Myanmar: Civil–Military Relations in a Tutelary Regime
Myanmar: Civil–Military Relations in a Tutelary Regime
- Marco BünteMarco BünteInstitute of Political Science, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg
Myanmar has had one of the longest ruling military regimes in the world. Ruling directly or indirectly for more than five decades, Myanmar’s armed forces have been able to permeate the country’s main political institutions, its economy, and its society. Myanmar is a highly revealing case study for examining the trajectory of civil–military relations over the past seven decades. Myanmar ended direct military rule only in 2011 after the military had become the most powerful institution in society, weakened the political party opposition severely, coopted several ethnic armed groups, and built up a business empire that allowed it to remain financially independent. The new tutelary regime—established in 2011 after proclaiming a roadmap to “discipline flourishing democracy” in 2003, promulgating a new constitution in 2008, and holding (heavily scripted) elections in 2010—allowed a degree of power-sharing between elected civilian politicians and the military for a decade. Although policymaking in economic, financial, and social arenas was transferred to the elected government, the military remained in firm control of external and internal security and continued to be completely autonomous in the management of its own affairs. As a veto power, the military was also able to protect its prerogatives from a position of strength. Despite this dominant position in the government, civil–military relations were hostile and led to a coup in February 2021. The military felt increasingly threatened and humiliated as civilians destroyed the guardrails it had put in place to protect its core interests within the tutelary regime. The military also felt increasingly alienated as the party the military had established repeatedly failed to perform in the elections.
- Contentious Politics and Political Violence
- Governance/Political Change
- Political Institutions
The Coup in February 2021 and the Breakdown of Civil–Military Relations
In the early morning hours of February 1, 2021, military officers detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other senior leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD). They cut off phones and the internet and arrested some of the most active members of civil society. Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing seized state power, made General Myint Swe the new president, and declared a 1-year state of emergency. The move came just 1 day before the newly elected parliament was about to convene for the first time following the November 2020 elections in which the NLD had won an overwhelming majority, as it had 5 years previously in the 2015 elections.
The coup ended a decade of power-sharing between the military and elected civilian politicians. It took the military more than two decades to craft this form of power-sharing, to write the 2008 constitution, to adopt it in a referendum, and to convince both the civilian opposition and the international community to support it. With the relatively free elections in 2015, the country seemed on the path toward gradual democratization and national reconciliation, though the military guarded the process from a position of strength (Bünte, 2014; Callahan, 2012; Egreteau, 2016). This form of “tutelary regime” allowed the military to protect its core interests in the country but to step back from the daily business of policymaking (Bünte, 2021; Stokke & Aung, 2020). The democratic opening enabled Myanmar to engage much more with the outside world, since most Western countries had lifted their economic sanctions in 2016. Nevertheless, some targeted sanctions were reintroduced after the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people in 2017. The country experienced significant growth rates in the decade leading up to 2021 and attained lower middle-income status in 2015. Before 2011, the Myanmar armed forces (Tatmadaw) had ruled the country directly for nearly five decades, with devastating consequences for the economy and the social infrastructure of the country. Under the previous half century of military rule, Myanmar had become Southeast Asia’s poorest country. The question consequently is: Why did the military end a decade of civil–military cooperation and choose to return to direct military rule, although it had profited obviously from a decade of a power-sharing arrangement?
The article tries to answer this question by examining the trajectory of civil–military relations in Myanmar over the past seven decades. This trajectory has been shaped by several critical junctures, which have not only brought about a military dominance in politics (and the economy), but also affected the military mindset and its willingness to share power and resources with civilian leaders. The article analyzes these critical junctures, which are understood as “short, time-defined periods, where antecedent conditions allow contingent choices that set a specific trajectory of institutional modification that is difficult to reverse” (Page, 2006, p. 8). From this perspective, it looks at the diverse push and pull factors that have led to military intervention. It begins by defining the key terms of civilian control and tutelary interference. It then depicts the critical junctures that led to the establishment of Myanmar’s tutelary regime and assesses the factors that led to the coup in February 2021.
Civil–Military Relations and Tutelary Interference
Civil–military relations have often been conceptualized as a dichotomy between civilian control and overt military intervention. They have also often been referred to as a mere absence of coups. However, Aurel Croissant and colleagues have correctly demonstrated that the coup variable is becoming less and less adequate for an analysis of civil–military relations, particularly when the military uses a number of avenues to influence politics behind the scenes and does not directly threaten to take over power (Croissant et al., 2010). The experiences of many young democracies show that the military may still have to give up political power after the formal democratization of the political system. In order to grasp the full range of civil–military relations, it is more useful to conceive of military interference along a continuum of civil–military relations, with the polar ends of “civilian supremacy and civilian control” at one end and “military rule” at the other, and a graduation of degrees of military interference in between.
