Civil-military relations in Myanmar


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MYANMAR is today the only country in Southeast Asia that continues to be ruled by the military (or tatmadaw in Burmese). The country has been under military domination for almost five decades since its independence from British colonial rule in 1948. The tatmadaw under Gen. Ne Win staged the first military coup in 1962 and ruled for 26 years under the guise of ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’. The second military coup was staged under Gen. Saw Maung in 1988 and the tatmadaw has continued its rule till today.

Given the long domination of the military in politics, Burmese military expert, Win Min, commented that in the context of Myanmar, ‘It makes more sense to talk about military-civil relations rather than civil-military relations’.1

The origin of the military’s role in politics can, however, be traced back to the days of the country’s independence struggle in the 1940s. Aung San, the country’s independence hero and father of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, founded the Burma Army that fought the British and Japanese troops. Having surfaced as a force fighting for independence, the army and national political goals were enmeshed. It was this role as ‘the liberating force’ that politicized the military from the very beginning.2

Civil-military relations in Myanmar may be divided into four phases since the country’s independence. The first phase of civil-military relations (1948-1962) was under a democratic government. However, military activities were left unmonitored by the civilian government despite provisions in the 1948 Constitution that empowered civilian control over military expenditure, security policy, and senior promotions.3

The military’s role in national politics and economy were buttressed when the country plunged into civil war soon after independence as various ethnic nationalist and communist armed groups waged war against the central government. This provided the military an opportunity to not only involve itself in civilian affairs but, more importantly, deeply shape the mindset of military officers. Soon the military stretched its role to administration in some disrupted areas and began to see itself as a ‘uniting force’.

It was also during this time that the military established important institutions that would become crucial for its durability. The Defence Services Institute was set up in 1951 to run military businesses and the Psychological Warfare Directorate was established to frame-up an ideology ‘centred around nationalist politics and socialist ideology’ that later provided the base for shaping the mindset of the military.4


Factional politics of the time also contributed to enhancing the military’s involvement in politics. The split in the ruling civilian party in the late 1950s ‘led to a parliamentary crisis and weakened the legitimacy of civilian governance in the eyes of the military.’5 In the face of a political crisis, Prime Minister U Nu asked the military to take over power and a caretaker government was established under the military in 1958. The caretaker government provided an opportunity to the military to centralize government administration and thus gain first-hand experience in the management of state affairs.

This experience and the military’s view of itself as a ‘uniting force’ gave the confidence and rationale for Gen. Ne Win to stage the first military coup in March 1962 when the civilian government was engaged in talks with leaders of an ethnic minority on the issue of autonomy. The military viewed granting autonomy to the ethnic minority as a threat to the country’s territorial integrity.

Gen. Ne Win created the Revolutionary Council soon after the coup and declared a transformation of the country from a parliamentary democracy into a socialist democracy. He became the chairman of the council with executive, legislative and judicial powers, setting the stage for the second phase of ‘military-civil relations’ (1962-74).

The council revoked the 1948 Constitution, dissolved Parliament, abolished political parties and imprisoned political leaders. One of the first things the council did was to ‘depoliticize politics and ban independent organizations’ and gradually ‘militarize governance’.6 Military leaders were brought to state political power and their civilian opponents purged.7 The regime also set up a military-led socialist party called the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP).


To centralize the military’s direct control over the country, security and administrative committees were set up from the national level down to the village and township levels, all dominated by military officers. Further, the council also undertook important initiatives such as nationalization of the economy and opted for state-controlled media to tighten its control over businesses and public opinion.

The third phase of ‘military-civil relations’ (1974-1988) began with the adoption of the 1974 Constitution drafted by military officers. To allow the BSPP to be ‘the only centre of power on the political and legal order [and] to sustain its indirect military rule’, the new constitution envisaged only one party, the BSPP.8 It banned other political parties and independent unions and placed restrictions on rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

Retired General Ne Win who served as the chairman of the Revolutionary Council not only became the chairman of the party but also the president of the country. Both retired and active military officers dominated the highest decision-making body of the party called the Central Executive Committee (CEC). The military was seen as ‘the main pillar’ of the party.

A parliament and a cabinet existed but only in name, as legislative and decision-making powers were in the hands of the party’s CEC. The socialist party also set up a mass organization to prevent the emergence of other organizations. Simultaneously, new intelligence agencies were created to act as watchdogs against any anti-regime activity.

