Guest Column

Military to Military Relations: An Option but Not the Solution

By Ko Ye 20 September 2016

RANGOON — During State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s first visit to the United States after the National League of Democracy won a historic victory in the 2015 elections, international experts and scholars called on US policymakers to reestablish cooperation between the US military and the Burma Army.

They based their recommendation for military to military ties on two reasons: Firstly, guidance from the US military could professionalize the Burma Army and lead it to withdraw from politics. Secondly, engagement with the US and other democratic allies could weaken China’s influence on the military.

Reform is still under way in Burma. Although the civilian government may now be in charge, the military retains significant power. The civilian government cannot change the inherently undemocratic 2008 constitution without the military’s consent.

At both Union and regional levels, at least 25 percent of the seats in Parliament are reserved for Burma Army representatives. The military still controls three ministries: defense, home affairs and border affairs. The General Administration Department, which replaced Burma’s civil service during military rule, is still under the authority of the military and controls decision-making down to the smallest administrative unit in all corners of the country.

Violent clashes between military and ethnic armed groups continue in periphery areas of Burma and uncertainty looms large over Burma’s peace process, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference, which took place at the end of last month.

Civil-military relations and ethnic-military relations are key issues in Burma’s transitional politics. For Burma to achieve full democracy, military relations will need to be restructured and reformed according to democratic principles.

There are three interrelated factors standing in the way of military reform: indoctrination, institutional challenges and political challenges.


An authoritarian military regime as the guardians of the Burmese people has been indoctrinated through internal threats from ethnic armed groups and historic external aggression, for example from the Kuomintang. The military became politicized during the creation of the Burma Socialist Programme Party in the socialist era and later with the State Law and Order Restoration Council and State Peace and Development Council. Military institutions and academies are key tools of indoctrination.

Institutional Challenges

Despite some apparent internal reform guided by commander-in-chief Snr-­Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s ‘standard army’ concept, the military is widely regarded as unprofessional and has been criticized for disrespecting civilian control, loose codes of conduct, and human rights abuses. Arbitrary arrests and human rights abuses in ethnic areas in particular are a major concern. The recently publicized sentencing of seven Burma Army soldiers found guilty of murdering civilians was a hugely positive, but highly unusual, move.

Political Problems

Snr-­Gen Min Aung Hlaing has reiterated in his speeches that the Burma Army should retain its role in politics. The 2008 constitution guarantees the military’s powerful role in government. The military remains politically active through the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), formed by the previous military junta. In the run-up to the 2015 election, senior military officers retired from active service to join the party. It was recently reported that the USDP reserves spaces for retired military officers.

To resolve these problems and reform the military there needs to be a comprehensive strategy and cooperation from political society, civil society and the international community. The international community—particularly democratic countries—is crucial to professionalizing a military much burdened by the legacy of dictatorship.

Military to military engagement is one of the tools available to make the once-isolated Burma Army understand the role, rights and responsibilities of the military in a democratic society. It should be borne in mind, however, that this tool is just an option, not the solution, as real change requires a comprehensive strategy as mentioned above.

In the past, the military had good relations with its US counterpart and received a good deal of assistance under General Ne Win’s rule. That regime ended in a brutal crackdown on innocent people in the 1988 uprising, leading to a cruel military regime. The coups and coup attempts in Thailand, Egypt and Turkey have also highlighted repeated failures of the United States’ military to military engagement. The recurring theme here is a lack of robust civilian oversight.

The main objective for restructuring the civil-military relations in transitional politics is to set up civilian oversight of the military. Thus, whenever experts promote the idea of reestablishment of military to military relations, they need to take account of not only the military dimension but also the civilian one.

This means supporting civilian supremacy and strengthening the capacity of political and civil society. This is indispensable, especially in transitional countries like Burma where the newly emerging political society and long-time suppressed civil society lack the capacity to balance the strong institution of the military, let alone set up an oversight mechanism.

Therefore, proposals to renew military to military relations between the US and Burma’s military must go through the elected civilian government. Deliberative consultation with the government, civilian politicians, ethnic communities, and civil society on the best way to resume relations is needed.

The first phase of cooperation should focus on programs that promote democracy, respect for human rights, military justice administration, civilian control over the military, and training for humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping missions.

This training should not be intended only for the military. It is necessary to put members of political and civil society together with military personnel in these programs in order to develop the civilian capacity on a par with the military, and strengthen civilian expertise in defense affairs and security matters.

There is definitely a long to-do list when you consider military to military reengagement between the US and Burma. Yet the priority has to be civilian supremacy, civilian oversight, and civilian control over the military in whatever way the program is designed.

Ko Ye is an executive director of Rangoon-based Tagaung Institute of Political Studies, which is monitoring the civil-military relationship in Burma.