Zoltan Barany on Burmese Politics and Military

Zoltan Barany is Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Professor of Government at the University of Texas. His work has concentrated on military politics, military sociology, and democratization around the world, most recently on the Gulf monarchies and Burma/Myanmar. His books include How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why (2016) and The Soldier and the Changing State: Building Democratic Armies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas (2012).
Genevieve Collins CMC '22 interviewed Zoltan Barany on Feb 26, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Barany on behalf of University of Texas.

From 1962 to 2011, Myanmar was ruled by the country’s military, known as the Tatmadaw. How did the Tatmadaw remain the ruling party for nearly 50 years?

50 years is a remarkably long amount of time for any military to stay in power. However, the situation in Myanmar is quite unique. Over time, the military managed to take control of everything, resulting in a true totalitarian system. Initially, the military took over politics, followed by the economy, and then society. The Tatmadaw even managed to control the entire Buddhist superstructure in Burma. It became a totalitarian state and fully controlled politics, the economy, and isolated Burmese society from the rest of the world, and mercilessly suppressed whatever opposition might have raised its head. 

The only way that the military’s rule could end was if the military itself would end it. Burma’s most powerful neighbors, India and China, had no stake in seeing the military regime end. The Tatmadaw had no external foe sufficiently interested in defeating its regime to devote the necessary resources. The only way military rule could end was from within the leading circle; there was no potential political or social actor in the country with any political power.

What caused the situation to change in the early 2000s, when the junta’s leadership decided to move toward political liberalization? 

A number of things came together to result in this change. First, the burden of Western sanctions began to take a painful bite out of the economic interests of the generals – who, together with their cronies, owned over 85% of Burma’s economy.  Second, Burma became the pariah state in Southeast Asia. Under British rule, Burma was Southeast Asia’s most prosperous land but fifty years of the asinine economic policies of the military regime transformed it into the poorest with a GDP that was one-third of that of Laos.  In other words, at the same time that large parts of the region – e.g., Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam – had become increasingly affluent, the performance of Myanmar’s economy became an embarrassment. Third, the generals increasingly resented their political and economic dependence on China, a large neighbor that they disliked but no other regime would maintain good relations with them.  Fourth, the incredibly destructive Cyclone Nargis in 2008 in which more than 150,000 people died – the generals not only totally mismanaged the rescue efforts afterwards but would not allow foreign aid into the country – laid bare the impotence of the military regime and the desperate need for reforms. Fifth, the experience of Cyclone Nargis also suggested to the generals that a limited transfer of the day-to-day running of the country to civilians might lessen popular hatred of their rule.  

In 2015, the country held a general election. The National League for Democracy (NLD), Myanmar’s foremost democratic political party, won an absolute majority in the parliament, thus ensuring an NLD president. Nonetheless, the military remains very much entrenched in Myanmar’s politics. Why is this the case? 

The most important explanatory factor is the 2008 constitution that the generals themselves wrote. It is the work of evil genius. The constitution makes absolutely certain that the Tatmadaw will stay in power as long as it wants. No major change can occur in the country without the military’s approval. 

The constitution assigns 25% of legislative seats to the military – i.e., these are uniformed active-duty members of the armed forces – in both of the two chambers.  But 75% plus one votes are necessary for amending the constitution, which assures that the document cannot be changed without defection from the armed forces. The generals’ constitution also featured other provisions, such as requiring that the spouse and children of Myanmar’s president be Burmese citizens – a rule directed specifically against Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband and two sons held British citizenship.  Furthermore, the constitution gives a number of the most important ministries – defense, border affairs, home affairs – to the military. Finally, the constitution further safeguards the army’s interests by allowing its commander-in-chief, the senior general, to name six of the eleven members of the National Defense and Security Council, the top executive body responsible for security and defense matters.

What needs to happen for the military to withdraw from Myanmar’s politics? Is this conceivable?

It has been almost five years since the election. The military withdrawal from politics is only slightly more conceivable now than it was five years ago. In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi petitioned the military to agree to some constitutional amendments which the generals rejected outright. Now, the Tatmadaw does not shut the door quite so tightly. The military might possibly agree to some constitutional changes if ethnic peace were established in the country or if the civil war, which has been ongoing for the last 70 years, would end. However, it is very difficult to imagine either of these possibilities.  

