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Serving the Public interest: Challenging Claims to a People’s Will in Modern Myanmar

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For the seventy years since independence, Myanmar’s ruling military elites have had a singular role in setting the country’s direction. Their stated political objectives, which for many years were hard to avoid seeing at the beginning of books and in public places, detailed a vision for a harmonious country:

1. Stability of the state, community peace and tranquility, prevalence of law and order
2. National Reconsolidation
3. Emergence of a new enduring state constitution
4. Building of a new modern developed nation in accordance with the new state constitution [sic]

Those objectives were completely feasible but for a long time remained incomplete. It took the ruling military elites over 22 years—from when they seized power in 1988 until 2010—to finally engage with the process, a delay they put up to “serving the people’s interest”.

The idea of a public or people’s interest has always been central to the political discourse in Myanmar where it is used by both representatives of the central state and leaders of the many armed ethnic groups fighting against it. The former claims to serve the public interest while the latter challenges that claim, arguing that the central state neglects the interests of the country’s minority ethnic peoples.

The discourse emerged from the failures of imperialism and colonialism, ideologies which specifically ignored the will of the Myanmar people and empowered some only with the aim of obstructing others. General Aung San, Myanmar’s independence leader, brought the country to self-governance under the banner of serving the people’s will in a confederated national system. He challenged the ruling elites with the imperative that the people’s will always prevail, a notion that the entrenched interests could not abide. They killed General Aung San on July 12, 1947 and with him the political alliances he had built. For many, Aung San’s association with the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) only reinforced their view of the institution as the savior of a nation adrift.

Since independence Myanmar has experienced a multitude of political ideologies, from the revolutionary communist, socialist and democratic movements of the late 1940s to the popular pro-democracy uprising of 1988. But in the modern era only democracy survives as an enduring ideology, often led by veterans of 1988.

Forty-one years after her father’s assassination Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, took up his mantle of confronting the ruling elites, now the very Tatmadaw her father founded. Beginning in 1988 she and others embarked on 25 years of non-violent struggle for social, political and institutional change, which saw the killing of protesting students and monks, the wholesale displacement of communities and the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

The Tatmadaw’s central role in Myanmar was cemented soon after independence. In his important 1957 book The Union of Burma, Hugh Tinker showed how the chaos of the first decade of Myanmar’s independence dramatically empowered the military visa-vis other poles of power in the young country. Even as Myanmar was celebrating its independence, much of the country was falling away from the central government to a variety of ideological and ethnic rivals. With Communist, Chinese Nationalist, Karen, and Muslim insurgents threatening the very viability of the state, the Tatmadaw was given enormous power and a huge share of the national budget. When the situation stabilized after four years of intense conflict, the Tatmadaw had already positioned itself as a national defense force that needed to remain powerful to prevent “any future lapse into disorder.” While in those early years the Tatmadaw did make important contributions, the result was a military so powerful that it would eventually seize complete control of the country.

Myanmar is still reckoning with the role that the Tatmadaw has in the current political transition and the accompanying social and political changes. Seventy-two years after the Tatmadaw was formed by the Thirty Comrades in Bangkok, it must establish its legitimacy in the modern era. Leaders of the country’s armed ethnic groups continue to contest the central state’s authority as they demand a federal system with broad self-determination for minority groups, and neither they nor the central state has fully accomplished its goals.

The 72nd anniversary of Armed Forces Day will be celebrated on March 27 as a symbolic event, even as the commitments that the Tatmadaw has made to the country remain uncompleted: national political and social unity; the continued cohesion of the union; the legitimacy of the elected government; the emergence of a modern, developed nation that engages all of its people; the emergence of a well-disciplined democracy; and the maintenance of a highly capable military that can safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Any progress that the Tatmadaw did eventually show towards fulfilling these commitments came on the heels of internal and external challenges to its legitimacy. The military’s leading role in national politics has been contested by the armed ethnic organizations that resist the central state from country’s peripheries. But while these insurgencies have challenged the Tatmadaw’s legitimacy, they have not seriously threatened the viability of the state for some time. In the 1990s International pressures had similar effects. Efforts by Western countries in the United Nations Security Council offered a rebuke to the Tatmadaw but failed to enlist China and Russia in effectively pressuring Myanmar to change.

