History of Myanmar: Transformation from Military rule to Disciplined Democracy

Navjit Singh | Updated: March 05, 2021, 2:29 IST

History of Myanmar: Transformation from Military rule to Disciplined Democracy.

The military once again hold the reins in Myanmar. Citing constitutional provisions that give the military control in national emergencies, on February 1, army officers had detained government leaders, including state counsellor and popular national leader Aung San Suu Kyi. An announcement on military television said the move was in response to “fraud” during last year’s general election. A spokesman said power has been handed to the army’s commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, who would hold power for one year, and after which there would be new elections.

Why this event has become a geopolitical issue worth creating instability in the South Asian region? Is it the debate all about military rule being ‘bad’ and democracy ‘good’? China termed the coup as ‘cabinet reshuffle’, while Biden’s statement took us back to the debate between military regimes and democracy (in American terms).

West Imposition?

President’s Biden first response in the aftermath of coup in Myanmar displays US’ historic desperation to impose, rather than peacefully propagate democracy on every nation-state present on the world map. He announced that he will sanction Myanmar’s military leaders for staging a coup in South Asian country, and said “we are going to impose strong exports controls. We are freezing US assets that benefit the Burmese government, while maintaining our support for health care, civil society groups, and other areas that benefit the people of Burma directly.”

Throughout the western world, but particularly and most obviously in the United States, political rhetoric and practice are based upon four seemingly unexceptionable propositions:

  1. Democracy is an intrinsically good thing.
  2. It has the truest democracy.
  3. It is morally legitimate to impose democracy on others.
  4. It can effectively do so.

What are these above mentioned propositions denote or try to convey to the world? Democracy is inherently good, but is US entitled to impose it on others? Or perhaps US thinks itself to be the truest democracy, so it has some right to dictate it to others?

Also read: Meaning of democracy in Indian context 

United States assumes that it represents the apotheosis of democracy when it has some basic flaws in its democratic system – citizens of the United States do not directly elect their head of the State, meaning it does not have a direct mandate of the majority; resources required to run for office effectively disbar the majority from a political career as politics is a costly business; media and corporate interests, biases, propagandas control the electoral process and outcome in American politics to a very large extent. Apparently, these conclusions stand far away from any plausible notion of rule by the people and for the people.

Democracy is a polymorphous concept which may take numerous forms and in each case be equally a bona fide instance of democracy just like gardening or teaching. Gallie (1955) long ago termed democracy as “equally contested” concept, and what constitutes a true democracy is forever open to argument.

There are no prior grounds for assuming that the particular form of democracy that takes place in the United States (or anywhere else) is ‘truer than’, ‘more democratic than’, or ‘superior to’ various other forms that it has taken historically or takes today in other places. 

Does it mean democracy is an abstract concept floating around the world since the Athenian democratic city-state in ancient times, and since the establishment of American constitution, or with the end of French revolution in modern times?

Do nation-states politically democratised just to go with the flow because western nations adopted it? Or the economically powerful, the so-called first world, give these nation-states a chance to enter into the club?

Obviously No! There is a minimal descriptive content that sets limits on what can count as democracy, but countries like US still vouch for it, and sometimes even go to war to establish this political system.

More or less ‘democracy’ means ‘government by the people or by their elected representatives, who are accountable for their actions’. This assertion is contrasted with a government led by either an individual ruler or a minority group which in either case is not answerable to the people as a whole. It is an assumption that individual leader does not or inadequately represent the whole population, violate the rights of one community for others, curtail basic human rights to remain in the power, is not regularly accountable to public, and influences the state’s institutions maliciously.

These assumptions are arrived from historical examples in reality, and not just the perception of reality, but believing that a political system of one-man rule equates to a military regime, and one such example is Myanmar, or what US still calls, Burma.

Military Regime

History of Myanmar: Transformation from Military rule to Disciplined Democracy.

Military regime, in layman terms, defined as a ‘system of government governed by the military’, is a form of authoritarian rule, but is distinguished from both democracy, and other forms of authoritarianism.

Robert Dahl’s concept of polyarchy has suggested the “procedural minimum” definition of democracy which includes four key attributes – free, fair, and competitive elections, full adult suffrage, broad protection of civil liberties (freedom of speech, press and association), and the absence of non-elected “tutelary authorities” that limit the governing power of elected officials.