Ne Win’s ‘attempt and failure’ to build a party-state stalled the development of civilian institutions even as ‘it institutionalized the military’s intervention into every field of the government.’ As a result the military became ‘the most powerful political actor’ in the country and ensured durability of its rule.9


The transformation of civil-military relations in Ne Win’s era (1962-88) can be seen in the bureaucratic development of the military. The widespread ‘distribution of state posts to the relatively small-sized officer corps’ and the ability to curb any ‘possible alternative source of power’, resulted in massive ‘power imbalance between the military and political/civil society.’ This was a critical factor helping Ne Win to maintain power and for the military to exercise powerful influence on other political actors.10

The extensive control over the nationalized economy prevented the emergence of an independent business community. The military’s management of the economy did not, however, help improve the country’s economy and the people remained dissatisfied with the economic performance of the military government.

The military government’s sudden decision to demonetize the currency in 1987 led to student demonstrations, which ultimately resulted in a mass movement calling for the return of democracy in mid-1988. The BSPP collapsed in the midst of the demonstrations. However, the military remained united and staged a second coup in September 1988 under Gen. Saw Maung. The demonstrations were crushed with brutal force, killing thousands of people.

This marked the beginning of the fourth phase of ‘military-civil relations’ (1988-till today). Having revoked the 1974 socialist constitution and dissolved the socialist parliament, the military set up a new regime called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) with all the executive, legislative and judicial powers vested in the chairman of the Council. Soon after taking over power, the regime promised multi-party democratic elections.


When elections were held in 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory. The pro-military party, the National United Party was defeated. However, the military refused to transfer power to the new democratically elected party. Instead, the military government set up a National Convention to draft a new constitution. Most of the delegates were hand-picked by the military.

The 1988 pro-democracy uprising and the results of the 1990 elections were seen as a wake up call for the military. Soon a massive programme for state-building and military transformation was launched.11

As part of its state-building programme, the military government entered into ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was done primarily to prevent cooperation between the pro-democracy groups and the ethnic armed groups.12

To centralize its control, the military government set up law and order restoration councils at every level of government, including the village and ward levels. Decision-making at all levels was controlled by the military and civilian participation was negligible. Retired military officers were made civilian administrative officers at the lowest level.


The military continues to monopolize the economy. It has established two conglomerates – the Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (UMEH) and the Myanmar Economic Cooperation (MEC), both of which are headed by active military officers.13

Both the UMEH and the MEC have been involved in wide-ranging commercial interests. The UMEH is the largest national firm with 10 billion kyat (US$ 1.4 billion) in capital. 40% of its shares are held by the Directorate of Procurement at the War Office, while the remaining 60% are held by the regional commands and active and retired military officers. Again, the UMEH has been the main channel for most of the major foreign investments in the country.

In the early 1990s, Gen. Than Shwe, who succeeded Gen. Saw Maung, established a mass organization called the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) to prevent/suppress anti-regime activity and as a political base. According to Win Min, the USDA is ‘the main auxiliary forces’ of the regime which has often been accused of harassing opposition activists.14 Currently, the USDA is said to have a membership of 24 million out of a national population of 55 million.

The size of the military was also expanded from 180,000 in the late 1980s to 300,000 by 1995 with the eventual goal of reaching 500,000.15 The civil bureaucracy too was further militarized when the regime appointed many retired military officers as director generals and to other senior official ranks. The military regime renamed itself as State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997.


In 2003, the military government announced a seven-step ‘roadmap to democracy’, namely, (i) reconvening the National Convention, (ii) implementing a process to allow the emergence of a democratic system, (iii) drafting a new constitution, (iv) adopting a constitution through a national referendum (v) holding free and fair elections (vi) convening elected bodies and (vii) creating government organs instituted by the legislative body.

With the approval of the new constitution in a referendum in May 2008, the fourth step in the roadmap was completed. The 2008 Constitution provides immense power to the military.16 One of the six basic principles of the constitution states that the military will be able to participate ‘in national political leadership role of the state.’

The military is granted broad powers to suspend all fundamental rights ‘if necessary’ during an emergency. The Supreme Court’s power to issue writs, including habeas corpus, is similarly suspended in times of emergency (chapter VI). The president may declare a state of emergency during which the military commander-in-chief, aided by the National Defence and Security Council (six of whose 11 members are from the military, chapter V), assumes ‘legislative, executive and judicial powers’ (chapter XI). Such emergency powers are extendable by at least a year.

Soldiers nominated by the commander-in-chief, would comprise a mandatory 25 per cent of members of both houses in the national parliament and one third of state and regional assemblies (chapter IV). A military member must be one of the three candidates for president, to be elected by Parliament, and at the very least must be one of the two vice-presidents (chapter III). Ministers for ‘defence, security/home affairs and border affairs’ must be military members in the national, state, and regional governments. Soldiers may also be appointed to other ministries (chapter V).


