Civil-military relations in Myanmar: legitimacy and political patronage

Liu Yun considers whether things have changed in the realm of civil-military relations.

There is no doubt that civil-military relations have played a decisive role in the democratic transition of Myanmar. Many people cautioned that, after winning the November 2015 election and creating and occupying the post of State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi would be forced into a fragile power-sharing arrangement with the military, which has ruled Myanmar in different forms for nearly six decades— the same military that kept her under house arrest for the better part of the 1990s and 2000s.

Even though Aung San Suu Kyi has been required to collaborate with the military on a wide range of issues, she retains a form of authority that the military has urgently pursued—legitimacy through free elections. Ostensibly the military’s positions and privileges are guaranteed by the 2008 Constitution, the supreme law of Myanmar, drafted by a convention boycotted by the NLD and approved in a referendum just after the devastation of Cyclone Nargis. The Constitution is fiercely criticized as hardly a charter for a robust democracy.

Obviously, the Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing understands clearly that he needs to try to use Aung San Suu Kyi’s peerless legitimacy to fulfill the military’s so-called three national causes—non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity, and perpetuation of sovereignty. A Reuters report cited diplomats in Yangon as saying that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has transformed himself from a taciturn soldier into a politician, public figure and statesman. When he made a speech to the European Union Military Committee (EUMC) on November 9, he praised the 2008 Constitution for allowing the participation of the military in national politics, for restricting the military for remaining in power too long, and for demanding that the military act in accordance with the president’s approval.

On the other side, Aung San Suu Kyi has already shared her legitimacy umbrella with the military. She has been accused of “legitimising the genocide of Rohingya Muslims” but still has chosen not to challenge the military on security issues related to allegations made by Rohingya advocates and international organisations that government soldiers have killed and raped civilians. In her announcement of November 23 regarding the conflicts in northern Shan State, Aung San Suu Kyi blamed the ethnic armed groups and endorsed the military’s counter-offensive. The announcement read: “The valiant effort of the Tatmadaw and security forces has resulted in stabilizing a certain degree of stability in the Northeast Shan State.”

The current relations between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military could arguably be best illustrated as an example of a Myanmar way of patronage. On the whole, The Lady has recognized the core values and fundamental principles of the military. In order to strategically pull the military into her orbit around the democratic transition, she has tacitly patronized the military. Some outsiders have noticed this kind of patronage. On October 25, the Kachin Independent Organization (KIO) chairman Lanyaw Zawng Hra mentioned in a statement that the NLD-led government was protecting the army and that they both were working together.

Although Aung San Suu Kyi definitely has no direct control over the military, sometimes she has had to try to rein in its overzealous preoccupations. She opposed a proposal to use the term “terrorist organizations” to label the Northern Alliance, which consists of four ethnic armed groups. The proposal was submitted by Defense Minister Sein Win to the lower house of parliament on December 2 and later shot down by the NLD majority.

Through these recent examples, we can see that civil-military relations in contemporary Myanmar are being built through a specific way of patronage that is situated within the new realities of the country’s political landscape.

Liu Yun is an independent analyst based in China. He writes on Myanmar regularly. He can be reached at: liuyun5398@hotmail.com.

Author: Liu Yun

Liu Yun is an independent analyst based in China. He writes on Myanmar regularly. He can be reached at: liuyun5398@hotmail.com