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From Coup d’état to ‘Disciplined Democracy’: The Burmese Regime’s Claims to Legitimacy

By Griffith Asia Institute,Stephen McCarthy  •  August 6, 2010

Executive Summary

Burma (Myanmar) has experienced continuous military rule for almost half a century. During this time, the armed forces (Tatmadaw) have developed a series of claims aimed to legitimize their continued ruling of the country. Political legitimacy in Burma can be examined historically, through different periods of rule, or by themes and the transitions from one source of legitimacy to another. This paper will blend the historical and thematic as it concentrates on the sources of legitimacy relied upon by the Tatmadaw since it first came to power. In addition, the paper will discuss the foreign perceptions of legitimacy and influences that the international community have had on the regime’s search for legitimacy in recent years.

The Tatmadaw’s early claims to legitimacy rested upon their success in the battle against ethnic separatist and communist insurgencies, at which time the survival of state unity was a paramount objective – both during the post-independence democratic period (from 1948–58, and 1960–62) and for many years following their coup of 1962. In time, they also came to rely upon some of the same claims to legitimacy that were made during Burma’s only experiment with democracy – the most significant of these was based in Burma’s historical Buddhist traditions, a claim that all rulers have had to make in this devout Buddhist country. Well aware that in Burmese historical tradition the promotion and defence of Buddhism ultimately confirmed a kings’ legitimacy, the Tatmadaw set about reinvigorating the monarchy anpromoting their piety.

This transition was imposed upon them by the appearance of Aung San Suu Kyi, who courted the Sangha and developed political rhetoric that infused Buddhist ideas with democratic principles. Because Suu Kyi and the NLD offered a political alternative in terms of Western democracy and liberalism, they posed a direct threat to the legitimacy of the Tatmadaw’s authoritarian rule – this threat intensified following the Sangha’s siding with the pro-democracy movement in the  demonstrations of 1988 and 1990. By promoting Buddhism, the generals attempted to respond to the threat of Suu Kyi while at the same time assume the legitimacy of a Burmese monarch for themselves.

Since coming to power in 1962, the Tatmadaw have also claimed to have solid plans for the economic management of the country. Their experiment with years of socialism and autarchy however caused widespread poverty, while their partial economic liberalization produced mainly short-term foreign investments in resource extraction with few gains being distributed to society. Attempts at regional integration  aimed at securing some prestige and international legitimacy merely caused embarrassment for ASEAN.

Moreover, in 1987–88 and 2007, the generals’ economic mismanagement directly led to mass demonstrations followed by the inevitable crackdowns by the military – both of which caused a significant loss of legitimacy.

The demonstrations and religious boycott of 2007 was an assault on the legitimacy of the generals, not only because it threatened cohesion within their ranks, but also because it exposed the intent behind their public acts of piety – survival – and it challenged their claim to traditional legitimacy as rulers in a devoutly Buddhist country.

Yet when civil unrest has arisen on a number of occasions, the generals have been forced to revert to the use of force, followed by the offering of democratic concessionsy– constitutional reforms, referendums, and elections – to placate the people. Like the events of 1988 and 1990, the demonstrations of 2007 pressured the generals into making democratic concessions by reluctantly making some progress on their roadmap to ‘disciplined democracy’. A cycle has thus emerged over their long tenure of rule and is currently being repeated.

From Coup D’état to ‘Disciplined Democracy’: The Burmese Regime’s Claims to Legitimacy

As part of their roadmap, the Tatmadaw have announced that elections, based upon the new constitution that was adopted by referendum in 2008, will be held in 2010. Yet in the eyes of the West, unless these elections are monitored and assessed to be free and fair, the regime will remain illegitimate. Moreover, the state must satisfy the basic needs of its people – a problem that is only exacerbated by the SPDC’s committing Burma’s limited resources into building new capitals and purchasing weapons at the expense of providing basic health, education, and infrastructure. The regime’s claims to legitimacy through its control of ethnic insurgency groups are also likely to be challenged by the 2010 election. As the regime attempts to enforce its formal constitutional requirement that all armed forces in the country come under the control of the Tatmadaw, the so- called ‘ceasefire groups’ will be effectively forced to surrender their autonomy or return to open conflict. The latter would undermine the regime’s claims to have restored peace and settled the ethnic problems which have plagued Burma since independence.

Because their main aim is simply survival, the Tatmadaw’s various claims to legitimacy may be discarded at will and replaced by force when the need arises. At the same time, the SPDC will continue to respond with appeals to nationalism while subverting foreign influences and delegitimizing their opposition. If the generals do intend to adopt a less authoritarian form of regime under the guise of ‘disciplined democracy’, as has been promoted, then they will likely revert to the same justifications for maintaining a presence in running the political institutions of the state. The country’s need for unity, stability, and independence will remain core arguments for a strong central government which, presumably, only the armed forces can provide.

More generally, it is remarkable that the Tatmadaw should be at all interested in their own political legitimacy, given that they came to power through the most illegitimate of means – by force – and have retained this power by silencing all opposition. That the generals have tried to justify their rule in a number of ways may suggest that force alone is insufficient to hold on to power for a prolonged period of time. Indeed, Burma presents a unique example in the region where a military seeks legitimacy while ruling through fear. The study of legitimacy, in turn, takes on greater significance in Burma as it undergoes possibly more manipulation, and creation, than elsewhere in the region.

In addition, the regime’s various claims to legitimacy over the years contain inherent contradictions which may only be partially resolved by considering the audience to whom these claims have been addressed. Claims to legitimacy that are addressed to the domestic population may conflict with those addressed to the international community.

For the domestic audience, the Tatmadaw must ground their authoritarian rule in traditional sources of legitimacy rather than modern democratic theory due to the illegitimate nature of their coming to power. This requires that they reinvigorate and reinterpret for themselves an authoritarian system of government, absolute monarchy, which existed for centuries before the onset of colonial rule as well as the country’s brief experiment with democracy.

Yet in a world where democratic progress is monitored far more closely, where technological innovations can expose injustice, and where authoritarian rule is routinely questioned, the generals have reluctantly discovered that their traditional ways are insufficient to maintain political stability and that their own survival may require the occasional offering of more democratic concessions on their part. ‘Disciplined democracy’ – Burmese style – is in reality a return to indirect military rule. For now, it may not lead to the solution that would satisfy the West but it may at least provide some opening for future change and more possibility for improvements in justice than simply maintaining the status quo of direct military rule.

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