There are more than a dozen ethnic parties called ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). In the last several years some of them agreed to a national ceasefire. However, the most powerful EAOs – some with militaries of their own numbering as many as 20,000 combatants – are not interested in laying down their weapons and have no intention in signing a peace treaty. The only peace treaty the Tatmadaw finds acceptable would include total disarmament, meaning these groups would have to give up their arms, the only trump card they have. It is a true catch-22. 

In your article “Exits from Military Rule: Lessons for Burma,” you examine three countries – South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia – and their respective transitions out of military rule. How do these three case studies inform our understanding of Myanmar’s ongoing transition? 

I chose these three countries because they all experienced different kinds of military rule and subsequent transitions out of it. South Korea is a success story of post-military rule political development, not only in Asia but worldwide. Nearly everything went well there and, truth be told, South Korea also was very lucky. It was a great time economically for South Korea to undergo this transition; by the early 1990s, South Korea was economically strong after many years of military rule. Additionally, the level of hostility with North Korea was relatively low during this period. Additionally, South Korea had some good leaders who facilitated the transition very intelligently. Post military-rule, the first leader usually is a transitional leader, and it is very important for him or her to not challenge the military too much because the transfer of political power early in the process is easily reversible. The second or third leader tends to be able to do this more successfully, as we have seen in post-military rules in many other places. Moreover, South Korea had a relatively homogenous population, quite the opposite of Myanmar, so there was no internal ethnic issue, let alone an on-going civil war. To expect from Myanmar the same kind of transition that South Korea experienced would be unreasonable. 

The second place I looked at was Thailand, which showed us how not to do things. Although Thailand is also relatively homogeneous and does not have some of these built-in problems that Myanmar does, its post-military rule experience demonstrated many grave mistakes that were made during the transitional period. For instance, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra started to get involved in the military’s internal affairs, such as promotions and training. Additionally, it would have taken someone who had far more foresight and was more willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good than Shinawatra was.

The case that I thought would be the most instructive in relation to Myanmar was Indonesia, where things also did not go perfectly right but progress has been made. Even after 20 years, we do not see ideal civil-military relations, as the military still has a lot of involvement in the domestic economy, but it has no formal political power. The Indonesian example demonstrates that compromises must be made, as it is almost impossible for any country to do as well as South Korea did. Over the course of 25 years, Indonesian presidents were able to check the military’s political power, bit by bit, to the point where there were actually several elections in the recent past in which the military did not even publicly express its preferences.

Myanmar will hold its next general election this year to fill over 800 legislative seats in the national body. What should we expect from this election?

I would be surprised if the NLD did as well as it did previously. I think that the NLD will still win, but, in my view, that win will not be enough to allow the NLD to form a government without having to make compromises and include other parties in the new government. This will likely include the military’s own party as well as ethnic parties. The last five years have shown the people of Myanmar that Aung San Suu Kyi is not able to make a huge difference in their lives. That is partly her fault and partly the military’s fault, not to mention the undue expectations placed on her and her government.

How do we understand the Rohingya human rights crisis in the context of Myanmar’s political landscape?

It is very important to make a distinction between the various Muslim communities in Myanmar. There are Muslim communities in all big cities. These people have lived in what is Myanmar today for hundreds of years. They have Burmese names, speak Burmese, but they practice a different religion from the rest of the population. Beyond that, Muslim Burmese communities are relatively well integrated though they are discriminated against, similar to every other non-Buddhist religious community.

The Rohingya are different. They were moved to Burma by the British into what is Rakhine State and adjacent areas because there was a labor shortage. For the most part, they have Muslim names, do not speak Burmese, and are not integrated at all. Other people living in these regions tend to be poorly educated and superstitious, so from the moment the Rohingya were moved in, there has been ill will toward them. In terms of neighborly relations, the populations around the Rohingya rarely got along with them. In fact, it would be hard to overestimate the popular hostility toward them. So much so that when outside pressure was brought to bear on the military for their anti-Rohingya campaign, largescale pro-military demonstrations were held in several major cities. So, even though the people hate the military and its rule, when the generals were condemned by foreign newspapers, governments, and non-governmental organizations, the Burmese people actually wanted to show their support to the Tatmadaw

