Myanmar Military Prepares for the Next Phase

A surprising sequel to the midnight coup of 12 August that removed Union Speaker Shwe Man from the USDP chairmanship was a wholesale reassignment of mid-ranking and senior military officers to state and party posts. A number of them will also be running for elections. It is likely that this was part of a ‘package’ rather than a consequence of that coup. The total number of officers is said to be around 200, with ranks stretching from major to lieutenant general. The posts vacated in the armed forces organizational structure have been filled and there is renewed speculation about who the next C-in-C could be. Needless to say, all this has an important bearing upon the country’s immediate and post-elections future.

Myanmar is no stranger to reshuffles and transfers to civil positions, including before the 2010 elections, but never on this scale. It is possible that the intense rivalries and divisions within the ruling establishment had precipitated this move. And there is an unwritten rule that a new C-in-C has to be appointed five years before his retirement, and this has to coincide with the President’s term of office. The clear intention and result of the recent mass redeployment is a reassertion of the military’s presence and authority in the state and political edifices (which are already heavily dominated by the military). But it is also a statement of unhappiness at the power struggle between the two former generals Shwe Man and Thein Sein, whose days are now numbered. It is in addition a generational move, with new batches moving up, as happens in the armed forces.

There is a certain amount of interest, understandably, in the implications of all this. Two appointments have some significance: Air Force General Khin Aung Myint has been appointed Joint Services Coordinator, said to be the No.3 post in the armed forces hierarchy. In the past only army generals have held this post. In the second instance, the defence portfolio has been given to Lt-Gen Sein Win, said to be a well-regarded officer. Previously this post was seen as superfluous and the defence minister something of a non-entity. In themselves these steps are too little and it is yet a bit early to gauge the extent of professionalization and modernization, not to mention de-politicization. One could perhaps only say that the process has begun.

Some observers also welcome the confirmation of Gen Soe Win as Deputy C-in-C. (He had briefly been O.C. Northern Command in Myitkyina). Like Sein Win, he is said to be a professional soldier and ‘clean’. But this was said about Thein Sein too. A lot of people in politics talk about a ‘return to the barracks’ and about which military leader would be more favourably disposed towards democracy and democratic leaders. I think this is far too simplistic. I have said that the Myanmar armed forces have traditionally taken on a double role (the ‘dwifungsi’ in the former Indonesian military) but had not succeeded in either sphere. The present imperceptible movement could be an indication that the Myanmar generals present and former have realized this (without admitting it) and are concentrating on rebuilding military capabilities per se. For this to happen smoothly they have taken on multiple layers of protection – the USDP (and allied parties), the government executive, a chunk of Parliament and various intellectuals. The Thein Sein ‘reforms’ have hooked many from the international community and brought in accolades and resources, as well as an important rethink of relations with the Myanmar military. I would say that in this first term, the military has done quite well in that regard – at least in the physical or hardware part. But domestically it is a different story – continued hostilities, delayed ceasefire process, obstructing the constitutional amendments and heightened unpopularity. Concomitant with the wholesale military transfers has been the strong emergence of colour ribbons movements against militarization of government ministries.

For the military’s corporate makeover to continue, the protective canopy has to be maintained and strengthened. It is also dependent on Myanmar’s democratic transition making progress. It has to be mentioned that all this does not discount future scenarios where the military has to answer for war crimes and gross human rights abuses. With regard to the Nation-wide Ceasefire Agreement, the military leadership may be uncertain about its merits and possible drawbacks. But Thein Sein needs the NCA desperately, and the present promotion campaign is aimed at the military audience too.

The Myanmar military has made its move and is preparing for the next phase, which will follow the elections and the possibly partial NCA. In full awareness of the national nature of these and other undertakings, all other stakeholders should be equally prepared too.

The author, Dr. Khin Zaw Win, is director and founder of the Tampadipa Institute in Yangon.