Civilian supremacy is defined as the ability of a civilian government “to conduct general policy without interferences from the military, to define the goals and general organization of national defense, to formulate and conduct defense policy, and to monitor the implementation of military policy” (Aguero, 1995, p. 15). Civilian supremacy is even stronger than civilian control, which can be defined as civilian governments and their agencies having the authority to determine the organization, resources, and purpose of the armed forces without the threat of military interference. It requires that the military is fully subordinate and accountable to elected officials as well as to the general rule of law. Military rule, at the other end of the spectrum, can be defined as a “system of government by the military” (Perlmutter, 1980). The military rules and serving or retired military officers occupy key positions within an (unelected) government.
Between these poles lie different hybrid forms of military intervention such as tutelary interference and military control. In tutelary regimes, the armed forces enjoy a high degree of autonomy from the political control of civilian politicians. Depending on their position in the political system, they act as rulers or decision makers, as necessary partners in government, and as possible veto players (Bünte, 2021). But at what point do militaries withdraw from the political arena? Scholars of civil–military relations have pointed to both internal military variables and external variables. Sundhaussen (1985) argues that a withdrawal from politics is the outcome of two interdependent, concurrent factors: the internal dynamics within the military itself and the political, cultural, economic, and external environment, which influences the military’s actions. Endogenous factors shape the military’s disposition and ability to intervene or withdraw, and extraneous factors create favorable or unfavorable opportunity structures for the military’s intervention or withdrawal. These factors act as “pull” or “push” factors (Bünte, 2014; Croissant, 2004). By looking at the most important critical junctures of Myanmar’s development, the following sections seek to show how these push and pull factors have played out over time.
Myanmar’s Military: From State-Builder to Ruler (1942–1962)
The Burmese armed forces (Tatmadaw) have been deeply embedded in the political realm since the country’s independence from Great Britain in 1948. Because the foundation of the Tatmadaw in 1942 even preceded national independence and the officer corps was politicized as a liberating force during the anti-colonial struggle, the army could, retrospectively, assume the role of guardian of the Burmese state and the bulwark of national independence (Callahan, 2003). The fight for independence prepared the ground for a political role of the army. Founded in 1941 by Aung San and a group of young nationalists, the Burmese Independence Army (BIA) was involved in supporting the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942 but turned their back on their sponsors and fought a guerrilla war against Tokyo (Callahan, 2001). After the return of the British, the BIA was integrated into the Burma Army under British control. Aung San, who was able to control a huge number of loyal soldiers and armed volunteers, was able to exercise pressure on the British colonial administration, which finally ceded and granted Burma its independence in 1948.
The increased assertiveness of the Burmese military following independence can be traced back to the immediate postindependence period: The outbreak of ethnic and communist rebellions after the departure of the British triggered the institutional modernization of the armed forces, which had initially not kept pace with the institutional capacity of the civilian state. The rebellions of the Arakanese Mujahidin, the Karen, and the communist groups caught the army unprepared and led to the near collapse of the young state. In the end, however, the imminent state collapse was prevented; the union government was able to gradually expand its territorial control beyond Rangoon and strengthen its command structure under the leadership of General Ne Win. Although the military accepted the supremacy of the U Nu government and the 1947 constitution—which enshrined civilian control in the fields of security, internal promotion procedures, and military expenditures—the weak state became increasingly dependent on the army (Callahan, 2001, p. 414). Furthermore, the crises infused soldiers with a praetorian ethos and led to the increasing centralization of power and capital in the military realm. However, unlike its Thai or Indonesian counterparts, at this point of time the Burmese army had not developed its own business network (Bünte, 2017, p. 97).
The external threat posed by Kuomintang troops invading from China triggered a further modernization of the army. Civilian control gave way to what Janowitz calls a civil–military coalition (Janowitz, 1964). The military increasingly took over administrative and civilian functions and received a significant part of the national budget for internal security. The political role of the military expanded gradually until 1958, when the civil–military coalition broke down. Increasing factionalism within the ruling Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) led to growing parliamentary instability and a first temporary transfer of power into military hands in 1958. Although General Ne Win’s “caretaker government” returned power back to U Nu’s newly elected government after elections in 1960 and the military returned to the barracks, Ne Win staged a coup in March 1962, which brought the army leaders back into power and “eliminated their civilian counterparts once and for all” (Callahan, 2001, p. 422). According to the official army rhetoric, U Nu’s decision to make Buddhism the state religion, along with the ethnic groups’ call for greater autonomy and secession from the union, set the stage for military intervention. The coup of 1962 saw the beginning of military control, which was to last for nearly five decades. This period can be divided into two phases: the Ne Win era from 1962 to 1988 and the junta period from 1988 to 2011.
