Myanmar: Can the Generals Resist Change
Vibhanshu Shekhar ·       

Myanmar, euphemistically known as the rice basket of Asia, and once termed as the country in the region with the largest potential for development, is today one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite facing the challenges of governance and overwhelming criticism of the West for large-scale human-rights violations, the military leadership of Myanmar carries enough strategic weight in Southeast Asia to override the binding elements of the ASEAN Charter. Even in the face of the biggest popular movement of the last twenty years against the military rule in 2007, the military regime still refuses to bring about fundamental changes in the political processes of the country. The first pertinent question that arises here is what enables the generals of Myanmar to withstand the popular demand for political reforms and democratization of the national polity. Second, for how long the Tatmadaw, popular name for military in Myanmar, will be able to resist both the domestic and international pressure to bring about change within the political structure of Myanmar.

The book makes a serious effort to explain the fundamental paradox facing Myanmar the military junta is still at the helm of affairs in the country despite growing popular unrest and international pressure. The story runs along two important landscapes domestic political equations and the evolving geostrategic equations in the immediate neighbourhood. Both these themes have been matters of intense deliberations among the academic community and policymakers in their attempt to find answers to the two important questions mentioned above. While addressing these issues, the book rightly questions the prevailing tendency of looking at the issue of Myanmar from the prism of political processes and calls for a much needed rigorous examination of the domestic (social, economic, and cultural) and foreign relations both in historical and current contexts. In other words, the British colonial legacy plays an equally important role in shaping the political processes in the country as the present role of the military in the country. However, the book does not attempt to probe deeper into the impact of the British colonial legacy on todays society and politics and confines itself to discussing contemporary history, which is in itself is a very challenging task.

The most important strength of the book lies in its analysis of the ability of the military regime to survive and sustain itself against both domestic and international opposition. The book puts forth three important reasons, which also bring out key strategies adopted by the military to maintain and further entrench its control over the national politics of the country. First, the military embarked in the 1990s on a massive recruitment of unemployed people from the rural areas and the comprehensive modernization of its weapons through external procurement mainly from China, Israel, and Singapore. Such a policy seems to have enabled the military to further increase its numerical strength, consolidate its political position and extend its control over the rural areas. The military has also controlled various corporations, such as the Union of Myanmar Holding Corporation, which controls roughly 20 per cent of the country’s GNP and it seems that the military is modelling itself along the lines of the Indonesian military of the Suharto era, which not only managed both military and civil functions but also owned various companies and foundations.

Second, in order to further consolidate its political positions within the country, the military has consistently followed a strategy of circumscribing any political or social opposition, whether at the village, town, district, provincial, or national level. In its effort to terminate popular or political dissent, the junta has applied arrests, physical torture, banning of protests, use of gun-power against the protestors, disappearances and the continued house-arrest of the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi. The military regime applied these means extensively and brutally following the 1988 protests, which led to large-scale deaths of people, and the arrests and disappearance of important mid-rank leaders of the NLD.

Finally, faced with the continued boycott and economic sanctions from the Western world, the military regime has focused on developing closer ties with three important players in Asia: China, India and ASEAN. The geostrategic location of Myanmar and the pattern of relationship between these players have further enabled the military regime to extract maximum political and economic concessions from its neighbourhood and blunt the thrust of Western criticism of large-scale human-rights violations and an impending humanitarian disaster in the country. Meanwhile, China, India and ASEAN have been jockeying for greater strategic influence over the country. Myanmar’s growing relationship with China in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the rise of China prompted both India and ASEAN to begin, what has been termed as constructive engagement. The continuing Sino-Indian rivalry and the discovery of large amounts of natural gas in Myanmar and the growing energy needs of China and India further allowed the military to secure political, military and economic support from both China and India.

The book has its some limitations in terms of a few unsubstantiated assumptions. It is debatable whether it is the geostrategic position of the country that has made Myanmar a strategically important country, or the nature and dynamics of the ASEAN-China, Sino-Indian, and India-ASEAN relationships. The fundamental question is, would Myanmar’s geostrategic position have a similar degree of significance, had the nature of Sino-Indian and China-ASEAN relationship been cooperative and peaceful? A related question can be, is the military regime of Myanmar actually capitalizing on its geostrategic location or simply taking advantage of the conflictual nature of relationship between India and China?

Another important assumption the book makes is that the economic hardships of the common people, while certainly considerable, do not appear to have reached the level of desperation that would provide anti-regime movements with an unstoppable momentum (p. ix.). Such a generalization is difficult to prove. Can we ascertain what level of hardship is strong enough to cause popular uprising in any country? Moreover, the degree of desperation needs to be examined and explained in relation to other experiences of successful and failed popular movements.

Backed with factual details in the appendices and very lucidly written, the book makes an important contribution towards the understanding of Myanmar, a country from which information is not easily obtained. The book will certainly help students and scholars of Myanmar in understanding the behaviour of the country’s military regime and their ability to accept or reject political change in the country.