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Civil-Military Relations in Burma: Portents, Predictions and Possibilities

By Griffith Asia Institute,Andrew Selth  •  August 2, 2010

Executive Summary

Burma boasts the world’s most durable military dictatorship, but civil-military relations in the country have never been static. Until 1988, a distinction seems to have been made between the military government, which was generally held in low esteem, and the armed forces as an institution, which was more widely respected. Over the past 20 years, however, popular attitudes toward both have deteriorated markedly. Among the civilian population, the standing of both the armed forces and the regime are now as low as they have ever been. This seems likely to remain the case for years to come.

Despite regime claims that it heralds a ‘genuine multi-party discipline-flourishing democracy’, the 2008 constitution does not alter the one-sided political relationship between the armed forces and the Burmese people. Nor does the constitution contain any formulae for the eventual transfer of power to a truly democratic government.

Indeed, the planned ‘election’ of national and provincial assemblies in late 2010 is aimed primarily at disguising continued military rule. Even so, these new arrangements will significantly change the country’s political landscape and could have a number of unexpected consequences.

After 2010, there will be many more centres of formal decision making in Burma. There will be more participants in the formal political process, representing a wider range of interests. Not all elected representatives are expected tamely to follow the government’s lead on all major issues. Also, it is conceivable that, once the new system of government has firmly settled into place, and provided they feel confident of their position, the next generation of generals may gradually relax their grip on power. If this occurs, however, it is likely to be only at the margins. The armed forces will always be able to reassert their direct control of the country, if that is felt necessary.

Indeed, despite all the measures taken against it since 1988, the regime now seems stronger and more firmly entrenched in power than ever. The opposition movement, both within Burma and outside it, is weak and divided. The various armed insurgent groups are only capable of guerrilla operations around the country’s periphery. The only credible threat to continued military rule is serious dissension within the armed forces, and a range of measures have been taken to make that unlikely. Surprises are always possible, but the current indications are that political change will come slowly to Burma.

There are strong arguments for foreign states and international organisations to be engaged in Burma, but their ability to influence internal developments remains very limited. Real and lasting political change can only come from within Burma, and from the Burmese themselves.

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