Myanmar’s election of 2010, and a by-election two years later, marked important points in the country’s democratic transition, and the election slated for late 2015 will be another. Behind the scenes, however, Myanmar’s military continues to play a central role in running the country, and that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

The concept of civilian control over the military has no legal or institutional basis in Myanmar, and none is likely to be introduced soon. In 2008, the military junta, led by Senior General Than Shwe, crafted a new constitution to ensure that the military’s dominance would continue, albeit with a thin veil of democracy.

Vikram Nehru
Nehru was a nonresident senior fellow in the Carnegie Asia Program. An expert on development economics, growth, poverty reduction, debt sustainability, governance, and the performance and prospects of East Asia, his research focuses on the economic, political, and strategic issues confronting Asia, particularly Southeast Asia.
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The reality of Myanmar today is that although the military may have retreated from direct control of important social and economic institutions, it remains very much in indirect control and is well positioned to restore direct control whenever it deems it necessary.

Constitutional Guarantees of Power

Myanmar’s 2008 constitution contains several provisions that ensure that the reins of power remain firmly in the hands of the military. Chief among them is Article 436, which gives the military one-quarter of the seats in the upper and lower houses of the national parliament and one-third of the seats in the state/regional parliaments. In addition, because constitutional amendments must receive more than 75 percent of the vote in parliament, the military’s mandated 25 percent presence gives it effective veto power over any proposed changes.

There are several other ways in which the constitution helps the military retain its leading role. For example, it does not incorporate an effective separation of powers among the president, the parliament, the judiciary, and the armed forces; most state powers are either vested in the president or subject to his influence or direction, or concentrated in the commander in chief of the armed forces.

Additionally, Chapter XI of the constitution grants the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC)—composed of the president, both vice presidents, the two speakers of the national parliament, the commander in chief of the armed forces and his deputy, and the ministers of defense, home affairs, border affairs, and foreign affairs—powers to impose martial law, disband parliament, and rule directly, but only if the president declares a state of emergency. And it provides a legal channel for the military to reimpose direct military rule.

The 2008 constitution also provides a framework for what amounts to a separate regime for the armed forces, giving its members special privileges and representation in state institutions as well as widespread immunities. Furthermore, the constitution states that the ministers of defense, home affairs, and border affairs should also be drawn from the ranks of the military. They consequently report to the commander in chief of the armed forces.

When Thein Sein, a former general, took over as president in 2011, there was an implicit accommodation between the armed forces and the new civilian administration: the military effectively relinquished control over a range of social and economic spheres but retained control over conflict management, internal security, border affairs, internal military affairs, and the overarching NDSC.

Taken together, while the military’s prerogatives may have been diluted in the current political setup, the structure of military power remains largely undisturbed through the constitutional role of the commander in chief and the NDSC. Indeed, military officers, active and retired, occupy most of the senior positions in government ministries, state enterprises, and important public institutions such as the Myanmar Investment Commission and the Union Election Commission.

The Military’s Historic Role

Myanmar’s military has exercised direct control several times since 1948, when Burma, as the country was known then, declared independence. Between 1962 and 2011, the military was in direct control of the government for all but fourteen years (1974–1988), but even in that interregnum, it ran the government indirectly through its proxy—the Burma Socialist Program Party. The 2008 constitution provides the military with the necessary legal basis to ensure that it maintains control of the democratization process; should that process threaten its core interests, there should be little doubt it would be prepared to step in and reassert direct control.

Given this history, it would be imprudent to believe that the military will give up its control after the 2015 election. Myanmar’s senior military leaders hold fast to the belief that the military is a bulwark against what they see as the country’s otherwise inevitable slide toward disintegration. Indeed, the military views itself and the state as one and the same—leading to the convenient logic that threats to the military are therefore threats to the state. The country’s military leaders list Myanmar’s many internal and external threats to make the point that theirs is the only institution capable of ensuring peace and stability and providing the conditions necessary for long-term development. They consider themselves guardians against chaos and, as evidence, point to the civil unrest of 1958, 1962, and 1988, when the military took over the reins of government to restore order.

They also view cases in Indonesia and several countries in the Middle East as examples in which military governments were able to suppress divisive, internal ethnic or sectarian forces that surfaced again after democracy was restored. And they believe that until Myanmar’s civilian leaders show themselves to be socially and politically capable of governing responsibly, the armed forces must always be positioned to take charge.

Of course, Myanmar’s political opposition parties, particularly the National League for Democracy (NLD), disagree. In their view, the military’s control of political, economic, and social institutions in the name of security has destroyed trust, stunted development, damaged institutions, and ultimately made Myanmar more vulnerable. They rightly observe that military regimes tend to destroy the efficacy of nonmilitary institutions, making it difficult to cope with the challenges of nation and state building.

Myanmar’s ethnic minority parties, for their part, believe that the military is only one among many instruments used by a Bamar ethnic majority bent on exploiting, extorting, and suppressing the country’s minorities. But where the Bamar majority and the ethnic minorities agree is that the power of the military must be curtailed and eventually rolled back to create the space for democratic institutions to flourish.

Toward Civilian Oversight?

So will the military eventually relinquish direct and indirect control of the country and submit to civilian oversight?

Pessimists would consider this unlikely—at least in the foreseeable future. But optimists would point to the fact that the military is not a unified entity. Reformers within the military are coming to the conclusion that there are alternative ways of achieving the goals of peace, security, and national integrity, and—given the abysmal failure of efforts over the last six decades—they recognize that it may perhaps be time to try something other than military rule. After having fought the longest civil war in modern times, the reformers recognize the need for a more inclusive path toward nation and state building.

A good example of this changed way of thinking was the signing of the Deed of Commitment for Peace and National Reconciliation on February 12, 2015, the anniversary of the signing of the Panglong Agreement in 1947 that established the union of Burma. On this occasion, President Thein Sein and other senior leaders acknowledged that some form of federalism may be necessary to bring about a durable peace. It would be hard to imagine such a statement even two years earlier.

In the near term, the military is committed to holding the 2015 election and appears to have accepted the possibility of a government that would include the opposition NLD or even be led by it. Yet should the NLD introduce policies or programs that accelerate the reduction of the military’s power in ways that make its leadership feel vulnerable or threatened, then the probability of another military coup would rise dramatically.

But that is unlikely. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and NLD leader, has gone out of her way to try to placate the military and demonstrate her regard for its important role in maintaining the country’s security. It helps that she is the daughter of Aung San, the founder of Myanmar’s military, and she no doubt feels an obligation to maintain its prestige and prominence.

Myanmar’s political future will not be a black-and-white choice between military rule and democracy but a choice between the shades of gray that lie between those two ends of the spectrum. The military is unlikely to relinquish its grip on the democratic transition. But whether that grip will be tight or gentle remains an open question.