The political system in which militaries wield the “tutelary powers” or “reserved domains”, but still accept the democratic game can be articulated to be a “tutelary democracy”. It is a system in which no channel exist for oppositional forces to legally contest for executive power. A closed authoritarian regime evolves where democratic institutions does not exist. A hegemonic regime pertains to a system in which formal democratic institutions exist on paper, but are nothing more than a façade, and that is the category in which military regimes falls. 

The military regimes can be distinguished on the basis of the level of intervention. In the direct military regime, military forms the government while in the quasi-civilian regimes, military holds political hegemony with a civilian window dressing.

According to Nordlinger, the extent of power of the armed forces, and their political & economic goals define the level of military intervention. He distinguishes three ideal types of military rule.

  • Rulers – Military dominate the regime, control large segments of political and economic aspects of society, and it “intend to bring basic changes in the distribution of power by eliminating all existing power centres”
  • Guardians – Military control the government from backstage, and informally holds the governmental powers.
  • Moderators – Military does not hold important offices leaving them to civilian politicians, but maintains veto power over certain policies. 

The longevity of military rule in Myanmar is a function of regime’s preparedness to use lethal force against its opponents with total impunity, and regime’s assiduousness in rewarding its supporters along with its tight control over the economy to grant military and other elites some concessions against its own labyrinthine restrictions and rules on economic activity.

Myanmar and Tatmadaw

The Burmese army, established in 1942, also known as Tatmadaw preceded the existence of an independent state. Army became politicised during the freedom struggle against colonisers, becoming a liberating force. It could retrospectively assume the role of guardian of the Burmese state, and bulwark of national independence.

After the departure of Britishers in 1948, Burma was established as a democratic State according to its constitution, but Tatmadaw got deeply involved into civil politics. Even after accepting supremacy of a civilian government, army gradually expanded its political role. The outbreak of ethnic, secessionist, and communist rebellion triggered the institutional modernisation of the armed forces leading to the increased assertiveness of the Burmese military which out-paced the capacities of civilian arm of the government. The military took over the administrative functions, and acquired the significant chunk from national budget (one-third to half) to save the Burma from going through the process of Balkanization. 

Late 50s witnessed the turbulent times for politics of Burma when factionalism increased within the ruling Anti-Fascist Peoples Freedom League (AFPFL). This subsequently led to a split in the party creating instability in the parliamentary system.

General Ne Win urged the civilian government of Prime Minister U Nu to temporarily transfer power to the armed forces which acted as a “Caretaker Government” from 1958 to 1960. This also developed praetorian ethos in the officer corps grounded in the belief that military functions is more effective than its civilian counterparts.

The military brought out some changes at the organisational, operational, and ideological level. It adopted new ideology which defined the role of military in broad national security terms as being responsible for the defence of the national objectives of establishing “peace and the rule of law”, “democracy”, and “socialist economy”. This prepared the groundwork for the “new professionalism” of the Burmese military. It expanded its business activities into the banking sector, construction industry, and fishing, and became the most powerful business organisation in the country.

The “Caretaker Government” handed back the power in February 1960 to the then Prime Minister U Nu, but this honeymoon period did not last long as General Ne Win staged the first Coup d'état in the history of Burma, bringing together high-ranking army officers, and eliminating their civilian counterparts once and for all.

The military was “compelled” to intervene to safeguard the nation from secessionist forces trying to disintegrate the country. Democracy allows dissent to freely propagate, looking for peaceful resolution through dialogue and deliberation, whereas the military rule do not allow this process called “democratic”.

U Nu’s decision to make Buddhism the state religion, calls by ethnic groups for greater autonomy, and secession from the union had laid the groundwork for the intervention of the military to save the country from disintegration.

After ’62, military prevented the emergence of any autonomous centres of influence through the means which termed as ‘un-democratic’. By the same means which shaped the perception that military juntas are malicious to the society, and cannot support the people’s will.

This disadvantage of military regimes, give countries like US the chance or perhaps an excuse to intervene in any country in the name of establishing democracy, or to impose sanctions if the country do not comply to democratic values.