The Tatmadaw as Rulers: The Ne Win Period (1962–1988)
After the 1962 coup, General Ne Win and the 17-man Revolutionary Council of senior military officers ruled the country by fiat until 1974. They abolished the 1947 constitution, dissolved parliament, banned all political parties, and barred civil society (with the exception of religious organizations). Under the banner of the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” the military nationalized the economy and expropriated private industries and businesses. It set up its own Leninist party, the Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), which ran the country unchallenged for over 25 years. The military became the backbone of a socialist one-party state and permeated both party and civil bureaucracy. Active or retired military officers dominated the BSPP Central Executive Committee from 1971 to 1988 (Nakanishi, 2013, p. 167). For instance, Ne Win was both chairman of the BSPP and president of Burma. Based on his personal influence in the army and the party, he kept his subordinates divided and controlled all potential rivals through regular purges. Although the party formally controlled the army, Ne Win maintained power over both the party and the military by providing retired military officers with positions in the BSPP or civilian ministries. In this way the party and the civilian bureaucracy extended the career paths of retired military officers, thus easing generational pressures within the army and laying the foundation for its extraordinary stability (Nakanishi, 2013).
Nevertheless, away from the capital, the harsh economic and political measures introduced by the Ne Win regime in the 1960s further exacerbated ethnic conflicts. While the Tatmadaw was able to reassert some control over the heartland, communist and ethnic insurgencies spread rapidly in the rest of the country. The army fought relentless counterinsurgency campaigns, which were often brutally effective, and drove ethnic rebel groups closer to the border regions (Smith, 1999, p. 261). However, in the 1970s and 1980s, much of the border region continued to be controlled by ethnic armies, since this terrain often proved inaccessible for the Tatmadaw. The army’s offensive campaigns came to a stalemate and, as a consequence, the army leadership developed the perception that the Tatmadaw had insufficient resources to fight these insurgencies. For the top generals, the army was insufficiently equipped, inadequately trained, and poorly funded (Callahan, 2003, p. 210).
In 1987–1988, General Ne Win’s military-backed socialist one-party regime crumbled from within when the country was faced with a severe economic crisis. Economic mismanagement led to massive student demonstrations, which forced Ne Win to resign as party chairman in July 1988. The protests escalated into a broad-based countrywide movement that continued until September 1988, when the military reorganized itself, staged a coup, and brutally cracked down on the movement, killing several thousand demonstrators (Lintner, 1990; Steinberg, 2001, p. 3).
The Tatmadaw as Rulers: The SLORC and SPDC Era (1988–2011)
The coup carried out by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) re-established direct military rule. Under the leadership of Saw Maung, the military revoked the 1974 constitution, dissolved parliament, and concentrated all executive, legislative, and judicial powers in the hands of the SLORC. When it seized power, the junta had promised to hand over control to an elected government after holding new multiparty elections. Although elections were held in May 1990, the military council failed to acknowledge the results, which had ended in a landslide victory for the opposition, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Acting in the manner of a caretaker government, the military argued that the country lacked a constitution to transfer power to a new civilian government. The junta, led after 1992 by the new strongman, Senior General Than Shwe, was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997. It remained in power until 2011.
The SLORC–SPDC military junta consisted of 19–21 members and balanced the interests of both military officers in the center (War Office) and powerful commanders in the regions (Selth, 2002, pp. 51–59). The leading figures were Senior General Than Shwe, General Maung Aye, and, until 2004, Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt. This triumvirate placed its followers in the military councils and the cabinets, which were purely administrative bodies (Min, 2008, p. 1025). Both the SLORC and the SPDC were obsessed with security, as articulated in state propaganda with its promotion of the “three national causes” (nondisintegration of the union, nondisintegration of national solidarity, and perpetuation of national sovereignty). Feeling threatened by an urban democracy movement that it argued might collaborate with ethnic insurgent groups and foreign powers, the military junta consistently claimed that the country was on the verge of disintegration. The junta’s main strategy in the 1990s was guided both by its own corporate interest in securing its future dominance and also the need to accelerate its modernization. Hence, it attempted “to take whatever measures were required to recover and consolidate its grip on government” (Selth, 2002, p. 33). The consequence was an increasing militarization of society and the establishment of a “garrison state” in which military norms regarding security and violence became dominant.
