Guest Column

Engagement with the Military?

By Bertil Lintner 23 August 2017

There is a common misperception among outsiders that it was Western engagement with Myanmar’s generals that led them to embark on a process of change after several decades of military-dominated rule. Or perhaps it was behind-the-doors-policies by some members of Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that achieved the required result?

The latter notion can easily be dismissed by looking at Asean’s two cardinal principles, non-interference and consensus, which makes the bloc acutely ineffective when it comes to solving bilateral problems such as border conflicts or issues relating to the governance of the member states. And, apart from the Philippines and Indonesia, Asean’s members are ruled by authoritarian regimes with little regard for democratic principles.

On the other hand, the notion that Western engagement did the trick reflects what amounts to a blatantly neocolonial attitude. Myanmar today is full of foreigners who suffer from what can only be described as a “White Messiah complex.” Clearly overestimating their own importance, they seem to believe that they can achieve peace in the country, and make the peoples of Myanmar love each other so they can march together towards a more democratic future. And all that is needed for the military to change is to invite them to the West and tell them they are wrong — and then they will adjust accordingly.

William C. Dickey, a former US defense attaché to Myanmar, assisted by Nay Yan Oo, a resident fellow at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, contended, correctly, in an article published by the Nikkei Asian Review on August 18, that the Myanmar military “holds the key to further reform.” Change would have to come from within the military, still the country’s most powerful institution.

But then their arguments go astray. They believe that the US-funded Expanded International Military and Education Training (E-IMET) program will help the Myanmar military understand issues such as a military justice system that is in accordance with internationally recognized human rights and the principle of civilian control of the military, and that “US engagement with the Myanmar military is necessary to help Myanmar stay on track for democratic reforms.”

First of all, it is misleading to talk about “democratic reform” in Myanmar. The current Constitution, which was drafted under military auspices and adopted after a blatantly rigged referendum in May 2008, actually provides for what could at best be described as a hybrid system. Under the new charter, the military holds 25 percent of all seats in the parliament and regional assemblies. Since all changes to the Constitution’s major clauses require 75 percent approval — followed by a national referendum — the military enjoys what amounts to veto power over any changes in the country’s power structure.

Among the clauses that cannot be changed without military approval are those stipulating that the military appoints the three most important ministries, namely those of Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs. Military control of the Defense and Border Affairs ministries excludes the elected government from military matters as well as issues relating to ethnic insurgencies in border areas. The Home Ministry controls the police — and the powerful General Administration Department, which staffs all local governments, from the state and region levels down to districts and townships. Elected ministers, or ministers appointed by the elected government, are confined to issues such as health and education, fisheries and agriculture.

When the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in the November 2015 election, enabling pro-democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to become State Counselor (the 2008 Constitution prevented her from becoming the country’s President, as her two sons are not Myanmar citizens, so this new position was created solely for her), people in Myanmar were enthusiastic and foreign observers hailed the event as an important step towards democratic rule. But less than two years later, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Myanmar’s first truly elected government since 1960 is a mere fig leaf for continued military rule — which has to take the blame for issues beyond its control, among them the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, the arrest of journalists and inertia in the local administration.

Than Soe Naing, a Myanmar political analyst, told The Irrawaddy in August this year that, “according to the very essence of the 2008 Constitution, it is the Tatmadaw [military] which will decide the fate of Myanmar’s politics.” In the same article, Col. Aung Myint Oo, head of internal and external relations at the National Defense College, was quoted as saying: “Considering the reality, it is impossible to remove the military from politics.”

Myanmar today has a political system that was designed by the military to preserve their power. It suits them perfectly and they have no intention to change it. It is important to remember that the “reforms” were not introduced because the generals suddenly had decided to become liberal democrats but to break their international isolation in order to lessen their dependence on China. The bitter reality is that it’s the Myanmar generals who have successfully — and cleverly — managed to engage the West, not the other way round.

And the problem is not that the leaders of the Myanmar military are unaware of human rights principles or what civilian control of the military means. There are plenty of papers produced by officers at Myanmar’s National Defense College on precisely those subjects. Thus, the issue is not lack of knowledge, but the fact that the Myanmar military has had its own ideology since the late 1950s, the essence of which is that the military has to play a dominant role in matters of defense as well as political and social affairs. That deep-rooted belief is not going to change only because some Western instructors tell them otherwise.

The example of US “success” in helping with “a military’s professionalization and a country’s democratic tradition” mentioned by the authors — Indonesia — is highly dubious. We are led to believe that it was officers who had attended IMET training, not a massive popular uprising against the old, dictatorial Suharto regime that came in the wake of a severe economic crisis in the late 1990s, which paved the way for a more democratic Indonesia. No such conditions exist in Myanmar today, and how do the authors explain that US-trained military officers have staged several coups in Thailand? Or that Burmese officers who prior to 1988 did attend IMET courses remained loyal to the regime they served and did not become champions for democracy?

Training courses in the West could even be counterproductive as those would only provide Myanmar’s military leaders with international recognition and legitimacy, which have been lacking for decades, and the officers would therefore be even more immune to reform. Human rights concerns would be swept under the carpet “so as not to antagonize the military” and “hamper the reform process” — and that is already happening in Myanmar today.

While severe human rights abuses are daily occurrences in the country’s war zones, most notably in Kachin and northern Shan State, gone are the days when the international community issues strongly worded statements condemning such atrocities. Change may eventually come to Myanmar, and it would have to come from within the country’s most powerful institution, the military, as well as from a much stronger civil society than today is the case. But all this will be homegrown and not because of patronizing attitudes by Westerners. The White Messiahs and other outsiders are little more than pawns in a game of which they understand very little. And the sooner they realize that their involvement is irrelevant, and even harmful to possible democratic development in Myanmar, the better.