The Military’s Role in Asean Nations – The Irrawaddy


BANGKOK — Most of Southeast Asia has experienced military rule at some stage since the colonial era ended, with the political role of the region’s military institutions shaping and influencing politics to the present day.

The often decisive interventions of the military in national politics have restricted the development of democracy, freedom of speech and human rights in many countries. In 2008, of the 10 member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), only Indonesia was deemed a fully free country by the US-based Freedom House, an NGO that monitors democracy and human rights.

Either upfront or behind-the-scenes, power-brokering by powerful military elites remains a key inhibitor democratic development across Southeast Asia.

At a September conference at the Institute for Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, these issues were among those discussed by scholars who examined civil-military relations in Burma, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Burma stands out in Southeast Asia, however, due to the sheer longevity of military rule and the entrenchment of the army in all sectors of society and the economy.

ISIS Director Thitinan Pongsudhirak remarked that in 1960, Burma was a democracy, having the highest GDP per capita in the region and with a relatively-advanced economy and well regarded education sector.

However, these days, the entrenchment of military rule is so thorough, it is more appropriate to use the term “military-civil relations,” according to Win Min, a Thailand-based Burmese scholar. Ironically, the military institution established by Burmese independence icon Aung San has kept the founder’s daughter and present-day democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years, as part of a strategy to retain control of the country under a new constitution and elections scheduled for 2010.

The Napyidaw junta is regarded as introverted at best, and outright hostile to cosmopolitan or outside influences at worst, so it is debatable what lessons they have drawn from other countries in the region which have either experienced military rule or felt the weight of the army bear down on day-to-day politics.

But there are both parallels and differences between the various cases that can perhaps shed some light on the nature of military rule in Burma.

Indonesia under Suharto seems to be the closest comparison with contemporary Burma, even if there is no obvious Burmese parallel to the optimism stemming from Indonesia’s recent democratization.

Like Burma, the Indonesian army played a central role in winning independence, which entrenched the military’s centrality and authority. Like Burma, Indonesia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country—albeit on a vaster scale.

Fears among the military elites in both countries that peripheral or ethnic minority regions could secede were used to justify an overweening military influence in both countries — and ultimately a military coup in Burma in 1962.

In Indonesia, the army retained a dwifungsi (dual function) in both defense/security and government, between 1957, when democratic rule was discarded, and 1998, when the long era of Suhartos’s military-backed authoritarianism ended amid chaos and near civil war.

Under Suharto, the military was given corporate representation in government and state-owned businesses. Each military branch has its own foundation, operating companiues in the financial sector, travel industry, manufacturing and resource extraction. Similarly, as Win Min outlines, the Burmese army monopolizes the economy through a crony system.

Two vast conglomerates predominate—the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Cooperation (MEC)—both of which have been led by active military officers. Most of the inward FDI is channeled through UMEHL, and both entities are involved in a wide array of business across the national economy.

Since 1998, the Indonesian military has relinquished its reserved seats in parliament and retreated from its dominance of politics in the archipelago, under pressure from a long-suppressed democratic movement.

While this does not mean that civilian control over the military has been asserted, it is a clear difference between Indonesia and Burma, where the 2008 constitution is geared toward giving the military effective control, under a civilian veneer, in a future Burma.

Under the new constitution, the proposed new military commander-in-chief will have greater authority than the president (who almost certainly will be a retired military officer in any case) in key areas.

Twenty-five percent of national members of parliament and 33 percent of regional MPs will be active military officers appointed by the military chief, and there is no plan to phase this out. Constitutional amendments will require a 75 percent majority, with the military effectively having a veto over the legislation process. Massive power will be vested in the new National Defense and Security Council, which can declare a state of emergency, and will have more military officers than civilians.

Closer to Burma, Thailand reached a nadir of sorts in civil-military relations with the 1992 coup and Black May crackdown. After 1992, the army pulled back from the political frontline until the September 2006 coup which ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, who has transgressed some red lines by appointing some of his supporters to top military positions.

Echoing the Burma case somewhat, as noted by Paul Chambers, a senior research fellow at the University of Heidelberg, battling political parties (the yellows and the reds) and external threats (the Cambodia border dispute) have been used to justify or facilitate an increased role for the military in politics in the post-Thaksin era, and the 2008 Internal Security Act gives the military ample scope to transgress democratic principles and influence the civilian realm.

The military is dominant in the Thai Ministry of Defense, where Burma’s National Security Council is paralleled by the MoD Defense Council. However, in comparison with Burma, military dominance of Thai politics is relatively light — covert, rather than in-your-face.

Chambers sees the Thai military as reverting to rule-by-proxy, enabling it to avoid perpetrating another Black May, or even another September 2006 coup. Prof Suchit Bunbongkarn of ISIS believes that the Thai military is somewhat averse to direct rule, as recent political developments have underscored the complexities of government in a challenging political environment.

The Philippines has a lurid history of coups and attempted coups, right up to the present administration under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Similar to Indonesia and Thailand, the armed forces of the Philippines sees itself as having a de facto legitimate political role, with ample opportunity for side-interests in business and the economy.

However, though none of the militaries under discussion appear to be monolithic, it is arguable that the Philippines is more fractured when it comes to allegiances to mainstream politics and politicians.

That has had some positive impact, however, and offers a point of clarification for the Burmese case. With the recent death of Cory Aquino, there has been much reminiscing about the causes and consequences of the 1986 People’s Power revolution in Manila, which ended the authoritarian kleptocracy of Ferdinand Marcos.

The army did not turn on protesting civilians on that occasion, a marked contrast with the military reaction to the Saffron Revolution in Burma, the second anniversary of which has just passed.

Perhaps the Burmese junta has learned from this example, by keeping a large, powerful and united military through its monopolization of the economy, and after 2010, a faux-legitimate civilianization of military rule. This will build upon the top-down, bottom-up system of control the junta has been crafting since military rule almost collapsed in 1988.

Politically, this involved ceasefires with the ethnic insurgencies, weakening the urban opposition and pro-democracy activists, and weakening links between the ethnic groups and the Burmese opposition.

Meanwhile, the regime aims to enlarge the army to 500,000 troops, despite already having the largest standing army in the region. By establishing a mass organization known as the USDA, thought to number 24 million members (though it’s unknown how many of these members are enthusiastic or consenting signatories), and peace/development councils staffed by military and ex-military members all the way down to the ward/village level, the junta is seeking optimum control at all levels of society under a civilian veneer.

While it is impossible to know the true opinion of the mass of Burmese soldiers about how the ruling generals govern the country, it appears the junta has worked to forestall any splits or reformism in the corridors of power that could assist or give a green light to pro-democracy activists or lead to a more successful Saffron Revolution II.

After the purge of Gen Khin Nyunt and his apparently reformist intelligence cadre, the military retired about 3,000 officers in 2007-8 and reappointed them to the civil service. Win Min regards this move as setting-up another bulwark against potential dissidence in the bureaucracy, should another Saffron Revolution break out.

According to Andrew Selth of Griffith University, blogging on the Web site Lowy Institute for International Policy in April 2008, the 2007 protests and ensuing international condemnation of the regime focused minds among the junta top brass, who appear to have closed ranks and set aside any differences for now.

The upshot? A flawed constitution and undemocratic electoral process; the return of Aung San Suu Kyi to house arrest, with another 2,100 political prisoners under lock and key, and the possibility of renewed war with ethnic minority groups.

The junta appears determined to maintain the balance of military-civil relations in Burma decisively in its own favor and as seen in the recent offensive against the Kokang in northern Shan State, it will not shy away from offending China, its chief ally and patron, to maintain military control of the country.

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