Proof, if proof was needed, that Myanmar is still quite some way away from democracy has emerged over the past few days: the army has arrested three local journalists for meeting with ethnic rebels to report on a drug burning ceremony they were holding. They have been charged under a law targetting ‘people who help illegal groups’.
The rebel group in question, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army from the northern Shan state is already widely known for its operations against drugs activities such as poppy cultivation, heroine refineries and meth labs.
No matter: if three independent-minded journalists can be prosecuted for “doing propaganda” for a rebel group, then of course they will be prosecuted. Why would the population of the ‘newly democratic’ Myanmar want to be informed about the activities of any group other than the country’s military and civilian government?
Such a response from the military is, of course, to nobody’s surprise. After all, the Burmese have only lived under the military junta since 1962. That’s not the revealing part of the story: rather, what is important here is the response of the new democratically elected civilian government of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The civilian government had no response.
This is now an incontrovertible pattern: whatever the military does, it will remain unchallenged. Whether it is the renewed campaign to terrorise the Rohingya or other ethnic minority groups, whether it is stomping on emergent press freedoms, or whatever else, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is not there to act as counter-balance or as a center of power with an alternative approach or point of view.
The civilian government is an entirely subservient institution whose role is primarily to rubber-stamp the activities of the military and whose leaders, including Ms Suu Kyi herself, can be carted out in front of local and world media to act as apologists for whatever the military wants to do.
Even after the decades in which Aung San Suu Kyi has lived in the consciousness of the global public as the iconic democracy advocate and dissident under house arrest, in government she has been nothing short of an enthusiastic supporter of the army and all its activitiesDr. Azeem Ibrahim
It is a pretty good system of retaining power and shedding responsibility for the Burmese Army. But let us not be fooled. The Army and its powerful leaders do not just enjoy constitutional supremacy in matters of foreign policy and domestic security. Nor do they control the vast majority of the country’s resources simply as a legacy of the junta era.
They remain the all-pervasive power in the country, and there is no other institution of state which can, or is inclined to, challenge them. Certainly not, it seems, Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘democratic’ government. The only challenges to the Army come from the ethnic insurgent groups in the border areas of the country.
Now, there is a case that can be made in defense of Aung San Suu Kyi and her civilian government. While they do have the support of the people, they have no other source of power. They simply do not have the ability to challenge to military, even if they were so inclined – certainly no way to challenge the Army that would not lead to a bloody civil war. And what the military giveth, in this case democratic elections, the military can taketh away.
Perhaps what they are trying to do, what they might be telling themselves is their cause, is to play the long game: hold in there and allow the new democratic system to become sufficiently entrenched and capable of standing on its own, before it can attempt to curb the power of the Army.
And perhaps that is indeed what they are trying to do. But for us who do observe the country closely and who are desperately looking for clues that the civilian government has its own agenda for a brighter future for Myanmar, there is little to give us hope.
Even after the decades in which Aung San Suu Kyi has lived in the consciousness of the global public as the iconic democracy advocate and dissident under house arrest, in government she has been nothing short of an enthusiastic supporter of the Army and all its activities. In 2013, long before rising to power, she proclaimed that she was “fond” of the Burmese Army.
It seems that since she has been in their employ, her fondness has only grown greater. I hope I am wrong in this. But I am still waiting for any evidence that there is a Nobel Peace Prize winner somewhere in there.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.