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Myanmar: The Future of the Armed Forces

 PDF version of Myanmar: The Future of the Armed Forces


The release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest on 6 May 2002 has generated some optimism about political progress in Myanmar. It remains to be seen, however, whether all political actors will be able to translate the new cooperative atmosphere into actual compromises in key policy areas.

This briefing focuses on some of the most critical issues that will have to be dealt with in a political transition – the composition, management and responsibilities of the Myanmar armed forces (the Tatmadaw) as a military institution. First, it reviews the ongoing expansion and modernisation of the Tatmadaw, and lays out the visions of respectively the State, Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the National League for Democracy (NLD) for the armed forces of the future. Secondly, it considers the prospects for a compromise between the two protagonists that satisfies core values on both sides; it outlines the possible contours of such a compromise, and it identifies key problem areas.

Since 1988, the military government has carried out an ambitious expansion and modernisation of the armed forces. As a result, the Tatmadaw today is an entirely different organisation from that of a decade ago. It is now able not only to crush civil disturbances in the cities and respond to periodic guerrilla attacks in the countryside, but also to conduct much larger and more effective counter-insurgency operations. For the first time in its history, it also has the means to carry out extended conventional operations in defence of Myanmar‘s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

While the military government faces pressing concerns from both within and outside the country, including serious economic problems, the SPDC has given clear signs that it is determined to continue its comprehensive defence improvement program. Whatever differences members of the military hierarchy may have over other policy questions, they share a vision of the Tatmadaw being the envy of its regional neighbours, and capable of defending Myanmar against even the most sophisticated and well-equipped adversaries. There also seems to be a shared conviction that – regardless of any changes that might need to be made in the way the country is governed – the armed forces should remain the ultimate arbiters of power in Myanmar and have all the means necessary to impose their will on the country.

The NLD, which has operated under enormous restrictions including the imprisonment of most of its leadership, was slow to formulate and articulate its views on defence issues. Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders, however, have made repeated references to the place of the armed forces in Myanmar society, and in 1999 these views were incorporated into a formal defence policy platform, which clearly set out a broad vision for the Tatmadaw under a democratic government. In some key respects, this vision is not too different from that of the military hierarchy. Yet, given the profound differences between the two sides in their approach to governing and defending Myanmar, there is also a considerable divergence of views. The NLD, for example, favours smaller, more professional armed forces under full civilian, political control. Particularly contentious issues would likely include the role of the powerful intelligence apparatus, the question of amnesty for members of the armed forces guilty of human rights violations, and the ideological foundations and indoctrination of future members of the armed forces.

The NLD has made it clear that it is ready to discuss the position of the armed forces under a democratic government. The military leaders, however, remain convinced that they alone have the right and the ability to decide such core issues as the size, shape and management of the armed forces, which not only constitute their main power base, but also are central to their self-image and world view. Thus, they have dismissed the NLD’s attempts to devise and promulgate an alternative defence policy not only as having little worth but, more importantly, as having no legitimacy. Indications are that advice from foreign governments and independent groups on this subject is accorded much the same treatment.

On the amnesty issue, even though Aung San Suu Kyi has already made it clear that a NLD government would not engage in a campaign of reprisals against serving or retired members of the Tatmadaw, these assurances have so far failed to meet the concerns of the officers most likely to be affected.

To outside observers, it would seem to be in the long-term interest of the Tatmadaw itself to reach an accommodation with the NLD and other political forces that would reduce the opprobrium it currently faces both domestically and internationally. Yet the military hierarchy appears to feel that it is already capable of defending its own policies and – despite the costs to the wider community – sees continuing high levels of defence expenditure as both necessary and justifiable. It believes that the armed forces are behaving honourably, holding the Union together, maintaining internal peace and stability, and defending the country against diverse external threats. The senior ranks of the armed forces thus do not share the sense of urgency felt by the international community over the need for a compromise with the democratic opposition, at least not in the critical area of national security.

Bangkok/Brussels, 27 September 2002

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