Promote a Professional Military

By Kyaw Zwa Moe, Reform 18 September 2013

RANGOON — Burma marks an important anniversary on Wednesday that can be called Black September 18, as the country’s streets were stained with blood exactly 25 years ago following a brutal military coup d’état.

The military staged two coups over decades of dictatorship—in 1962 and 1988—which traumatized the Burmese people and obliterated the country’s political, social and economic systems. Today, two years into President Thein Sein’s term, no-one can guarantee that Burma will not face another military overthrow in the future. But to guard against a repeat of such a terrible experience, the country can take a concrete step: It can reform the military, known as the Tatmadaw, into a professional force.

This would not be an easy task, but it is possible—and crucial. Only then can the military leave its current place in Parliament and the ministries, returning to where it belongs—the barracks.

Burma’s military has never been fit to govern, but consecutive military leaders since the 1962 coup have strongly opposed any exit from the political arena. Indeed, for 53 years the country has been ruled by generals—Gen Ne Win led a caretaker government from 1958 until 1960, and after seizing power in 1962 his Revolutionary Council ran a socialist state until 1988. After the coup that year, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took control, changing its name later to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Even after the regime stepped aside for the current quasi-civilian government in 2011, with ex-general Thein Sein now in power, former generals continue to run the government while former high-ranking military officials dominate Parliament.

Since the formation in 1941 of the Burma Independence Army—the country’s first national army, which played a crucial role in the struggle against British colonialism—the military has been extremely influential in Burma. After achieving independence, people respected the armed forces founded by Bogyoke Aung San, the father of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. It was only after the 1962 coup that the military’s reputation dropped, going from bad to worse in 1988.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Despite nationwide demand for change, it seems unlikely that the military will return to the barracks in the near future, even after the 2015 elections. The 2008 Constitution guarantees a solid position for the military above the democratic system—reserving 25 percent of seats in Parliament for unelected military representatives—and the generals will not let go easily of that entitlement.

Change will take time, but in the short term we can encourage military leaders to promote a more professional force. The military’s sole responsibility should be to protect the country, not to govern it from Naypyidaw.

In recent months, Thein Sein’s government has indicated a desire to resume military ties with Western countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. During Thein Sein’s trip to London in mid-July, Britain agreed to focus on human rights and accountability in its relations with Burma’s military.

“Reforming the Burmese military and pursing a sustainable peace process will be key to Burma’s stability and prosperity,” British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said in a statement. “The focus of our defense engagement will be on developing democratic accountability in a modern armed forces, and we have offered training for the Burmese military to this end.”

This month US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also met Lt-Gen Wai Lwin of Burma’s armed forces on the sidelines of a regional conference in Brunei—the first bilateral meeting between the two countries. The Obama administration seems to believe that military-to-military ties will help Burma work toward justice and improve relations between civilians and the armed forces.

Of course, as critics have said, Western governments should be careful in collaborations with the Burmese military, which has committed grave human rights violations in the past and continues to face allegations of widespread rights abuses. Hopefully Western militaries will keep their objectives clear and maintain their promise to offer nonlethal training only.

In that case, military-to-military relations could help Burma’s armed forces become more professional. But real success in this regard will depend completely on how Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Burma’s military, envisions the future. He and his generals certainly will not make any quick decisions to withdraw their officers from the political arena. Indeed, a basic principle of the Constitution’s first chapter says the country’s consistent objectives include enabling defense services to participate in national political leadership.

As long as the military continues to do what it shouldn’t, Burma will likely face political problems, as it has for more than half a century.

It is high time to seriously reform the armed forces—current military leaders, including Min Aung Hlaing, should examine just how low they have fallen in the eyes of the nation and the international community over the past five decades. If those leaders can turn their troops into a professional force, they can regain the respect that the military once earned under Gen Aung San.

Eventually, when the military returns to the barracks, Burma will return to genuine normalcy, and its government will truly move toward democracy—with no military leaders in disguise.