Despite continuing intra-military tensions, the military regime remained extraordinarily stable (Hlaing, 2009; Min, 2008). The junta ruled with an iron fist and exercised a high degree of repression; it successfully limited political and social spaces and crushed any form of dissent—for instance, the peaceful protest demonstrations of Buddhist monks in September 2007. Political parties were allowed to form in the years after SLORC came to power in 1988, but of those parties that registered to compete in the 1990 elections, only 10 survived the harsh deregistration campaign and remained legal after 1993. During this repressive period, the NLD had little chance to organize. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi remained largely under house arrest until her release in 2010. Other party members or elected parliamentarians were imprisoned or had to flee abroad. The military also brought the Buddhist order (sangha) under its control—an important move due to the activism of Buddhist monks (Bünte, 2018).
To achieve its self-proclaimed goals of nondisintegration of the union, nonintegration of national solidarity, and perpetuation of national sovereignty, the junta embarked on a massive state-building program, which included both the expansion of the armed forces from 186,000 to 370,000 soldiers and the modernization of the repressive apparatus (Callahan, 2003; Selth, 2002). To fund these initiatives, the SLORC–SPDC opened up the economy and started to build a business empire. It discarded the socialist economy of the Ne Win era and adopted a market economy model, setting the stage for a transition from state-run socialism to state-mediated capitalism (Jones, 2014). However, the liberalization of the economy remained modest, partly as a consequence of Western sanctions and partly due to a lack of access to capital through the banking sector. Additionally, conservative generals, ministers, and high-ranking officials blocked liberalization, fearing the loss of access to rents and revenues. A new form of “crony capitalism” evolved around the top military generals and their families. To take advantage of liberalization, the private sector required access to military leaders; consequently, a few cronies of top military generals were able to secure monopolies and contracts to expand their wealth (Ford et al., 2016; Jones, 2014).
Moreover, the military began establishing the most important conglomerates: The largest of the two is the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL), a military-managed business set up to support the regime’s welfare organizations, veteran organizations, and retired military personnel. The second, the Myanmar Economic Cooperation (MEC), was given business licenses in construction, tourism, transport, gems and jade extraction, and agriculture (Bünte, 2017; McCarthy, 2019). In addition to these core activities, the military was involved in a wide range of decentralized commercial interests and enterprises. Economic opportunities had opened up particularly at the local level due to the evolving ceasefire economies. Consequently, many regional officers who engaged in these businesses became unusually rich. Such extralegal activities and abuses of power damaged the military’s reputation, as people began to see these commercial activities as being above the law (Prager-Nyein, 2012, p. 40).
During the 1990s, a series of ceasefires negotiated between the military and ethnic insurgent groups significantly reduced the internal armed threat to the Tatmadaw. Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, a member of the SPDC and head of military intelligence, signed ceasefires with 17 armed groups in order to short circuit any collusion between the ethnic ceasefire groups involved and the pro-democracy movement (Callahan, 2007; Zaw & Min, 2007). The ethnic armed groups were allowed to retain their weapons and exercise control over their own territories. This control included the right to trade, which often involved bartering for illicit commodities such as weapons and narcotics. Woods (2011) pointed out that the military engaged in private–military partnerships with ethnic elites and traditional businessmen and managed to achieve significant progress in state-building. Though these ceasefires were not formalized—they were merely “gentlemen’s agreements” between Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt and leaders of the ethnic groups—they allowed for increasing territorial presence by the Tatmadaw in some parts of the country. In these areas, military commanders and relevant state agencies awarded licenses to extract the region’s natural resources (Callahan, 2007; Jones, 2014). Altogether, these ceasefires were fundamental to coopting ethnic groups, as they gave political actors in the regions some breathing space, which they used to promote local economic development (Jones, 2014, p. 792). For example, since the early years of this century, there has been a boom in investments in palm oil, rubber, and agricultural products. In addition to providing possibilities for rent-seeking, the ceasefires established in some areas freed up resources for the military to continue its war against insurgencies in other areas. The Tatmadaw renewed its war against groups that had continued with their armed struggle, such as the Karen National Liberation Army or the Shan State Army South.
All in all, Myanmar’s politics became increasingly militarized throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The Tatmadaw developed into a state within a state and built what Laswell called a “garrison state” (Camroux & Egreteau, 2010; Laswell, 1941). This was also symbolized by the construction of the new capital in Naypyidaw in 2006. The capital was built in secrecy and is said to have cost US$4–5 billion. With the specialists on violence ruling, Myanmar was characterized by a high degree of repression against any form of dissent, ongoing wars against ethnic armed organizations, and an attempt to build up a nation around the core of ethnic Bamar supremacy.
