being is adjusted to the functions demanded from him. The human being is stripped of his personal biological rhythm, and then is reprogrammed into the new rhythm according to the prerequisites of the task”, according to Max Weber.

If we look at how military lawmakers in Parliament responded to charter amendment, we see that all they did was keep the green book of the Constitution as the army adopted it in 2008, irrespective of democratic norms or elections. Almost all of the NLD’s proposals to amend the charter were denied, mainly by military lawmakers and their allies in the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

The military parliamentarians acted like robots, preprogrammed to safeguard the Constitution, or like the Sphinx statues that guard tyrants’ tombs in Egypt. Army discipline became “blind obedience” to military command, rather than to the sovereign people.

In his essay about discipline, Weber explained how mastery of the technical details of a legal system becomes the center of power in the modern state. That illustrates why the former senior general installed robots with “blind obedience” to safeguard the Constitution: the center of power is placed in the green book.

The UN’s Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar also observes “impunity is deeply entrenched in Myanmar’s political and legal system, effectively placing the Tatmadaw above the law.” Its report highlights that “the Constitution and other laws provide for immunities and place the Tatmadaw beyond civilian oversight.”

Modern-day conflicts and disasters, however, blur the line between civilian and soldier, especially in the time of the coronavirus pandemic today. This is what democracy really means: the capacity to overcome programmed, unthinking military discipline.

In the time of a global pandemic, it becomes clearer that the army is not the only disciplined force to protect the sovereign power, as we see the role that doctors and nurses, health workers and media professionals play on the frontlines to protect the lives of citizens. They become frontline troops to prevent against, fight and control COVID-19, because the virus does not spare anyone, regardless of their might.

“Blind obedience” of disciplined soldiers at the tomb of the tyrant won’t last long, because the tomb has no life. Although the center of power is placed in the green book, it is no use during a disaster that comes out of the blue. The power of each individual has become crucial today to stop the global pandemic—because no one wants to be the last man in this world.

Mon Mon Myat is an author and a PhD Candidate in the Peacebuilding Program at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

(Reference: Discipline and Charisma, Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society: New Translations on Politics, Bureaucracy, and Social Stratification, edited and translated by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters, 2015)

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