IPCS Review

Myanmar: Is Tatmadaw Assuming a Proactive Role?

20 May, 2014    ·   4456

Aparupa Bhattacherjee reviews the latest ICG report, titled 'Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?'

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer
The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) recent report, titled 'Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?’ has tried to elaborately update the readers on the role of Myanmar’s army – the Tatmadaw – in the country’s transition that began in 2011. Published in April, the report finely sketches the pivotal role of the army in Myanmar’s history, especially after its independence. Interestingly, towards the end, the report, illustrating Tatmadaw’s role in a future democratic Myanmar, emphasises on the need for a more proactive role by the army.

While the ICG asks whether the Tatmadaw is back to its barracks in the title, the report hasn’t provided a clear answer for the same. While the report suggests that the Tatmadaw is undertaking a proactive role in the three primary aspects of reform in Myanmar – political, economic and peace process – the report contradicts itself in many ways.

The report suggests that although the Tatmadaw had explicitly agreed that transition in Myanmar was essential, there were apprehensions about a civilian-run government due to historical reasons. However, this apprehension did not have any impact on the proactive role the army has been playing in the Myanmar’s reform process.  The report contradicts itself where it states that political reasons led the army to accept transition, and that it was not any benevolent act, and backed it with two reasons: First, over-dependence on China – that was not only providing political security to Myanmar but happened to  be major investors and creditors to the country. The military regime understood and accepted the fact that the only way to counter-balance China’s power was via strategic relations with the US, and therefore transition was essential.

Second, the pitiable economic condition of the nation was matter of shame for the Myanmarese leaders. The elites accepted the truth that change was essential for economic development. Although, at present, the military does not play any role in the day-to-day governance, it still retains substantial constitutional and political powers. Moreover, significant resources such as land assets, factories and others still belong to the army.

The report touches up about the army’s negative approach to the idea of two-third majority to be changed as the required number instead of the quarter of the total number for any amendment in the constitution. A change to the two-third majority will curtail the army’s veto power to constitutional amendments. The Tatmadaw’s retention of these powers and negative approaches to changes contradict their claim to be proactive in the reform process.

Acceptance of the political transition had a direct impact on the lucrative earning of the army, as economic changes were a key aspect of the transition. However, the report highlights several reasons that were evidently calculated by the military leaders when they agreed to economic reforms. First, the military-political elites of the former government had accepted the fact that some loss of privileges was foreseeable, as economic reforms were not only essential for the nation but also for the future of the Tatmadaw.

Second, most of the revenues of these military owned economic ventures did not flow to the Tatmadaw, as a majority of the shareholders were the former army men who had suffered the most in the process of the economic reform. Third, the military-political elites had realised that depending on the national budget allocation, and not on the military conglomerates, was preferable for the Tatmadaw’s budget. The disorganised and inefficient military conglomerates had a high risk of becoming a loss-making liability in the changing economic environment.  Thus, evidently, the military had its own motivations for accepting transitions in Myanmar.

The Tatmadaw’s role as a positive negotiator in the pan-Myanmar peace process has been appreciated by this report. The report also highlights the successful ceasefire deals with 16 armed insurgent groups and peace talks with the Kachin Independence Organisation that began in 2013 to indicate the proactive role of the army in this process. However, a milder approach has been taken to answer the question on who should be blamed for the ongoing unrest in the Kachin region and its impact on the ongoing peace talks.

As the report pits it, both sides are to be blamed, and the army, despite its proactive role, must ideally withdrawn from the region. This will aid the Tatmadaw in building a better image for itself in the eyes of the civilians. This aspect has been highlighted by the report, and has been supplemented with a suggestion for a new doctrine for improving the army’s image. However, the report does not elaborate on the measures for this new doctrine.

Furthermore, the report lacks clarity vis-à-vis the future political and constitutional role of the Tatmadaw in Myanmar. This could confuse the readers over the question of whether or not the Tatmadaw is willing to denounce its political powers.

However, on the whole, the report has provided an excellent overview of kind of role the Tatmadaw should play in Myanmar’s future.