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The Dilemma of Military Dictatorship and Internal Peace in Burma

After assuming power, President Thein Sein’s government promptly introduced progressive political changes in Burma.  In his inaugural presidential speech, President Thein Sein stated and acknowledged that the necessity for political changes in Burma are evident, and internal peace, stability, and development would be the government’s three basic principles and that all political changes would be carried out through them.

Apparently, out of President Thein Sein’s three basic principles guiding changes to the political system in Burma, the first two are directly associated with and the political consequences of engaging in sixty years of civil war with ethnic armed groups.  In fact, unless the ethnic nationalities’ political problems are solved and their political demands for which they are fighting for are fulfilled, Burma will not obtain internal peace and stability.  In other words, if civil war is still on-going in ethnic states as before, Burma will not find itself in a position in which it could build and obtain internal peace and stability. 

Similarly, unless ethnic political problems are first solved and enduring peace with ethnic arms groups becomes a reality, Burma would not be able to build regional peace and stability with its bordering countries.  Under such circumstances in which there is no internal peace and regional stability within its borders, Burma would not be able to engage in any real developmental work and related projects.  

For example, in 1994, after signing a ceasefire agreement with the then State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and in collaboration with SLORC, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) undertook numerous development projects in Kachin State.  However, when the ceasefire agreement between the KIO and the Burmese military regime collapsed, within a few days twenty-five bridges in Kachin State were dynamited and destroyed.  Likewise, the numbers of war refugees and internally displaced people has reached more than fifty thousand and is likely to increase. 

In addition, as a result of the ongoing fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed wing of the KIO, and Burmese government troops, more than fifty schools have been closed which has severely affected the education of 7872 students who were forced to flee their homes. The Burmese army has so far deployed more than one hundred and thirty battalions in Kachin State and it’s been reported that there were seven hundred and three skirmishes between government troops and the KIA (see: Briefing Paper .No.2).  Obviously, under these kinds of circumstances, no development work can be undertaken and Kachin State’s domestic trade, including cross-border trade with China, has been severely hindered.

Therefore, as long as there is no genuine and enduring internal peace, there can be no regional peace and stability. Consequently, relations with neighboring countries will also be affected.  Under these circumstances, Burma will not be able to obtain and build enduring regional stability.  Thus, this short analysis paper will discuss the reasons for the fact that Burma cannot significantly engage in pursuing and implementing developmental work unless genuine internal peace and regional stability becomes a reality.

The situation of the transition period from military dictatorship to civilian government

On August 18, 2011, President Thein Sein, upholding his three basic principles guiding changes to political the system in Burma and under the slogan of ‘permanent peace’, released an invitation letter offering peace talks and ceasefire agreements to ethnic arms groups.  Since then, his government has held ceasefire talks with thirteen ethnic nationalities’ armed groups, and signed ceasefire agreements with eight.

However, while holding peace talks with some ethnic resistance groups, the nominal civilian Burmese government is fighting a war against the Kachin Independence Organization.  What happened?  Is the nominal civilian Burmese government holding an olive branch in one hand and a sword in the other? Under these conditions the strategies and tactics carried out by the government, might lead one to ponder how much honesty and truth can be found in President Thein Sein’s political stance and whether he really wants to solve the ethnic nationalities’ problems in Burma.  Understandably, some ethnic leaders have stated that “. . . they did not believe in the current peace talks held between the government and ethnic nationalities’ armed groups” (see BCES-paper: No.1). 

To understand the current government’s methodology, one needs look into the circumstances in which the State and Peace Development Council (SPDC) drafted the 2008 constitution to enable it to transfer power to the current administration.  Essentially, to understand the current administration one must be aware of some of the aspects of Senior General Than Shwe’s political strategy and tactics.  It’s worth noting the manner in which Senior General Than Shwe transferred power to the current administration and how it is quite different from that of General Ne Win. 

