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Myanmar’s Top-Down Transition: Challenges for Civil Society (Continued from Yesterday)
Saturday, 12 October 2019
They initially hoped that ceasefire agreements would lead to political dialogue and eventually a negotiated settlement of their demand for greater autonomy. This did not materialise under the previous military-led regimes – the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) established in 1988 after the student revolution and renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997. Yet, the ceasefires allowed rebels to retain their arms and govern pockets of territory in newly established special administrative regions. Moreover, leaders of ceasefire groups were rewarded with opportunities to partake in an unregulated ‘ceasefire capitalism’: the mutual exploitation of their area’s natural resources together with foreign and domestic businessmen as well as Tatmadaw generals (Woods 2011; Brenner 2019: 40–6).
These ceasefire politics enabled the Tatmadaw to establish itself as the most powerful military, political, and economic actor in Myanmar’s border areas. Militarily, the Tatmadaw has rapidly expanded its troop size and firepower in the country’s rebel borderlands. Overall troop size increased from 200,000 troops in 1988 to 320,000 troops in 1995, most of which were stationed in the country’s border areas and outfitted with US$2bn worth of modern Chinese weaponry (Smith 1999: 426;
Jones 2014: 792). Bureaucratic reforms established the military’s regional commands as the de facto government in border provinces, implementing the so-called ‘Programme for the Progress of the Border Areas and National Races Development’ (Smith 1999: 426–27). First introduced in 1989, this top-down development programme was later renamed as the Ministry of Border Affairs and is locally known as Na Ta La. Its stated objective is to develop ethnic minority regions, mainly through the expansion of physical infrastructure and the state bureaucracy itself (Lambrecht 2008). A major part of ‘development’ funding has been extorted from local communities as so-called ‘people’s contributions’ in forms of forced labour, cash, and material (ibid.: 158). Top-down economic development, state territorialisation, and counterinsurgency have since merged into a highly securitised development agenda under direct control of regional Tatmadaw commanders. The latter have used political and economic powers to establish their own fiefdoms (Lambrecht 2008; Meehan 2015).
Importantly, the ceasefire politics of the 1990s and early 2000s weakened EAOs and enabled the Tatmadaw to encroach into previously off-limit territory to an unprecedented extent (Brenner 2019: 40–46). Beginning in 2008, this emboldened the military to attempt to bring ceasefire movements under direct Tatmadaw control as Border Guard Force (BGF) militias. This plan largely failed and instead contributed to a new round of escalation with movements that previously signed ceasefires, including the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). Yet, it signified that the power balance between rebel borderlands and the state centre had effectively changed in favour of the latter. The marginalisation of opposition has created a sense of security among Myanmar’s military rulers that was crucial for their decision to initiate reforms in 2011 (Jones 2014). Despite its withdrawal from day-to-day politics in central Myanmar, the military has remained the country’s most powerful institution.

Per the 2008 constitution, civilian authorities have no oversight or influence over the military. Its statutes cement the role of the military as the guardian of the nation and enable the Tatmadaw to ‘participate in the national political leadership of the State’ (Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2008: 6f). The constitution also gives the Commander-in-Chief excessive authority to intervene in case of a state of emergency that could ‘cause disintegration of the Union, disintegration of national solidarity and loss of sovereign power or attempts therefore by wrongful forcible means such as insurgency or violence’ (ibid.: 40c). Military institutions are granted excessive autonomy both with regard to budget, the appointment of military personnel, and of drafting their own defence and security policy through the powerful National Security and Defense Council (Maung Aung Myoe 2017: 262). Crucial ministerial portfolios of defence, home, and border affairs are delegated to the Tatmadaw and 25 per cent of the seats in both the Union parliament and the state and regional legislative assemblies are reserved for Tatmadaw delegates, thereby preventing constitutional amendments to pass as such amendments require more than 75 per cent of the votes (Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2008: Art. 60biii, 109b).
The limited powers of Myanmar’s civilian authorities have, indeed, been frequently exposed. Civilian authorities, including the NLD have, for instance, struggled to strike a balance between market liberalisation, the interests of the military-industrial complex, and the sanctioning of social and political action. This was illustrated in the case of the Letpadaung copper mine conflict. Since 2010, the project has been operating as a joint venture between the military-owned company Mining Enterprise 1, the military-controlled holding Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL), and the Chinese firm Wanbao Mining. Since the inception, mining operations were accompanied by human rights abuses, including land-grabbing and forced evictions, as well as severe environmental pollution (Amnesty International 2017). Although criticism was raised against Aung San Suu Kyi for not taking a stronger stand against human rights abuses, others pointed out that her hands were tied in light of Tatmadaw interests in continuing the mining operations (Schearf 2013).
Despite the continued military dominance in the political and economic sphere, there is scope for change. This was best illustrated by the NLD’s surprising move to bring Myanmar’s main public administration body–the General Administration Department (GAD)–under civilian control in January 2019. The GAD has traditionally operated under the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA). Described as the ‘bureaucratic backbone of the country’, it directly controls all state bureaucracy on the local level, including in the districts, townships, and village tracts. Its 36,000 staff members, many of which are transferred military personnel, are responsible for issuing licences, handling land management and disputes, and collecting taxes (Kyi Pyar Chit Saw and Arnold 2014: iii). Since April 2011, the GAD has also been tasked to handle the increased engagement from international aid donors.

Development aid and humanitarian relief has since been funnelled through the GAD (Kawasaki et al. 2017). Placing the GAD under the civilian Ministry of the Office of the Union Government seems like an important step to break the military domination of bureaucracy. While its new supervising ministry is nominally civilian, the Ministry of the Office of the Union Government is headed by a former air force colonel (The Irrawaddy 2018). At the time of writing, it remains to be seen how far the GAD will transform into a genuinely civilian agency. This persisting entanglement of Myanmar’s military in the everyday politics of the country poses significant challenges for civil society.

Challenges for civil society
Myanmar has a long history of social and political action, both in the centre and the periphery. Up until the military coup in 1962, a vibrant civil society existed, especially in urban areas. Anti-regime strikes and protests regularly emanated from Yangon University, whose students first protested against British colonial rule in 1920. Despite the suppression of civil society under Ne Win’s authoritarian rule, disastrous and erratic economic policies led to further protests throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The most important of these was the ‘People Power Uprising’ in 1988 when hundreds of thousands of people joined students in Yangon to protest against the unbearable economic conditions and authoritarian military rule.
Initially, the 1988 uprising appeared successful. When the protests began, the Tatmadaw remained in the barracks, while the police cracked down on protesters. By mid-July, dictator Ne Win announced that he would resign from his position as Chairman of the BSPP, a referendum on a multiparty system would be held, and economic reforms would be implemented. However, a month later, the Tatmadaw violently crushed the protests in what has been described as a ‘self coup’, establishing a new military regime: the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) (Farrelly 2013: 2). Thousands of civilians were killed or imprisoned. Martial law was declared, public participation banned, and political opposition supressed. In 1990, the Tatmadaw surprisingly called for elections, convinced that the result would benefit SLORC, seeing as the opposition movement had been severely repressed. When Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San and the appointed leader of the democratic movement of 1988, registered her new party, the National League of Democracy (NLD), and won a landslide victory, SLORC refused to acknowledge the result and placed her under house arrest (Maung Aung Myoe 2009: 4).