Burma’s Militarized Ministries

The opposition won a big electoral victory — but in Burma, parliament is not where true power lies.

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It didn’t take long after polling stations across Burma closed on Nov. 8 for the country’s ruling party to concede defeat. “We lost,” Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) chairman Htay Oo said bluntly, unable to argue with early indications that suggested the party of Aung San Suu Kyi had won a convincing landslide. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) will dominate the new parliament in January. This is the second such victory for the party in 25 years, but the first that appears likely to be accepted.

The question now on the lips of many pundits watching this phase of the transition pertains to the military that has ruled Burma since 1962: Will it accept the results, or will it intervene and retake power? In 1990, when nationwide elections gave the newly formed NLD nearly 80 percent of seats, the military quickly annulled the results. Scrambling to explain the decision, it argued the familiar line: that a country so beset by internal conflict and discord wasn’t ready for democracy. A statement by army chief Min Aung Hlaing in September suggested Burma now is. “I have no plans for a military coup, [and] the military has no plans for it,” he said.

This may appear positive, but there are important reasons for the military’s newfound acquiescence. Over the past year, it has expanded efforts to plant newly retired military officers in civilian posts across various pillars of government — in the Health and Education ministries, the Energy Ministry, the Supreme Court, and more. In addition, 25 percent of parliamentary seats are automatically reserved for military legislators who occupy positions that, in any genuine democracy, should be held by figures independent of the institutions they create policy for. On top of this, the 2008 constitution states that the Home Affairs, Defense, and Border Affairs ministries must be headed by serving military men, thereby giving the military control of the three ministries most integral to governance in Burma. So while parliament may finally have a civilian majority, the military will remain firmly embedded within the administrative and policy-making arenas, serving as a potential barrier to whatever legislation parliament seeks to pass that might weaken the military’s political powers — a process that must take place if the transition to civilian rule is to be successful.

This has profound consequences for genuine democratization in Burma. While the creeping militarization of lower-level posts within other ministries serves to keep them within the military’s orbit, this isn’t necessary for the three ministries of governance and their functionaries: They answer directly to the commander in chief. While the Defense Ministry controls the armed forces and the Border Affairs Ministry oversees the affairs of ethnic states, the remit of the Home Affairs Ministry is more expansive: It controls both the police force and the General Administration Department, which manages all administrative functions from the state level down to village level, and which Human Rights Watch has said serves as a key instrument of local surveillance.

Through these ministries, the military has direct control over security and, via the General Administration Department, the entire structure of local governance in Burma. Those sectors are effectively beholden to unelected officials with a strong disposition toward preserving the military’s interests. “The chain of command for local administrators in every village and neighborhood in the country runs directly to the commander in chief, bypassing elected officials,” said Matthew Bugher, who last year co-authored a Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic report that traced war crimes committed in eastern Burma in 2005 and 2006 to the current home affairs minister, Lt. Gen. Ko Ko.

The command structure of these ministries should give pause to those celebrating the victory of the NLD, which has rallied against the military’s dominance over Burma’s political affairs. Despite its soon-to-be parliamentary majority, the NLD will still not be able to radically alter who has oversight of those ministries without first overhauling the constitution. To do this, it must gain more than 75 percent of parliamentary votes; the fact that 25 percent of parliament comprises military men — as dictated by the constitution — ensures this is unlikely to happen.

The constitution was designed with the explicit intention of enshrining the military’s role in political life beyond the supposed transition. It is this document that, more than anything, explains Min Aung Hlaing’s nonchalance when asked whether a coup is likely. The military doesn’t need to retake power because it has never left and it won’t anytime soon. The constitution locks in its interests and limits exactly what structural reforms a majority civilian parliament can make.

It also provides the military a much-needed safety net. When a number of former officers were appointed to the Supreme Court in September, it was only to administrative positions. But as the International Commission of Jurists notes, the constitution would allow them to take senior judicial positions if the president considers them to be “eminent jurists.” This allows for the insertion of people with vested interests in maintaining the impunity of the military into positions that enable them to influence court proceedings against the military. As a result, the Supreme Court loses its ability to oversee an institution that, more than any other in Burma, needs independent legal oversight.

But the militarization of Burma’s nominally civilian government also has more mundane day-to-day implications. A case in point is the Health Ministry, which is overseen by retired Maj. Gen. Than Aung. Here, military officers have been posted to administrative positions that give them final say on appointments, promotions, and dismissals. They will strengthen Burma’s own glass ceiling, one that prevents any non-military figure from taking a position above that of their military colleagues, thereby leaving technically capable staff subordinated to untrained officers. This can only further stunt the development of a sector that ranks among the most poorly resourced in the world.

Looking to the shifting composition of parliament as a barometer of change in Burma is problematic because it ignores the fact that parliament is not the center of power that a democratic state requires it to be. The NLD can, of course, make changes in many areas regardless of the constitution, ranging from infrastructural development to poverty reduction policies to bolstering social and environmental protections in investment laws. But if we’re looking for more fundamental transformation, the task becomes much harder because that kind of change is beholden to a constitution designed to be impervious to change. Even positions not protected by the constitution — administrative roles in the Education Ministry recently granted to former officers, for example — will be hard to overhaul. Any attempt to supplant these officers with people trained in their field will likely be viewed as a purge of the old guard and could compel the military to assert its primacy in ways that could endanger the democratization process.

Burma’s transition phase should be an opportunity to transform the hierarchy of power so that it is more accountable to the electorate. But any move to do so is being resisted by forces deep within that hierarchy that designed this transition with the knowledge that, on Nov. 8, 2015, the opposition would finally sweep to power. But that script made space only for a limited power. The Catch 22 that protects the Burmese elite — that changing the constitution requires changes to the constitution — means that a key component of a viable democracy, the civilianization of decision-making, may have to wait.

In the photo, a Burmese soldier secures the entrance of an army compound in Rangoon on Nov. 12, 2015.

Photo credit: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

Francis Wade is a journalist focusing on Burma. He is writing a book on anti-Muslim violence and the democratic transition in Burma, due out summer 2017 via Zed Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Francis_Wade.