Direct military rule ended in March 2011 when the SPDC was formally dissolved and both Senior General Than Shwe and General Maung Aye went into retirement. This step followed a decade of reforms that had institutionalized the military’s political role and created power-sharing institutions between elected civilians and the military (Bünte, 2014). The transition to quasi-civilian rule was therefore institutionalized from a position of strength. Having consolidated its position internally and severely weakened the NLD, the military announced a roadmap to “discipline-flourishing democracy” in 2003. The most important steps taken by the military were the drafting of a new constitution by the National Convention (1993–1996, 2003–2007), the holding of a referendum to validate the new constitution (2008), the creation of the regime-sponsored Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and the carrying out of (heavily scripted) elections in November 2010. Boycotted by the NLD, these were won by the USDP in a landslide (Egreteau, 2016). This new form of power-sharing arrangement allowed the military leadership (Senior General Than Shwe and General Maung Aye) to retire and make room for a new generation of military leaders to occupy key positions within the new tutelary regime. To safeguard his own personal, family and commercial interests after stepping down, the strongman of the military junta, Senior General Than Shwe, handpicked key people for the new administration himself (Callahan, 2012, p. 122; Hlaing, 2012). Thein Sein, a loyal and long-time member of the junta who had chaired the National Convention to draft the constitution and served as prime minister of the junta since 2007, became the first “civilian” president in 2011. Four-star General Thura Shwe Mann, former joint chief of staff of the military and the third highest member of the military hierarchy, was made speaker of the lower house. Both were placed at the helm of the USDP, the military proxy party. Than Shwe also chose Min Aung Hlaing as commander-in-chief. All in all, this selection of former members of the military regime was supposed to prevent a concentration of power within the new regime and provide a balance between rival factions.
Myanmar’s Tutelary Regime (2011–2021)
The 2008 constitution established a tutelary regime and laid the foundation for a power-sharing agreement between the military and elected representatives (Bünte, 2021). Moreover, it gave the military a “leading role” in the national leadership of the state. As such, the 2008 constitution was an “insurance policy for the military elite to foresee loss of power” (David & Holliday, 2018, p. 52) and a “key part of the establishment and maintenance of the military state” (Crouch, 2019, p. 3). It both established the preconditions for and set the boundaries of the political liberalization that ensued under President Thein Sein (2011–2015) and, subsequently, the NLD government, which was voted into office with a landslide victory in 2015. This “protracted” yet ultimately constrained democratization process allowed a fragile reconciliation between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD, on the one hand, and the military and the ethnic groups, on the other (Bünte, 2016). In this respect, the 2008 constitution established firm guardrails to hinder a deviation from what the military called “discipline-flourishing democracy.” Seeing itself as being above politics, the military aimed at overseeing a “discipline-flourishing democracy, guiding civilian politicians and ultimately ‘caretaking democratization’” (Egreteau, 2016).
Within the tutelary regime, the military has had an important position as ruler, as indispensable partner in government, and as veto actor. Under President Thein Sein, 29 of the 36 cabinet members were former military officers (Hlaing, 2012). While after the NLD landslide in 2015, the military invited the NLD to form the government, it retained the three ministries of Border Affairs, Defense, and Home Affairs, which were constitutionally reserved for the Tatmadaw. The heads of these ministries were appointed by Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. He also appointed one of the vice presidents and one-quarter of the country’s MPs. Although it took a backseat in most policy areas, the military maintained its exclusive control in the fields of security and defense. It also remained completely in control of the management of its own affairs. Although Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing repeatedly asserted that the Tatmadaw acted “under the president,” decisions in the security sphere were made solely by him. According to the 2008 constitution, the commander-in-chief was “responsible for all the armed forces of the Union,” thus placing the army, navy, and air force, the police, militias, and other paramilitary forces under his control. In addition, all intelligence agencies were placed under his control (Selth, 2018, p. 140).
Furthermore, the Tatmadaw was solely responsible for defense issues. It published its very first “Defense White Paper” in February 2016, shortly before the elected civilian government took office, in order to proclaim that it remained the core institution for drafting and implementing defense and security policies (Myoe, 2018, p. 205). Although regular discussions took place within both houses of parliament, parliamentary control of the defense budget was superficial in light of the hidden budgets for the security forces and off-budgetary financing (Egreteau, 2017). Since 2015 and the election of a NLD government, the defense budget was kept at a high 13%–14% of the total budget and significantly higher than allocations in fields such as health or education. This has been described by a keen observer as a payoff for military officers for taking a backseat in policymaking (Selth, 2015, p. 11).
