From Top Brass to a Bureaucratic Class

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 6 November 2014

YANGON — Gen. Ne Win died 12 years ago, but the dictator’s disastrous legacy lingers on in Myanmar. One of the worst aspects of his decades-long rule: a “parachute policy”—so called in Myanmar for the way in which high-ranking military officers are dropped in from above to preside over ministries and other administrative departments—that has destroyed the administration of government in the country.

If this particular policy had not been so assiduously implemented over the years, Myanmar might not have been dragged into the political, economic and social abyss that has left the country one of Asia’s poorest.

The appointment of active and retired military officials to various positions of power, from low-ranking ministerial bureaucrats all the way up to the presidency, is a rare practice in governance globally—with good reason.

When Gen. Ne Win staged a coup in 1962, he came to power determined to reorganize the whole administrative structure, which had been a largely civilian-dominated system since the country’s independence in 1948.

When Myanmar’s inaugural government took the reins of the former British colony in January 1948, the country’s first premier U Nu formed an overwhelmingly civilian cabinet. Out of 19 cabinet ministers, only three were active or former military officers. Nearly 85 percent of the cabinet was occupied by civilian ministers.

In 1952, after the country’s first parliamentary election, U Nu’s party won again and his newly formed government was comprised of 22 cabinet ministers. This time, among them were only two former military officials.

From 1948 to 1962, a similar ratio of civilian and military officers in governments was maintained—the exception being a two-year spell from 1958 to 1960, when U Nu handed over power to Gen. Ne Win’s interim government.

As a result of this civilian rule, the cabinets were diverse, and skillful professionals and administrators predominated. The governments of this era also appointed many ethnic ministers in respective ethnic regions of the country.

But Ne Win’s 1962 coup brought about a U-turn. As chairman of the Revolutionary Council regime, he formed an eight-member cabinet comprised of seven high-ranking military officials and one civilian, U Thi Han, who was responsible for the ministries of foreign and labor affairs.

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]

From then on, Ne Win’s cabinets would be dominated by military men. At times, his government lacked a single civilian minister. Even after a constitution was approved in 1974, active and retired military officials occupied every key position of government.

This is not to say that governments over this period were rotten to their cores. Professional and competent administrators existed, but always working under active or retired military personnel who had little or no knowledge of their respective areas of responsibility. You can imagine the morale problem this would breed. You can imagine why good brains would leave the country for better opportunities abroad.

The 2013 book “Strong Soldiers, Failed Revolution” found that from the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s, 94 percent of cabinet ministers in Myanmar were active or retired military officers. The Japanese author Yoshihiro Nakanishi compared the country with Thailand, where military appointees constituted roughly 25 percent of the Cabinets during those years.

Nakanishi estimated that between 1972 and 1978, the military transferred about 2,000 of its officers to various ministries as well as to the powerful local People’s Councils of the Burma Socialist Programme Party, which was founded by Ne Win.

“The decreased influence of the civil service in Burma [Myanmar] was inextricably linked with the increased influence of the military officers,” Mr. Nakanishi writes.

Ne Win systematically destroyed Myanmar’s civilian administrative apparatus and in its place entrenched a military alternative that held back the country’s progress for nearly half a century. All successive regimes, up until 2011, followed his model.

Perhaps even more troubling, the incumbent U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government has effectively still been applying this policy. In today’s “reformist” administration, active and retired military officials continue to hold key ministerial posts and other high-ranking positions of power.

When U Thein Sein formed his quasi-civilian government in March 2011, he appointed 29 active or retired military officials as ministers in his 36-member cabinet. It was not surprising, but the decision was proof positive that U Thein Sein has continued to apply U Ne Win’s “parachute” policy.

Although the general-turned-president has reshuffled his cabinet several times over the past few years, at least 29 former generals and high-ranking military officials still occupy key ministry posts.

This interference in politics by the military for decades has brought about the systematic gutting of the country’s administrative apparatus.

U Thein Sein seems to have no intention of overhauling this failed policy for the preferable alternative—appointing the right people to the right places, without favoring those from his military clique. He has had ample time over the past three years to do this.

Parachute appointments in governments of Myanmar are likely to continue, not only for cabinet ministers but also even for the country’s top job. No one doubts that U Thein Sein became president in 2011 with the blessing of his boss, ex-supremo Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

Though Myanmar has opened up to some extent since 2011, the government largely remains a cabal of military leaders dressed in civilian costumes.

As long as this parachute policy remains in effect, Myanmar is unlikely to be steered by its leadership toward the good governance and democratic rule that many have fought for decades to attain.

This story first appeared in the November 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.