Comment & analysis

Democratising Myanmar’s security sector: interview with Kim Jolliffe

7 November 2019 Kim Jolliffe  Democratising Myanmar’s security sector: interview with Kim Jolliffe

Our latest report explores the democratisation of Myanmar’s security and justice institutions – which, despite some recent positive steps, remain largely in service to the military following nearly 50 years of military rule. We spoke to the report’s author, Kim Jolliffe, to find out more about the challenges and what the next steps should be.   

What is the report about?

It’s about the struggle for democratic control of Myanmar’s security and justice sectors, especially the military, police, prisons, courts and intelligence services. It looks at the history of these sectors, progress towards democracy in recent years and the many challenges ahead.

Why is it important?

Myanmar’s people have suffered for nearly two centuries under a security system that was originally designed by colonialists to suppress dissent and protect commercial interests. It was then inherited and developed by an authoritarian, nationalistic and hyper-defensive military elite. The people need and deserve security and justice institutions that are accountable to the public and whose primary job is to keep the public safe.

What should be done?

Some progress has been made in democratising the security sector since 2011 – when a semi-democratic system of government was introduced – but much more progress is required. Control needs to be given to elected civilians so that they can oversee security and justice, as representatives of the people. The institutional practices and culture of the authorities need to be transformed, so that they are working in the public interest, using minimum force and reducing harm to civilians. Non-governmental actors like education institutions, civil society, policy institutes and the media need to be empowered to oversee and scrutinise the security and justice sectors and to ensure transparency and accountability.

Why is it important to discuss this topic now?

If not now, when? Armed conflicts are raging across the country, the military is committing widespread human rights violations, prisons are overcrowded and under-resourced, situations like the ‘Victoria’ case demonstrate that justice for the most heinous crimes is lacking, and the military continues to use the criminal justice system to target journalists, political opponents and activists. These issues are the result of over 120 years of colonialism, the devastation of World War II and nearly 50 years of military rule. Fixing them will take many decades. There is no time to waste.

Who should be part of the discussion?

The most important protagonists in this story are the people, both inside and outside of government, who are genuinely working to achieve democracy, peace and human rights. Political changes since 2011 have been initiated and controlled by the military and are frustratingly slow. However, there are many people in Myanmar dedicating their lives to reforming oppressive laws, changing authoritarian mindsets and mobilising popular movements. As a result, since 2011, we have seen an increasingly diverse and assertive parliament, an increasingly active and uncompromising independent media, an increasingly capable and diligent civil society and an increasingly open education sector all push new boundaries and demand more from the government and military. They are making progress and will continue to find space to create change.

What is the history of civil-military relations and the security sector in Myanmar? 

This is a crucial question. The vast problems with Myanmar’s military, police and prisons did not just appear overnight and they can’t simply be fixed overnight either. These institutions and their predisposition towards violence and oppression are the result of over 120 years of colonialism, the devastation of the Second World War, a rushed independence process and nearly 50 years of military rule.    

After independence in 1948, there was a parliamentary system, and a military that was setup under British patronage with a combination of ideological independence fighters alongside corps trained by the British. In 1949, an independence fighter called Ne Win became Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. He distrusted the elected civilians in government and the ‘professionalised’ military officers who had been trained by the British. He took over the government temporarily in 1958 and then fully in 1962, and began rotating military officers throughout the civilian bureaucracy and militarising the police force. He created a nominally civilian one-party state in 1974 but the military effectively continued to rule.

In 1988, Ne Win’s regimes collapsed due to widespread protests, so a rising faction within the military launched another coup that resulted in an explicit military government. At that time, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a champion for democracy, referring to liberal principles such as the military needing to be under civilian control. For 20 years, the military promised to create a new constitution and hand over power. It finally adopted the new constitution in 2008, creating the civilian-military hybrid we have today. The first election in 2010 was rigged and the military-backed party won, but this was still an important step towards dividing institutional responsibilities between civilians and the military. Then Aung San Suu Kyi entered parliament in 2012 and won a landslide victory in 2015. While some pro-democrats are disappointed with the outcomes of her government so far, she has played an important role in terms of institutional development. Many parts of government are now under the power of elected civilians for the first time and she has established this as the new norm. In the future, other elected civilians will fill those position. It is essential that democrats in Myanmar build on these foundations.

What should be the way forward for a democratic security sector?

There are three important areas to focus on. First, there can be no democracy without democratically elected and accountable officials. Elected civilians in Myanmar’s parliament and government need to continue to expand and develop their mandate over the security and justice sectors. The 2008 constitution gave them some important powers, and they are pushing to amend the charter to expand their role further and decrease the political role of the military. In the meantime, civilians in government can do more to develop security and justice policies; draft, repeal and amend legislation; scrutinise security and justice budgets; and create more space for media and civil society to do their jobs. The civilian government has taken responsibility for the General Administration Department and they could potentially assume other bodies from the military too.  

Second, transferring powers from the military to civilians does not automatically create more just and peaceful outcomes. Serious work is needed to transform the institutional cultures and practices of the main security and justice institutions so that they are focused on keeping the public safe and reducing harm against civilians. This relates to military tactics and conduct, making the police more service-oriented and less militaristic, focusing the prison system on rehabilitation so that criminals don’t reoffend, and ensuring that the courts are interpreting the law in an impartial manner and without undue influence from the military or government. It also includes making all authorities more gender sensitive and gender inclusive, and collaborating with health, education and other departments to address the underlying causes of crime and conflict, rather than just responding with force.

Third, democracy is an ongoing process that relies on a wide range of non-government institutions to apply pressure and oversight. More education on security and justice-related issues is needed for civilians (including women) from all backgrounds, so that these affairs do not continue to be dominated by men with guns. Civil society organisations need to continue pushing for legislative change, protesting against injustice and poor governance, training and supporting the authorities where possible, and playing research and monitoring roles. Media freedom is under threat from problematic defamation laws and a lack of judicial independence – and journalists still can’t access conflict areas easily. Policy institutes have emerged since 2011 but often struggle to be heard by government.

Photo: Hkun Lat.