Guest Column

Rethinking State-Building in Myanmar

By Khine Win 8 August 2014

Twenty-six years ago, mass protests took place in almost every major city and town in Myanmar. The people were calling for democracy and human rights. The main reasons for staging the protests were mismanagement of the economy by the ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) and a lack of fundamental freedoms. Just before the protests, Myanmar was designated one of the world’s least developed countries, an LDC. Demonetization of major bank notes in 1987 and repressive measures taken to quell student riots helped spark those nationwide protests.

But instead of giving freedoms and democracy to the people, the military staged a coup on Sept. 18, 1988, and went on to kill thousands of unarmed demonstrators in the streets. It ruled the country with an iron fist until 2011, but even three years after Thein Sein took the reins as Myanmar’s nominally civilian president, military rule prevails.

In the country’s post-independence history, the military has staged two coups on the ostensible justification of a need to maintain stability. Fifty-two years ago, Gen. Ne Win and his Revolutionary Council came to power claiming the coup was necessary to prevent the disintegration of the union. The same reason was given 26 years later by coup leader Gen. Saw Maung and the junta that he headed, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Many people remember him as the commander in chief who dubiously proclaimed, “I saved Burma.”

The military has embarked on a task of state-building to provide stability for the people since 1962, but to this day the generals have not achieved their goal. If one looks at all their manifestoes, statements and the 2008 Constitution, one would get the impression that the military must take a leading role in politics in order to maintain stability. For them, the only way to maintain stability is to maintain a military state. However, they would do well to review whether they have been able to perform the essential functions of the state and maintain genuine stability over the last half century.

Taking into account the World Bank’s governance indicators, such as political stability, government effectiveness, regulatory quality and prevalence of corruption, both Myanmar’s first and second coup leaders and the generations of military leaders that have been called on since 1962 have failed to establish that stable state and deliver public services to the people. From widespread corruption and state inefficiency to the impunity of warlords, an ongoing civil war that includes child soldiers, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) numbering in the hundreds of thousands, it is clear that Myanmar has no shortage of characteristics indicative of political instability.

Compounding these problems are deteriorating socioeconomic conditions like high poverty, the spread of contagious diseases, drug addiction, limited access to safe drinking water, and the list goes on. Myanmar ranked 150th out of 187 countries on the UNDP’s most recent human development index. Likewise, it ranked 157th out of 177 countries on Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index. It was 26th out of 178 countries on a 2013 Failed States Index, putting it just three places ahead of North Korea.

By these accounts, Myanmar’s military has not been up to the task of establishing a strong state that is able to perform essential functions and deliver basic services to its people. Two areas in which it has performed well? In capturing state institutions to serve its own private interests, and holding on to power.

There are some misconceptions among aid donors and Myanmar observers, who consider the military to be the only institution capable of maintaining stability. It’s true that the military alone can ensure security and rule of law for the country. But stability can mean different things to different segments of society. In state building, the military is part of the bureaucracy and as such must be professional. It is mainly responsible for protecting the people and country from both external and internal threats. It is the guarantor of rule of law, but must not get involved in politics.

Although it may be difficult for military leaders to withdraw from politics—a sphere they have been involved in for more than five decades—these men needs to reconsider their role if Myanmar is to one day see peace, prosperity and welfare among its people. In other words, a rethink on the generals’ conception of state building is needed, and in fact, is more than 50 years overdue.

Khine Win is director of the Sandhi Governance Institute, which focuses on promoting good governance in Myanmar.