WITH GREAT power comes no responsibility whatsoever—at least, for Myanmar’s army. Although the country is in theory run by a civilian government, the army, or Tatmadaw, retains control of its own affairs. Its top general appoints his own boss, the minister of defence. For good measure, he also gets to pick the ministers of the interior and of border security, giving him control over the police, intelligence services and border guards. This doubtless irks elected politicians, but there is little they can do about it, because the army also chooses a quarter of the members of the national and state parliaments. That is enough to veto any amendments to the constitution, including any changes to these outlandish rules. On March 10th, in fact, the Tatmadaw’s appointees torpedoed constitutional amendments proposed by the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, which would have gradually reduced its representation in parliament, among other things.
That is no surprise, but it is a mistake. The Tatmadaw methodically erected this structure for 13 years before it handed power to Miss Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in 2016. It is hard to know exactly what the army’s intention was, since it is such an opaque and prickly institution. But the generals seem to have wanted to make Myanmar more modern and respectable. That would also serve to improve relations with the West, and so reduce their dependence on China, both economically and diplomatically. They appear to have been delighted to palm off the difficult job of running the country, but wanted to make sure that their exalted status—and past conduct—would not be questioned. They intend to retreat even further from the business of government, the high command continues to insist, once Burmese democracy is “mature”.
The hitch is, the army’s stifling influence is preventing Burmese democracy from maturing. Instead, the NLD and the Tatmadaw are locked in a destructive contest, in which each vies to prove itself more patriotic and closer to the Bamar Buddhist majority than the other. So when the army embarks on a pogrom against the Rohingyas, a hated Muslim minority, the government feels obliged to paper over its crimes against humanity. And when Miss Suu Kyi declares that national reconciliation is her government’s main goal, the army stirs up conflicts with other minorities to undermine her. Instead of Miss Suu Kyi helping Myanmar and the army to look better, as the generals had planned, the army is making Miss Suu Kyi and Myanmar look bad. Western investors, in turn, have taken flight, increasing Myanmar’s dependence on China—again, the opposite of what the Tatmadaw appears to have intended.
It might still be possible, however, to turn this vicious cycle into a virtuous one. Miss Suu Kyi, after all, has proved that she is not an implacable enemy of the Tatmadaw—even going as far as travelling to The Hague to defend its indefensible conduct before the International Court of Justice. For its part, the Tatmadaw presumably did not spend more than a decade engineering a form of civilian rule it finds acceptable only to sabotage its own creation. Both sides seem to have accepted that they have to live with the other. Now they need to find a way to get along better.
Amending the constitution to provide more of a semblance of civilian supremacy over the armed forces would be a good start. The army could cede control of the various security ministries, for example, or give up its voting majority on the special government committee empowered to declare a state of emergency. At one level, it would be merely a token gesture: Miss Suu Kyi surely knows that the army would not hesitate to stage another coup if it felt truly threatened. But over time, the new rules might evolve from polite fictions into institutional norms. Moreover, if the civilian government had any control over security, that might force it, and the Tatmadaw, to think a little more deeply about how to mollify Myanmar’s many ethnic and religious minorities (or at least avoid any repeats of what happened to the Rohingyas), and thus make the country both more peaceful and more unified. At the very least, some sense that the army will not run amok might help to lure back Western investors, and thus speed the country’s development and rehabilitation. The alternative is a reversion to the feud between the army and democracy activists that has consumed Myanmar in one form or another since the Tatmadaw first stopped the NLD from taking power back in 1990. Neither side wants that. Nor do ordinary Burmese.