Parliament has no standing committee on security or defence. If necessary, an ad hoc committee (defence and security committee) may be formed (for a limited period), but it must consist of military members only, with civilians added only ‘if necessary’ (chapter IV). The military is self-administered, independent of other state organs (chapter VII). The Supreme Court has no powers over military courts (chapter VI), and final decisions on matters of military justice rest with the commander-in-chief (chapter VII). The president is not answerable to any court or parliament in exercising his duties (chapter V). No legal action may be taken against those ‘who officially carried out their duties according to their responsibilities’ during the period of the military governments (chapter XIV).

It is on the basis of the new constitution that the military government plans to hold national elections in 2010, though a final election date has not yet been announced. If held, the election will be the first in two decades. Clearly, the military is not ready to give in any time soon. It not only wants to guide the transition process but also wants to ensure a leading role in the new dispensation that will come to power post the 2010 elections.


Most of the major ethnic nationalities have rejected the constitution claiming that it has not included their long-standing demand of a federal system. Major political parties too have rejected the constitution on the ground that they were not part of the National Convention that drafted the constitution. The NLD has decided to boycott the elections. The newly formed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) after its recent transformation from the USDA has registered as a political party to contest the elections. The party would be led by the current Prime Minister Thein Sein and several top military ministers. With the USDP now in the fray and the NLD out of the picture, the results of the elections are more or less predetermined. With its nationwide membership, state support, and abundant resources, the USDP poses a major challenge for other political parties. The possible threat or use of violence by the USDP may affect the outcome of the elections.


There are both challenges and opportunities in changing the nature of civil-military relations in Myanmar. Enhancing democratic control of the military will remain difficult. As is the case of other Southeast Asian nations undergoing transformation in civil-military relations, the historical role played by the military in ‘national politics will continue to justify its involvement in politics as a necessity.’17 Myanmar will face similar challenges in the process of democratization.

However, several external factors are in favour of change in Myanmar. ASEAN as a regional body has been increasingly moving towards rule-based institutions. Furthermore, democratic control over the military is increasingly accepted ‘within the larger process of democratization.’18 A vital aspect that needs focus in the post-2010 election phase would be to attempt meaningful security sector reform. Myanmar stands in an advantageous position as it can learn from its fellow ASEAN members, particularly Indonesia and Thailand, who too have gone through similar transitional processes in the recent past. The regional and international community could also play a vital role in assisting Myanmar in reorienting the military through security dialogues, training and exposure.

The fifth phase of civil-military relations in Myanmar would begin post-2010 elections. Whether this phase will permanently alter the ‘military-civil relations’ to civil-military relations still remains to be seen.



1. Win Min, ‘Civil-Military Relations in Burma’. Paper presented at the Public Forum Civil-Military Relations and Democratic Stress: Lessons from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Myanmar/Burma, 1 September 2009, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand.

2. Ibid.

3. Mary Callahan, ‘Burma: Soldiers as State Builders’, in Muthiah Alagappa (ed.), Coercion and Governance: The Declining Political Role of the Military in Asia. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2001, pp. 414-422.

4. Win Min, op cit., p. 3.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Mary Callahan, op cit., p. 422.

8. Win Min, op cit., p. 4.

9. Nakanishi Yoshihiro, Civil-Military Relations in Ne Win’s Burma, 1962-1988. Unpublished Dissertation, Kyoto University, March 2007.

10. Win Min, op cit.; N. Yoshihiro, ibid.

11. Mary Callahan, op cit., p. 424.

12. Andrew Selth, Burma’s Armed Forces: Power Without Glory. EastBridge, Norwolk, 2002, p. 34.

13. Win Min, op cit. p. 9; and Maung Aung Myoe, ‘The Tatmadaw in Myanmar since 1988: An Interim Assessment’. Working Paper No. 342, Strategic and Defence Studies, Australian National University, Canberra, 1999, p. 13.

14. Win Min, op cit., p. 10.

15. Andrew Selth, Transforming the Military, Australian National University, Canberra, 1996, p. 19.

16. Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2008. Ministry of Information, Government of Myanmar, Printing and Publishing Enterprise, Naypyidaw, September 2008.

17. Kusuma Sanitwong, ‘Changing Civil-Military Relations in Thailand and the Region’, keynote speech. Shaping Civil-Military Relations in Burma: Learning Lessons from ASEAN, 5-6 August 2002, Bangkok, Thailand.

18. Ibid.