More importantly, the military had insulated itself from possible budget uncertainties and scarcities by developing its own military enterprises, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (UMEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Cooperation (MEC). This form of “khaki capital” has enabled the military to remain independent for decades (Bünte, 2017). The conglomerates have provided important off-budget finances for military projects and income for retired military officers. With the help of its conglomerates, the military has also profited from the economic opening since 2011. In the 2011 and 2015 privatization rounds, the MEC was among the main beneficiaries (Ford et al., 2016, p. 31). Through its ownership of a significant amount of public land, the military also profited from the property boom in Yangon. Since forming a civilian government, the NLD has avoided direct confrontation with the military and its crony companies and shied away from placing any forms of civilian control over military businesses.
Generally, the implementation of policies enacted by the elected government remained weak at best. This reflects in the governance arrangements shaped by former military governments. In ethnic minority regions, certain economic sectors are under the control of nonstate actors (ethnic armed organizations, militias, or border forces). These are the result of ceasefire agreements with former military governments or clientelistic-type relations with the military (Woods, 2011). The lack of political control is particularly pronounced in ethnic minority states, many of which have been marked by decades of armed conflict and resource grabbing, often with the involvement of the military and its companies. Moreover, until January 2019, the military had control over the General Administrative Department (GAD), which had built the backbone of the country’s administration. Moreover, it has a coordinating role among the government ministries, extending down to the 16,000 local districts with their 36,000 local officials (Chit Saw & Arnold, 2014). Previously, for the civilian government elected in 2015, this was a major obstacle in policymaking and implementation. By placing the GAD under the Office of the Union Administration in January 2019, the NLD managed to lay the foundation for improved governance and better policy coordination for the future (Arnold, 2019). However, these reforms had only limited effects, since the GAD continued to be staffed with former military officers. Further reforms in this domain were modest and were not resisted by the military, since “the generals deemed these matters not worth squabbling over” (Barany, 2018).
The NLD shied away from initiating more significant structural reforms which might have limited the dominance of the military. To be fair, the constraints on the NLD were immense. Constitutional changes to the military’s role require the consent of more than 75% of the parliamentarians and, consequently, the support of the military itself. Once she became the de facto head of the civilian government, Aung San Suu Kyi adopted the military’s position in the peace process, though she had criticized it previously (Myoe, 2018). She also defended the military’s atrocities both in Rakhine State and in other regions with ethnic conflict, as well as appearing at the International Court of Justice to defend the military against accusations of genocide against the Rohingya minority. In the eyes of the international community, this strategy failed, leading to an immense reputational loss for the former human rights icon. She fell from grace in the West and was stripped of many accolades due to her collusion with the military. Inside the country, on the contrary, this led to an increase in both Aung San Suu Kyi’s and the military’s popularity.
In short, the tutelary regime allowed the military not only to continue to rule in the areas of defense and security, but also its strong position within that regime allowed it to systematically straitjacket the civilian arm of government. Moreover, the military could also protect its core economic and political interests while ostensibly remaining in the backseat. The core dilemma of the tutelary regime was that it did not provide a proper channel for the succession of the commander-in-chief. The military’s past practice of placing high-ranking officers in the country’s cabinets had previously provided for strong informal rule, which has been partly thwarted since 2015.
Disruptions in the Tutelary Regime: The Coup of February 2021
On February 1, 2021, the military seized power, announced a state of emergency, and transferred all power to Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. However, unlike in 1962 or 1988, the military did not abolish the 2008 constitution. Instead, referring to articles 417 and 418 (a) of the constitution, it claimed to be adhering to its mission of safeguarding a “discipline-flourishing democracy” and attempted to justify its actions as a legitimate means to uphold the rule of law (Crouch, 2021). In his first statement after the coup, Min Aung Hlaing blamed the Union Election Commission for failing to conduct free and fair elections and announced new multiparty elections after the end of the newly declared 1-year emergency. He promised to transfer power to the winning party (Global New Light of Myanmar, 2021). The coup can consequently be classified as a “promissory coup” in which coup makers deposed an elected government in order to defend democracy and promised to hold elections in order to restore it (Bermeo, 2016).
