- Democracy is new to Myanmar, having been restored fully only in November 2015
- Constitution allows the military or Tatmadaw 25% of the seats in the national legislature
- Rohingya rebel outfits engaged the army in 1989, 1990, 1991, 2002 and well beyond that up to August 2017
If the Aung San Suu Kyi government in Myanmar is sticking to its defiant stand on the Rohingya issue despite worldwide condemnation of its atrocities against the Rohingyas, it is because her government is backed by the powerful Myanmar armed forces collectively called Tatmadaw.
While State Counsellor (Prime Minister) Aung San Suu Kyi has the support of the Burmese Buddhist majority, the backing of the military is critically important given the political history of Myanmar.
Democracy is new to Myanmar, having been restored fully only in November 2015, after 53 years of direct and indirect military rule. Democracy is in danger of being replaced by military rule at any time, going by past experience. Therefore, the support of the military is more important than the support of the majority of the population.
A section of Rohingyan refugees
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept the November 2015 general elections, and yet, it is not in full charge of the government. This is because of the 2008 constitution which has given the military or Tatmadaw 25% of the seats in the national legislature and a majority (six out of eleven members) in the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC).
The SDSC not only regulates the armed forces and the police, but also the General Administration of the country from the central government to the lowly townships in all parts of the country.
The military entered Myanmar’s political scene long before it entered in Pakistan or Bangladesh; had stayed in power from 1962 to 2015; and authored the country’s present constitution which gives it an entrenched and decisive role in the governance of the country even if the government is election-based.
Aung San, the leader of the independence movement of Burma (later renamed Myanmar) had fought the British militarily with his Burma National Army (BNA). One of Aung San’s younger colleagues in the BNA was Ne Win, who, as Commander of independent Burma’s Army, took over the country through a coup in 1962.
The Army consolidated itself in Independent Burma because it had to conduct military operations right from Day 1 with the Karen rebels in the North and Communists in the South. The Rohingya Muslims in the North West wanted to secede and join Pakistan, the East Wing of which shared a border with the Rohingya- dominated Arakan or Rakhine area. The Rohingya issue was acute that much of Rakhine was in the hands of the Rohingya rebels called Mujahids.
Multiple rebellions coupled with problems caused by squabbling Burmese Buddhist politicians forced Army Chief Gen. Ne Win to form a caretaker government in 1958. But continued squabbling and the civilian government’s bid to accommodate non-Burmese Buddhist ethnic groups made Gen. Ne Win stage a coup in 1962. In 1963, he banned the Rohingya Independence Force (RIF).
In 1974, under a new constitution, Ne Win substituted serving army officers in government by retired military officers as a concession to civilians. However, in 1977, the Army’s Operation ‘Dragon King’ against the RPF led to 200,000 Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh, the new Bengali- speaking Muslim state in the North West.
The Rohingya rebel outfits engaged the army in 1989, 1990, 1991, 2002 and well beyond that up to August 2017. As a result of heavy military retaliation every time, thousands of Rohingya civilians would flee to Bangladesh frequently.
In 1981, Gen. (retd) Ne Win relinquished power, handing it over to another retired General. The new military-backed government brought about a citizenship law which recognized 135 communities in Myanmar as “indigenous” and these were given citizenship rights. But the Rohingyas were declared “illegal immigrants” and denied citizenship..
In 1986, the Rohingya movement became explicitly Islamic with the ascendency of the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF). In that situation in 1989, military ruler Gen. Saw Maung formed the powerful State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and imposed Martial Law. To reinforce Burmese nationalism, Burma was renamed “Myanmar”.
Even as the Rohingyas, Karens, Shans and Kachins were taking on the army in the North, a powerful pro-democracy movement was taking roots in South Myanmar, led by Aung San’s daughter Aung San Suu Kyi.
Gen.Saw Maung put her under House Arrest, to which she was subjected several times by subsequent military rulers till 2015.
In 1992, Gen.Saw Maung was replaced by Gen.Than Shwe. He released Suu Kyi in 1995 and accepted back Rohingyas who had fled to Bangladesh. In 1997, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was renamed State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Improved conditions in Myanmar led to its admission into ASEAN in 1997.
Realizing the importance of having political peace to be a purposeful member of ASEAN, the military junta released Suu Kyi. In 2003, the new military ruler Gen. Khin Nayunt proposed a new democratic constitution with safeguards for the military or Tatmadaw.
But this did not prevent Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) from pressing for real democracy or the Rohingyas from fighting for justice. Gen. Khin Nyunt put Suu Kyi under house arrest. In 2009, military operations against the Rohingyas forced the thousands to flee to Thailand and Indonesia.
Surprisingly, Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi offered no solace to the Rohingyas as she joined the military in declaring them as “illegal Bengali immigrants”
In 2010, the junta held elections, and in the rigged poll, the military-backed Unity, Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was declared winner. But paradoxically, the junta released Suu Kyi.
In 2012, the new military ruler retired Gen.Thein Sein held elections which Suu Kyi’s NLD swept. However, trouble erupted again in Rakhine State and 90,000 Rohingyas were displaced.
Surprisingly, Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi offered no solace to the Rohingyas as she joined the military in declaring them as “illegal Bengali immigrants” and as a “security threat” to Myanmar. Real power still in the hands of the military headed by President Thein Sein.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing with Aung sanSuu Kyi
In 2015, Suu Kyi swept the polls and formed a government. An NLD colleague, Htin Khyaw, became the first civilian President in 53 years. However, the military retained real power by securing decisive control over parliament with 25% reservation; and over the administration through majority membership in the NDSC.
Up until today, the relationship between State Counsellor (Prime Minister) Suu Kyi and the military, has been smooth because she accepts the supremacy of the latter.
This is the reason why all powers, both regional and world, including the US, are taking the military seriously and see that its interests are protected. When the head of the Myanmar armed forces, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, visited New Delhi in July this year, he was given a red carpet welcome and Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a well publicized meeting with him.
It is therefore unlikely that Suu Kyi will be proceeded against by the international community so long as she is backed by the military.