In placing the Tatmadaw as the sole power holder of the entire nation, General Ne Win transferred power to the hands of a small group of Burmese military elites.  As a result, within a few years, the political influence of that group became so enormously powerful that it had a counterproductive effect on General Ne Win.  Subsequently, the men he had trusted put him under house arrest and he was to spend the last years of his life as a prisoner.

Unlike General Ne Win, Senior General Than Shwe cautiously prepared his future retirement plan by cleverly drafting the 2008 constitution, in which power is not entirely vested in one place, but rather divided and distributed among four branches of the state apparatus: namely Executive, Legislative, Tatmadaw (Armed Forces) and the Union Solidarity and Development Party. Senior General Than Shwe seemed to assure himself in this political calculation, in that by placing power into four branches and by balancing them against each through the appointment of his closest disciples, that he would be safe when he retired from politics.

Although Senior General Than Shwe divided and distributed power into four areas, it is not comparable to the checks-and-balances system of a democracy. In other words, Burma’s division of power is just an artificial façade.  Senior General Than Shwe only wanted to protect himself from his successors by placing power in the hands of four different political groups in a way that no group could become more powerful than the others.

In this way, based on the 2008 constitution, Senior General Than Shwe was able to transfer state power to four different bodies: President, Parliament, Military and Party.  He also made sure that those four factions are in the hands of near equally powerful disciples. For example, according to the 2008 constitution, although the President is the head of the state, he is not commander-in-chief of the army. According to the constitution, a civilian President cannot directly held the post of chief of staff of the army, the President accordingly cannot directly manage or administer the affairs of the military, nor has he the power to give commands to the army.   

The 2008 constitution not only gives the chief-of-staff of the army, as a non-civilian officeholder, the right and power to manage and administer the entire affairs of the military, but the constitution also gives the chief-of-staff the power to stage a coup d’eat when need arises.  Therefore, this raises the question that, according to the 2008 constitution, who is the more powerful man, the President or Commander-in-Chief of the army? 

Despite the fact that the President holds Chairmanship of the most powerful organ of the state, the so-called “National Defense and Security Council”, the President doesn’t have the power to command the military, as can be seen in Kachin State, and he cannot directly stop the conflict between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).  The rumors claim that Thein Sein had wanted to stop the ongoing war in Kachin State, but unfortunately and sadly, he can do almost nothing in this military affair.

Yet, although there are no clear signs that firmly confirm a power struggle and direct confrontation among the four government political apparatuses, it seems obvious that the four branches of the nominal civilian Burmese’s government are watching each other’s movements and are competing for political influence.  Thus, the question is: who will make the first move?

Who will make a move first?

In this political chess board, President Thein Sein was the one who made the first move.  Why? The obvious reason seems to be the fact that as the President he is aware of the political, economic and social problems the country is facing, and he decided to make the first move to deal with Burma’s problems and initiate political change in the country. For the state to function properly, the four administrative apparatuses and the people who control them need to work together. 

More importantly, general problems of State need to be solved quickly.  Equally important, is the fact that the country’s politics, economy, and social conditions are deteriorating and must not be ignored.  In fact, the reason the country is facing social and economic problems are due to political instability and these issues need to be addressed. In addition to this, economic sanctions, trade with neighboring countries and the cost of living need to be addressed immediately.  It should be pointed out that all of these problems are connected and one can see that the root causes of the problem is the civil war in Burma and the failure to address the political problems of the country’s ethnic nationalities.

The second reason seems to be the fact that President Thein Sein is merely a pawn in Senior General Than Shwe’s carefully planned political game. As such, under the conditions of the 2008 constitution, President Thein Sein is faced with the political apparatuses of the Military, the Parliament and the USDP.  And in order to exert his influence over them, the President made the first political move to initiate political change.    