This disruption in Myanmar’s tutelary regime is the result of an interplay of personal and corporate grievances within the military. The coup reflects the political ambitions and personal motivations of Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who would have reached retirement age in July 2021. He is said to have approached the NLD repeatedly after the November 2020 elections and asked to be made president in a future government, since he felt too young to retire. At the same time, the NLD’s landslide victory and the dismal performance of the military proxy party USDP meant that even with the 25% reserved for military officers, the commander-in-chief had no chance of becoming president. Some analysts have also highlighted the scenario that his retirement would have left him open to prosecution in international courts in relation to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority (Simpson, 2021).
These personal motivations of the commander-in-chief were reinforced by a strong corporate interest on the part of the military. Min Aung Hlaing’s successor would have been the first to be selected by an elected NLD president in consultation with the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC). This would have been unprecedented and illustrated the waning power of the military. It would have allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to appoint a reformist army general and would have opened the door for the NLD to reign in the Tatmadaw for the very first time. The case of Myanmar thus echoes Finer’s argument that the military’s “anxiety to preserve its autonomy provides one of the most widespread and powerful of the motives for intervention” (Finer, 1976, p. 41).
While these personal and corporate grievances certainly played a decisive role, the military’s dissatisfaction with the tutelary regime seems to have pulled the military into the political arena. The military was proud of having established a “discipline-flourishing democracy,” which provided a “leading role” for the armed forces and allowed for a degree of reconciliation with the NLD. After the relatively free and fair elections of 2015, it invited the NLD to take over the government and took on the role of guardian. After 5 years of power-sharing, however, as both sides fought for leadership and supremacy, the military felt humiliated and threatened by civilian politicians.
As a preliminary point, it needs to be stressed that the civil–military relations between the NLD and the Tatmadaw were a marriage of inconvenience from the beginning, and military leaders clashed with Aung San Suu Kyi repeatedly (Bünte, 2021). The personal relationship between Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Suu Kyi has been described as toxic, and both sides reportedly met for the last time in 2018. While Aung San Suu Kyi did not see Min Aung Hlaing as a legitimate partner because he was unelected, he himself questioned her constitutional position as state counsellor. Aung San Suu Kyi was never expected to lead the government: Article 59(f) of the military-drafted constitution prevents citizens with immediate family members who hold foreign citizenship from running for president. The NLD circumvented this article by introducing the State Counsellor Law in 2016, which allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to take up a position at the helm of the government as a de facto prime minister. When the NLD pushed the law through parliament, military representatives furiously complained about “bullying by the democratic majority,” though they eventually accepted the move (Myoe, 2018). The military was also furious that the NLD wanted to change the military-drafted constitution and constrain the military’s power, though it managed to prevent these moves with its constitutional veto power in both 2015 and 2020.
The communication lines between the civilian and military arms of the government broke down earlier. According to the constitution, the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) was responsible for discussing security matters in the government. The military has a majority in the 11-member body, which consists of the two vice presidents; the speaker of the two houses of parliament; the commander-in-chef and his deputy; and the ministers of defense, home affairs, border affairs, and foreign affairs. The NDSC convened three times a week during the Thein Sein government (Myoe, 2018). However, under the NLD government, President Win Myint did not convene the NDSC even once in 5 years, although both the military and the USDP repeatedly urged the government to convene a meeting. Arguably, the NLD feared it would be forced to call a state of emergency (e.g., in Rakhine State), which would have given the commander-in-chief the possibility of taking over wide-reaching powers. Instead, the de facto head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi, appointed her own security advisers. Looking back, this can be seen as a reassurance of the civilian government to prevent a military takeover of the government.
The military also used the USDP and the military block in parliament to try to undermine the legitimacy of the elected government by systematically highlighting Aung San Suu Kyi’s ostensible lack of leadership qualities and the NLD administration’s failure to solve the “national crisis.” It also entered into an alliance with the ethnonationalist movement led by the ultranationalist Buddhist monk, Wirathu (Bünte, 2018). It repeatedly warned of the dangers of foreign interference, including those of “mixed-blood people,” in the internal affairs of the country (Myoe, 2018, p. 204). The USDP lobbied for a continued role for the military and voted against the constitutional changes proposed by the NLD in July 2015 and March 2020. It also mobilized its supporters in the streets in favor of military action in Rakhine State. However, while the military proxy party has served as an extended arm of the military in parliament after 2015, it failed to develop into a strong organization and performed dismally in both the 2015 and the 2020 elections.
