Why It Makes Sense to Engage With Burma’s Military

By Min Zin, Political Parties 26 September 2013

On Sept. 18, Burma marked the 25th anniversary of the most important military coup in its recent history. When state-owned radio announced that the military had taken over at 4 pm on Sept. 18, 1988, I was just 14. My fellow students and I were staging a hunger strike as part of a nonviolent protest to call for the restoration of democracy in Burma.
A dreary rain was falling. A voice on the radio read the coup announcement over and over again, alternating with loud military marching songs. The noise from the radio was agonizing enough. But then we heard a series of gunshots, and when we realized that they were gradually getting closer, older students and community leaders rushed to a nearby intersection to set up roadblocks so that an approaching column of soldiers couldn’t reach us and clear out our camp. The younger hunger strikers, including myself, were promptly escorted to a nearby Buddhist monastery that the opposition was using as a refuge from the military crackdown. The junta imposed martial law and a corresponding curfew. Gen Saw Maung, the man in charge of the coup, once notoriously stated that “martial law means that there’s no law in the country.”

In the military crackdown that followed, I saw people being shot to death in front of me. Thousands of people, including many of my colleagues, left for the border areas, where ethnic rebel groups helped them form a student army to wage an armed struggle against the junta. After a few months of activism, I went into hiding to avoid arrest. That period ultimately lasted nine years. Eventually I crossed the border into Thailand in 1997. I’ve worked as a journalist ever since.

That was 25 years ago. In 2011, President Thein Sein (once the top general in the previous junta) took office, and the government he headed soon began signaling a political opening and the possibility of reform. Thein Sein’s administration released political prisoners, lifted media censorship, and allowed opposition participation in the country’s parliament. Most exiles, including me, were allowed to come back home.

I recently went back to the place where we staged the hunger strike and the monastery where we took refuge. It was a surreal experience. None of the people in my old neighborhood believed that they would ever see me again in this life. They’ve always assumed that anyone who fled the country and lived in exile would never be able to return. Whenever they see me again, they pinch my hand as if to convince themselves that it’s really me. They hope, they tell me, that our horrible past won’t ever be repeated. I have the same dream. I don’t ever want to relive such a tragic past, not even in memory. And yet I sometimes feel like we’re reliving those old days again, right now.

People often ask me if I think the country is sliding back into the dark age of military rule. If someone had asked me that question last year, I would have given a more optimistic answer. But now, I see that Burma and my people are slipping into a state of profound anxiety as communal riots, deepening poverty, ongoing civil strife, and the rivalries of political elites ravage the country. I don’t think we can rule out any scenarios. In fact, two senior insiders of the ruling party have told me that another coup could well be a last resort if the nation slides into chaos.

A coup can be carried out legally under the current Constitution, and that’s the likely outcome if the reforms fundamentally hurt the army’s institutional, political, or economic prerogatives. The military’s decision to stage a coup, however, would depend not only on domestic politics, but also on the army’s geopolitical calculations.

The Burmese military has long been aware of its over-dependence on China for equipment and training as well as political and economic support. Almost all the former and current military officers I’ve met tell me that the quality of Chinese equipment is terrible. The officers can still remember the days when they received US military assistance, which they preferred. They recall that the United States financed $4.7 million in military sales in the 1980s as well as paid for about 175 Burmese officers to attend US military schools under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) security assistance program. This bilateral defense relationship was abruptly terminated by the United States when the Burmese army seized power in September 1988. That was the end of the “good old days,” as one officer lamented.

Since the mid-1990s, the Burmese army has been eager to diversify and reduce its dependence on China. But US-led Western arms embargoes have prevented the military from doing so. Yet the military’s willingness to support political reform in Burma has won Washington’s support. Now a lot is riding on the possibility of reestablishing military-to-military relations with the Western countries.

The US defense secretary said in 2012 that the United States was open to forging better military ties with Burma. Early this year, the United States allowed Burma to send a team of observers to the Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand. In late August 2013, US Ambassador Derek Mitchell met with the head of Burma’s armed forces, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, to discuss legal practices in military combat in a “cordial” effort to strengthen defense relations between the two countries. Australia, Britain, and other Western countries are also gradually resuming military ties with Burma.

Though the skeptics are rightly uneasy about the nature and extent of such defense relations, the opportunity to re-engage with Western militaries is an important incentive for the military’s continued support of political reform.

In short, any positive political concessions the Burmese military is likely to make regarding constitutional reform and the 2015 elections rest to a significant degree on a mil-to-mil incentive package from the United States. I think that smart, timely action by the United States to reconnect with the Burmese military would be one of the best insurance policies against another military take-over. And that could well save me and my compatriots from reliving that tragic day in September 1988.

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Foreign Policy’s Transitions blog, where this article first appeared on Sept. 19, 2013.