It is also important to recognize that the government has zero control over the military. The government likely tried to mitigate atrocities and lighten the suppression of the Rohingya through backchannel negotiations with the military. Yet members of the administration are just as anti-Rohingya as the general population, perhaps with a few exceptions. During the 2015 electoral campaign, Aung San Suu Kyi did not say anything positive about the Rohingya, but touched on the importance of ethnic peace. Following this, leading Buddhist monks called her “a Muslim-loving whore” and worse. Clearly, the policy of ethnic cleansing is wholeheartedly approved by the general population. 

What about the outside world? There is no outside power that could or would stand up against Myanmar’s government or military. China has the most influence on Myanmar, but it has treated its own Muslim minority brutally and has put some groups in secretive internment camps. And in India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist rule, anti-Muslim policies have intensified. In other words, the Burmese government and generals need not worry about their two large neighbors criticizing their policy of ethnic cleansing. Bangladesh is essentially powerless. No Western state has the capacity to make the Myanmar military stop. Even if sanctions were imposed, the Chinese would be more than happy to help out and fill whatever vacuum might develop, as they have in the past. The United Nations has so far also proved powerless to effect any change. The Myanmar government has even refused to allow UN officials to conduct fact-finding missions in Rohingya-populated areas. The only country that has actually done something appreciable – accepting Rohingya refugees, financing pro-Rohingya NGOs and media organization, etc. – is Malaysia, a Muslim-majority Southeast Asian state. Additionally, many Rohingya refugees have found temporary safe harbor in the Gulf states and have financially helped their brethren. 

Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for her inaction during the Rohingya crisis, despite her Nobel Peace Prize and decades-long commitment to human rights. As State Counsellor, what is her relationship to the military? To what extent has the military limited her room to respond to the massacres in Myanmar?   

Aung San Suu Kyi has been misunderstood from the beginning. Even when she emerged as a prominent figure in the 1988 uprising, she was divisive. The last thing she would have wanted was to bring the students together with the old guard opposition. Additionally, her understanding of human rights is very different from any western understanding of human rights. Her father, Aung San, was a general and one of the founders of modern Burma.  Aung San Suu Kyi is actually, in many ways, quite fond of the military. In her mind, it is one of the great institutions that allowed Burma to stay independent. And this is the one redeeming grace of Myanmar’s armed forces. Throughout the decades of military rule, Burma faced a variety of external and internal dangers, such as Chinese nationalist incursions, ethnic uprisings, and the Burmese Socialist Party that was powerful for a time. Cold War antagonists offered to arm the Tatmadaw to win the generals’ allegiance, but the latter steadfastly remained independent and safeguarded the country’s sovereignty. 

In my view, Aung San Suu Kyi was never the beacon of democracy some people thought she was. Following the Rohingya crisis when many foreign organizations were openly disappointed in her and some of her prizes and accolades were withdrawn, she was very clear about her position. She has always said that she was not a human rights icon but a politician. She has shown no kindness to former human rights activists and political prisoners who have spent many years in Burma’s indescribably awful jails. She has been very pragmatic, showing no soft spot for those tens of thousands of people who suffered terribly for a better Burma.

In terms of her relationship with the military leaders – she has to work with them. There is no other way. In private she may be critical of the military in some ways, but not openly, because she cannot be. At the same time, it is important to underscore that she has no power over the generals.  Still, she did not need to make herself blind to what was happening to the Rohingya. She did not need to make unfounded accusations that anti-Rohingya atrocities were fabricated. She did not need to openly side with the armed forces’ ethnic cleansing campaign. Moreover, under her government press freedoms have actually suffered; a number of journalists who dared to criticize her, her government, and the armed forces have ended up in jail.

I imagine that Aung San Suu Kyi is constantly bargaining with the military regarding what the military will and will not let her do. In fact, the military’s position has actually improved in the past five years because it is not held responsible for education, healthcare, and economic policies which the generals handed off to Aung San Suu Kyi in order to shift their attention to improving their armed forces and tending to their business empire.


Genevieve Collins CMC '22Student Journalist

Mil.ru / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

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