It was not until 2005 that international political will began to coalesce around a more aggressive policy on Myanmar. In 2005 a group of human rights advocates commissioned a report by the international law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gary entitled “A Threat to the Peace.” The report accused the military regime of gross human rights violations including the displacement of civilians, the torture and imprisonment of opponents (including 1,100 political prisoners of which 13 were former members of parliament), the widespread conscription of child soldiers and forced laborers, and the refusal to honor the 1990 election which the military-aligned party had lost. It called for the UN to intervene.

The report, which is often called the Havel-Tutu report for its two most prominent proponents, proved a turning point. The year after its publication the UN Security Council added the situation in Myanmar to its permanent agenda.

Shaken, Myanmar’s military elites began to question the permanence of the status quo they had enjoyed. They moved slowly, holding dialogues with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues in 2007 and early 2008. But real changes did follow. Political prisoners were released and a semi-democratic constitution was adopted. By 2010 Myanmar had its first democratic elections under the new constitution as ruling elites displayed to the world their newfound interest in the people’s will.

While much has changed since the mid-2000s, the Tatmadaw still has an outsized role in the nation’s governance. Under the constitution it drafted in 2008, the military maintains one quarter of all seats in parliament and military leaders have made it clear that they see a special role for the Tatmadaw in national life. In a 2015 BBC interview, former president Thein Sein explained what he saw as the military’s role in the country; “The military has two tasks. One is to fight for the country in case of war. If there’s no war they will serve the interest of the people. Serving the interests of the people means being involved in national politics.” Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has similarly referred to the Tatmadaw’s role in protecting the people’s interest since his appointment as Commander-in-Chief in 2011.

Since 2010 these notions of the Tatmadaw representing the public good have been challenged by the newly constituted government which, as a representative institution has an even stronger claim to know the peoples will. The current arrangement has been characterized by shared decision making between the elected and appointed members of parliament and the cabinet, with some direct participation by a fledgling civil society.

Because the Tatmadaw has refused to fully relinquish the immense power it once had, many of the abuses raised in the Havel-Tutu report continue, despite the veneer of a representative system. The country’s armed conflicts seem little closer to resolution than they did in 2005, and the many accompanying human rights abuses continue to go un-monitored. A culture of impunity, especially for military elites, pervades the country, rendering moot any claims they have to representing a public interest. Those claims will be nothing more than propaganda unless until elected parliament is given full purview over government, including the ability to appoint all cabinet ministers.

After 22 years of cease-fires and peace negotiations between armed ethnic leaders and the ruling military (and now civilian) elites, there is now a genuine will for peace, national unity and a true people’s democracy (as it is called in Myanmar). What these will look like, though, in a modern Myanmar embracing liberalism and social and ethnic identity politics, remains to be decided.

The popular narrative of the country’s past (and thus where it may go in the future) is incomplete, and has been dominated by elite opinions. But in a new Myanmar that has embraced freedom of discourse, it is time for the country to debate its direction out in the open.

The 2015 election manifesto of the ruling National League for Democracy declared that the party would “work towards a peaceful, prosperous and durable Union through solidarity with all ethnic groups,” and “resolve problems between ethnic groups through dialogue based on mutual respect.” Unless military and civilian leaders commit to these principles, the search for peace will come to naught.

After an historic Union Peace Conference in 2016, a follow up conference has been scheduled for March of this year. The peace that may emerge from the process would be the national realization of all the peoples’ wills. It is the challenge of a lifetime for military and civilian leaders, as a host of new issues join the old.

72 years after the formation of the Tatmadaw and 69 years after Independence, Myanmar continues to face questions of legitimacy, unity and strength. The way forward is to eschew the idea that any one segment of society—neither the Tatmadaw, nor armed ethnic leaders—best serves the people’s interest. Only a broad, engaged society made up of racially, ethnically and religiously diverse constituents, can truly claim to represent the public will.

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