The final struggle, which ultimately triggered the coup, involved the Union Election Commission’s (UEC) management of the 2020 election. There were early conflicts between the UEC and the military, since the UEC made some controversial changes that the military opposed. For instance, it ended the practice of establishing polling booths inside military compounds for military personnel and their family members (Thant & Ross, 2020). Even before the November 2020 elections had occurred, the USDP and a dozen parties close to the military had petitioned the commander-in-chief to intervene if the UEC corrupted the election. In the November 2020 elections, the NLD won 86% of the contested seats and the USDP only 7%—a second dismal performance. The military proxy party refused to acknowledge the election results and again encouraged the military commander-in-chief to intervene. In December 2020, the military allegedly found major irregularities in the voter lists and repeatedly asked the UEC to disclose the lists. Both the UEC and the government rejected these demands. In mid-January, Min Aung Hlaing even complained publicly about the voting irregularities during the visit by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi (Tha, 2021). At the end of January, a military spokesman, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, read out another statement on electoral misconduct, dishonesty, and inconsistency and demanded the dissolution of the UEC and new elections. In the same interview, he also refused to rule out a military coup. Despite these threats, the military could not produce evidence of systematic vote rigging by the NLD. Both local and international election observers reported that, despite shortcomings, the elections reflect the will of the people (IFES, 2020). Last-minute high-level meetings between senior NLD officials and the military failed, since the government did not want to give in and hold new elections. The military again felt deeply humiliated, and even insulted, by the behavior of civilian politicians (McPherson, 2021).
It can consequently be argued that both personal and corporate interests provided strong incentives for the military’s intervention, while the perceived dysfunctions of the tutelary regime pulled the military fully into the political arena. Having ruled for more than five decades and having initiated a successful transition to “discipline-flourishing democracy,” the military’s proclaimed mission as guardian provided a strong rationale for military action. Furthermore, power-sharing in the tutelary regime was highly conflictive, as it brought together two political and personal foes, each of whom aimed to obtain supremacy. Moreover, the lack of a proper succession mechanism for the top position in the armed forces and the previous habit of placing military officers in key government positions after their careers provided the institutional background for these developments. Though the military rulers had ceased to rule directly, they felt entitled to occupy the supreme position in the system. Unaccustomed to “sitting in the backseat,” they felt deeply humiliated when civilian leaders increasingly took charge.
Though the new junta, constituted as the State Administrative Council (SAC) chaired by Min Aung Hlaing, has tried to move on to normalcy, the exploding protest movement, with its massive demonstrations against the coup, and the evolving civil disobedience movement have crippled the government. The Tatmadaw, which has tried to portray its takeover as both constitutional and temporary, may be keen to avoid a violent crackdown but may not know how else to deal with the civil disobedience movement. The effects of the protests on the military are not clear at the time of this writing and it remains an open question whether the disruptions in the tutelary regime will finally give way to a more permanent, direct military regime or pave the way for a return to the power-sharing arrangement of 2011–2015 in which the military had the upper hand. This would mean the continuation of the tutelary regime.
Having ruled directly or indirectly for more than five decades, Myanmar’s armed forces have been able to permeate all of the country’s state institutions, the economy, and society. Since independence, ethnic armed groups have been fighting for independence or for greater autonomy. These tensions, initially in the immediate postindependence period, increasingly pulled the military into the political arena, leading to the 1962 coup. The outcome was the establishment of a military regime that has proven extremely resilient and adaptable. After a first breakdown of the regime in 1988, the military felt threatened by an alliance of ethnic armed groups and democracy activists. A new sequence of military rule and military modernization followed; to finance these developments, the military began to build up its business conglomerates. After governing the country directly from 1988 to 2011, the military established a tutelary regime, which enabled the old guard around strongman Than Shwe to retire. At the same time, a new generation of military leaders was positioned within the core institutions of the tutelary regime. The new regime allowed the military to play the role of guardian. It took over important tasks in governing, particularly in the fields of security and defense. In a number of other fields, the military ruled jointly with civilian politicians. However, given that there was no oversight over the military, it could straitjacket the civilian government and veto constitutional changes. The military remained in control of its own affairs and conglomerates; it also received a substantial 13%–14% of the state budget. Despite its control over significant segments of the government, the military withdrew its support for the tutelary framework it had put in place and decided to intervene to take total control again in February 2021.
This disruption in Myanmar’s tutelary regime was caused by an interplay of personal and corporate grievances within the military, which pushed the military back into the political arena. In particular, the looming retirement of the Tatmadaw’s Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and a possible loss of autonomy triggered the coup. At the same time, the cohabitation between the military and civilians had not functioned well and the military felt humiliated after 5 years of power-sharing. The personal relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and the commander-in-chief had become toxic at the same time as the NLD had circumvented the core institutions (NDSC, the presidency) the military had established in the 2008 constitution to ensure a buildup to guarantee its dominance.
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