General Ne Win formed a Revolutionary Council, abolished the 1947 constitutions, dissolved parliament, and banned all political parties to name a few “means”. The military regime nationalised the economy under the banner of the “Burmese way of Socialism”, and cut all ties to the outside world. It had also set up its own Leninist party called the Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), which ran the country unchallenged for over 25 years. 

Military regimes thrive on repression; any unbiased examination of military regimes in any country can lead to this conclusion. It is more or less a consistent reality. Myanmar military regime was also no different which has remained in place with the readiness to swiftly and brutally supress dissent.

The coup that installed the military, for the first time, was no doubt relatively a bloodless affair as military cited national security danger, but in the intervening year the regime was quick to put down challenges to its rule with violence. Such suppression has existed as a routine part of everyday life, manifested in an all-pervasive surveillance apparatus.

As of April 2011, Human rights watch reported that there were over 20,000 political prisoners in Myanmar; most of them have been incarcerated and given lengthy sentences under biased legal proceedings and are frequently subjected to torture. Outside of the prisons, the people of Myanmar face limits to their freedom of movement, both domestically and internationally.

Meanwhile, the flow of information is greatly restricted. The press is subject to tight censorship, and the country's perfunctory education system is little more than a vehicle of indoctrination for the military's interpretation of Myanmar’s history. Myanmar's universities were broken up long ago, and their faculties were geographically dispersed to prevent student concentration and activism.

1988 events of widespread uprisings when many thousands of demonstrators were killed or imprisoned or fled the country after Military came hard-handily to suppress the dissent. The events revealed one of the most dangerous faces of military regimes through the episodes of state-sponsored military violence against its own dissenting citizens.

UIS’ (UNESCO Institute for Statistics) data centre suggested that Myanmar’s state spending on education was the lowest in the world in 2000 with a little more than 0.57 per cent of GDP. This showcased another characteristic of military regimes which democratic countries accuse them of. 

The military returned to civilian rule only after it succeeded in designing a political system that safeguarded its own core interests. The political changes fell short of a genuine democratic transition, since the military remains fully in control of the political system after having successfully manipulated the 2010 elections. Additionally, it has managed to orchestrate this transition process at every single stage. The military has continuously restricted political space so that oppositional forces have virtually no room to manoeuvre.

Disciplined Democracy

Officially announced in the late 2003 by General Khin Nyunt, the military’s roadmap to “disciplined democracy” envisioned the installation of a new political system step by step. Beginning with the reconvening the National Convention to finalise the Constitution’s basic principles which were introduced at the 1993 National Convention. Like the first National Convention (1993–1996), the second was “marred by a lack of inclusiveness, heavy restrictions on public debate, and little input by the participants into the final product”, including the two main opposition parties – the NLD and the Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD).

The new constitution enshrined military control, codified the military’s leading role in the participation of the state which was finalised in February 2008, and was formally approved by the national referendum – apparently a highly manipulative one.

Although it established a multiparty democracy allowing for elections for national and regional assemblies, the military still maintained the dominant role in the years to come. Of all regional and national parliament seats, 25 per cent are reserved for the military, and security-related ministries like, defence, border affairs, and home affairs were also bagged by the military.

Military controls the whole security related matters, and is a fully autonomous organisation which is neither subjected to judicial and legislative control, nor accountable for its actions, both publically and judicially.

The transition to “disciplined democracy” has also been accompanied by a wave of privatisation measures where 271 state-owned companies have reportedly been sold to former head of the state, Than Shwe’s closest cronies such as Thay Zar, Zaw Zar, and Chit Khaing, the Myanmar Times reported. While the military conglomerates have got weakened in this process, Than Shwe’s informal influence has been consolidated.

Altogether, the influence of the military conglomerates in the economy remains considerable. The generals’ transition ensured a return to civilian rule without relinquishing the de facto military control of the government. The military would still remain the arbiter of power in the country, though it has created new political institutions that might develop some autonomy of their own in the future.

Even before the latest coup, the military’s withdrawal from power did not mean a retreat into the barracks, but rather a further institutionalisation of military control. The military has managed to establish a competitive authoritarian regime, in which it remained the arbiter of power.

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