In politics, as in war, there is a saying: “. . . there is no eternal enemy or friend”.  Accordingly, as soon as the President made the first political move to exert political influence and uphold his power, his former power base, the Burmese army and it’s generals from the military have become his political rivals.  In this sense, within a short period of time, his former enemies such as pro-democratic forces and ethnic armed groups have become a necessary component for the President to uphold his power.  Thus, this could be the reason that President Thein Sein is using pro-democratic and ethnic armed forces as his political alliances.

In his first political move, President Thein Sein prioritized negotiation with democratic forces.  He made changes to election laws, which were in fact drafted to ban pro-democracy leaders such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  As soon as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party contest the upcoming election and become a part of the legislative body, the Parliament, Chairman of People’s Parliament, Lower House, Thura Shew Mann and Chairman of Nationalities’ Parliament, Upper House, Khin Aung Myint’s power will be balanced and held in check by her mere presence.  Even though both Thura Shwe Mann and Khin Aung Mying yield enormous power in Parliament, they could not contend with the influence and popularity of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  This could be the reason President Thein Sein so dearly wanted Aung San Suu Kyi to be in parliament.

President Thein Sein’s second political move was the proposal of peace talks and ceasefire agreements with ethnic arms groups.  It seems that this move is in fact the first step to destroying the correlation principle between the military dictatorship and civil war as put forward by General Ne Win. General Ne Win was the person who intentionally cultivated and nurtured the seed of civil war in Burma in order to strongly and firmly a build military dictatorship. Thus, instead of solving ethnic political problems and internal peace through political means and dialogue, General Ne Win deliberately opted for using military might as a political game against the ethnic nationalities. 

However, General Ne Win and the Burmese army have never attempted to destroy the insurgencies and ethnic armed groups once and for all.  By using cunning strategies and tactics, they have only fostered and prolonged their existence. The reason is that only if there is a civil war, can the military become powerful. More importantly in this way, the military would find an excuse to keep and hold on to the state’s administrative power.  Therefore, by using civil war as an excuse and scapegoat, the military has kept state power and built a military dictatorship. 

From Internal Peace to the End of Military Dictatorship

If President Thein Sein’s call for peace with ethnic armed groups is successful, and if political arrangements with ethnic armed groups end sixty years of civil war, the tactics of constructing a military dictatorship through civil war could be broken into pieces. In fact, the military dictatorship can only survive by prolonging civil war in Burma. If there is no civil war in Burma, the military dictatorship in Burma could be diminished. Therefore, it’s worth noting that stopping civil war, or achieving genuine internal peace is the key to dissolving the military dictatorship in Burma. 

One might be cautiously optimistic here in believing that that is what President Thein Sein has in mind for the country’s long term political benefit.  In addition to this, if calls for and proposals of peace and ceasefire agreements with ethnic armed groups bear fruit, President Thein Sein would have an immediate political advantage from it, and thus can hold and control the balance of power by putting his political rival, the Military, in a situation where it would be held in check by peace agreements with the ethnic arms groups.

However, if current peace talks and ceasefire agreements with ethnic armed groups are not transformed into a meaningful political dialogue, it could be counterproductive and create a quite dangerous political outcome for President Thein Sein. It would also have a negative impact on the nation. More importantly, the danger is that the President’s political rivals, especially the generals who obstinately and strongly oppose current political changes and ceasefire talks with ethnic armed groups, could use the failure of peace talks with ethnic groups as an excuse to stage a military coup as provided for in the 2008 constitution.

A historical lesson should be learned from the 1988 nation-wide uprising, in which the uprising that overthrew the one-party rule of Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programmed Party resulted in a much worse military dictatorship. Therefore, to be successful in his political initiatives, the main key to success for President Thein Sein’s is ending the civil war and achieving internal peace in Burma.  If President Thein Sein really wants to achieve internal peace in Burma, the ongoing peace and ceasefire talks with the ethnic arms groups must be promptly transformed into a meaningful and promising political dialogue.         

(Original version in Burmese was published as “ Current Political Analysis in Burma: No. 2, in February 2012)

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