Army supporters carry a banner showing a portrait of military chief General Min Aung Hlaing during a rally Naypyidaw on February 4, 2021 following a military coup that detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. AFP
To a world that is grappling with the coronavirus crisis, Myanmar’s February 1 military coup was hard to absorb, although it came as no shock to Myanmar watchers. They knew the military’s takeover of the government was only a matter of time, as the crisis had been brewing since the military disputed the November’s landslide election victory by the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by the controversial Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The coup has exposed the inadequacy of the global community to establish democracy as the norm in world politics. The blame for this should squarely be placed on the so-called developed democracies in the West. They were hypocritical in their selective promotion of democracy, as they cherry-pick a few nations such a Sri Lanka to preach democracy, while embracing big time human rights violators as friends and economic partners.
Long overdue is an international system that will grant recognition to states only on the basis of their democratic credentials.
In the absence of such an international mechanism to de-recognise democracy killers, the ease with which Myanmar’s junta captured power came as no surprise. The junta was least worried about half-hearted or perfunctory condemnations issued by the United States and other Western nations. The Joe Biden administration has warned of sanctions, but we can predict that the punitive measures will be lacking the pinch to force the military to restore democracy. The junta is being encouraged by the weak international response. As expected, China and the Association of the South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, consider what is happening in Myanmar as an internal affair. They took a similar stance when Myanmar was accused of committing war crimes against the Rohingya minority.
Behind the international community’s weak response are geostrategic agendas. China shares a border with Myanmar and sees its southern neighbour as a geostrategic hub connected via border trade, road networks and oil and gas pipelines.
The US and India – allies in a new anti-China front – fear that tough action or condemnation may prompt the junta to throw its weight fully behind China. Rather than punishing the junta, they prefer to keep some space to engage with it. Especially, for India, Myanmar, with whom it shares a border, is the gateway to the ASEAN region. India has invested heavily in Myanmar in a strategic move to counter China’s Belt-and-Road initiative.
The charade behind the condemnations only underlines the importance the big powers give to political agendas while ignoring threats to democracy from the military and dictators.
The debate over the military’s involvement in exclusively civil space has dogged civil society activists and academia. It goes without saying that whether a state is democratic or not, the military is the main arm of the state tasked with carrying out orders to ensure national security. Unlike in a military government, in a democracy the military’s role is strictly restricted to national security – a role defined in terms of the separation of functions doctrine. In other words, politicians make national security policies while the military merely carries them out.
As Tennyson puts it in his famous poem titled The Charge of the Light Brigade, “Theirs not to make reply; theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die…”
Separation of politics from military is also what the famous Prussian General, Carl von Clausewitz, advocated in his thesis on war. He defined war as “the continuation of politics by other means” and was said to have opposed militarism of the generals on the basis that politics is the objective of the war and the military or the war is the means to achieve that objective.
This is why even in many democratic states, the commander in chief of the armed forces is a civilian head of state who is vested with the power to declare war and peace.
Separation of functions does not mean that citizens with military background cannot come to politics. Yes, they can. But not before they are demilitarized or civilianized. In the United States, the waiting period is nine months or 270 days. In Sri Lanka it is six months. One of the charges against war-winning General Sarath Fonseka – now a field marshal -- after his arrest by the army in 2010 was that he engaged in political activity and contested the presidential election before he completed this ‘quarantine’ period.
In the US, retired military officers have served as heads of states or held cabinet posts after they completed the mandatory demilitarization period. The famous example is Dwight D Eisenhower. A five-star Army general, he served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War II.
In the US, retired military officers who donned the civilian garb to serve the country through politics, were fully committed to democracy. They upheld the separation of functions doctrine.
That chaos ensues if this functional separation is not honoured is seen in countries such as Pakistan and Myanmar where the military manipulates the democratic process. In some countries, the reverse happens with politicians politicizing the military or riding piggyback on the military’s feats to prop themselves up in view of the next election. The cheap theatrics reach such ridiculous heights that patriotism is measured by the amount of praise one heaps on the military and the extent to which one goes to whitewash the crimes of the military. Even developed democracies such as the United Kingdom defend the crimes their men and women in uniform are alleged to have committed. They even plan military strikes against target nations with the focus being election victory and not the enemy.
In Myanmar, too, this happened. The democratically elected government defended the military’s excesses against the Rohingya people. Appearing in person in the International Criminal Court, the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, refuted the allegations against the very military which kept her under house arrest for 15 years and killed and tortured thousands of her supporters and democracy activists. Of course, the now discredied human rights champion had no choice. To protect her part-democratic-and-part-stratocratic government and win the November 2020 elections with a sweeping majority, which she eventually achieved, she thought she had to prove her patriotic credentials by siding with the country’s military which stood accused of committing crimes against humanity.
Politicization of the military serves neither the military nor democracy. The process is as dangerous as it is volatile. The very military which is hailed as the saviour of the nation today can become the most loathed institution tomorrow. Examples for this are found in Myanmar and Pakistan under military dictators, Iran under the Shah, Chile under Augusto Pinochet and many other countries. Even in Sri Lanka, the love and respect the military now enjoy in the south of the country were not there when the military was battling the leftist insurrections in 1971 and 1988-90.