America's Golden Opportunity in Myanmar

Washington can help depoliticize the country's military.

On Monday, a sea of orange-clad parliamentarians from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party swept into Myanmar’s Lower House, many taking their seats for the first time. After six decades of military rule, this was a momentous achievement for the democracy icon and a cause for much celebration around the world. Yet, Myanmar remains a long way from its transition to liberal democracy.

Just two months prior, Chaw Sandi Tun, an activist in Myanmar, was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison. Her crime? A Facebook post which observed that the color scheme of the Myanmar military’s new uniforms matched those of Suu Kyi’s traditional longyi skirt. Tun’s arrest, and those of other activists and journalists, are sobering reminders that when the NLD establishes its new government in March, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, will retain considerable power.

Myanmar’s democratization will ultimately require the Tatmadaw to relinquish its role in politics and “return to the barracks.” Both will be extraordinarily difficult to accomplish given the military’s decades of political entrenchment and the current constitution. In the near term, this means that the military must decide that the benefits of surrendering political control outweigh the costs of retaining the status quo. U.S. policy makers can help alter this calculation through a combination of gradual sanctions relief and other economic incentives. In the long run, however, the Tatmadaw’s permanent depoliticization—critical to any lasting democratic transition in Myanmar—requires a fundamental shift in its identity and culture. It must view itself strictly as a professional military subservient to Myanmar’s civilian leadership, a role in which launching a coup is unthinkable. On this front, there is much the United States can do to transform the Tatmadaw, beginning with the resumption of limited and targeted military-to-military relations.


Only a Partial Transition

The NLD’s performance in Myanmar’s parliamentary elections stunned the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and international observers alike. It won just shy of 80 percent of the contested seats, performing strongly in both urban and rural areas. With majority control in both houses of parliament, the NLD will be able to form the next government and select its president and one of two vice presidents. After six decades of brutal military rule, such progress is remarkable. Yet, in important ways, Myanmar’s democratic transition remains short of a “Myanmar miracle.”

The new NLD government’s reach will be constrained, largely limited to matters of economic and social policy. Under the current military-drafted constitution, the armed forces are guaranteed 25 percent of all parliamentary seats, allowing it to veto any constitutional changes, which require approval by more than three-quarters of Parliament. This means that Article 59F, which prevents Suu Kyi from becoming president because her two sons hold foreign citizenship, will almost certainly remain. On national security policy, the military will also retain near-absolute control. In addition to appointing the heads of the three key security ministries—defense, home affairs and border affairs—it will occupy five of the eleven seats on the National Defense and Security Council.

Given the opacity of the Tatmadaw and its historical repression of democracy activists, it remains unclear how the military will respond to the new government. Following the election, the military’s commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, met with Suu Kyi, and his comments since then have been ambiguous. In a subsequent Facebook post, he stated that “whichever government is in office and whichever political system is adopted, the main duty of the Tatmadaw is national defense.” Similarly, in a rare interview with the Washington Post, he remained non-committal about the possibility of cooperating with the NLD and transitioning greater authority to a civilian government.


Protecting Democracy’s Precious Gains