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Democratic reform of Myanmar’s security sector: some signs of progress but much work ahead

7 November 2019 Kim Jolliffe Democratic reform of Myanmar’s security sector: some signs of progress but much work ahead

Myanmar’s government and economic institutions were under the tight grip of the armed forces during nearly 50 years of military rule. Despite ongoing unrest and violence in many parts of the country that have rightly grabbed international attention, as of 2019, limited positive trends towards a more accountable security and justice sector can be seen, and Saferworld’s latest report looks at opportunities to broaden democratic and public oversight. Here, the report’s author, Kim Jolliffe, outlines three areas where steps can be taken to democratise the country’s security sector.

In July 2018, Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to a supportive crowd of diplomats, politicians, scholars and students at the National University of Singapore. She reiterated what has been her central political platform since the 1980s: an agenda to remove the undemocratic privileges afforded to Myanmar’s military that are now enshrined in the country’s pseudo-democratic constitution. “We have 75 per cent of rights but 100 per cent of responsibility,” she said, referring to the 25 per cent of parliamentary seats given to military officers. “We must remove unelected representatives from the legislature…And there are other parts of the constitution that are not democratic and these also are the parts to do with the powers of the military.”

Among these undemocratic powers, some of the most glaring relate to the military’s inordinate control of the security and justice sectors. The armed forces, police, prisons and intelligence agencies all fall directly or indirectly under the military’s unelected commander-in-chief. The judiciary is independent on paper but remains full of judges and staff who previously served within the military or under the former military government.

Myanmar’s security and justice institutions have been constructed through 121 years of colonialism, two decades of world war and near state collapse, and almost 50 years of direct military rule. For most of this time, their central purpose has been to defend the state and associated economic interests from local resistance and to maintain order. Serving and protecting the ethnically diverse public has been little more than an afterthought. The armed forces have locked the country into endless conflicts with dozens of ethnic armed organisations by inflicting widespread violence against civilians and using a divide-and-rule approach to negotiations that has rewarded warlords with business opportunities, while barring any meaningful progress towards political settlements. The criminal justice system (and much of the intelligence apparatus) has been geared primarily towards punitive action against political dissidents, while issues like drug abuse and human trafficking have been responded to with crackdowns and routine punishment of small-time ‘offenders’. All security institutions are dominated by men, predominantly Bamar Buddhists, and as a result are wholly unrepresentative of the population.

Saferworld’s new report, ‘Democratising Myanmar’s security sector: enduring legacies and a long road ahead’, explores the opportunities and challenges in achieving democratic control of Myanmar’s military, police, prisons, courts and intelligence agencies. It outlines three dimensions of democratisation in which important changes have taken place since 2010– when a semi-democratic system of government was introduced – but where far more progress is needed. Realistically, transforming the coercive security sector that has been constructed over nearly two centuries of oppression will take decades and will involve painstaking perseverance from the many people in Myanmar who dream of a better system.

First, elected officials need to gain greater control over the security and justice sectors. There is no democracy without elected officials, and there is no way to create a diverse and representative leadership without an open system. The 2008 Constitution brought civilians into government and parliament for the first time since the military took power in 1962. They now have limited powers to develop security and justice policies; draft, repeal and amend legislation; and to scrutinise security and justice budgets. In the early years of her term, the main institutional changes were made to provide Aung San Suu Kyi with powers to lead the civilian wing as she had been barred from becoming president due to her marriage to a foreigner.

More recently, her government has taken over the powerful General Administration Department –which forms the administrative backbone of government and is heavily involved in security and justice affairs at the local level. The government has also created a civilian National Security Adviser position and has taken steps to establish a new coastguard. Although elected civilians have gained very little meaningful influence over the armed forces, there has been more space for them to initiate reform of the judiciary, police and prisons (at least in policy if not practice). Aung San Suu Kyi’s party has also launched a bid to amend the 2008 Constitution to expand these powers further, potentially giving the civilian government more of a role in defence affairs and allowing it to take control of some security forces (such as the police) or to form new ones.

Second, the institutional cultures and practices of the main security and justice institutions need to be transformed so that they focus on keeping the public safe and reducing harm against civilians. Transferring powers from the military to civilians does not automatically create more just and peaceful outcomes. Extensive reforms are needed to overhaul military tactics and conduct, to make the police more service-oriented and less militaristic, to align the prison system towards rehabilitation so that criminals don’t reoffend, and to ensure that judges interpret the law impartially and are insulated from pressure by the military or government. Further reforms to make the authorities more gender sensitive and gender inclusive are necessary, as are efforts to foster collaboration with health, education and other departments to address multi-faceted problems such as crime and drug abuse while resorting less to the use of force

There has been no visible reform of the armed forces since Myanmar introduced its hybrid democracy system in 2011. Although the commander-in-chief has inherited and invigorated an agenda to keep the force up to date with modern standards in terms of technology and weaponry, its counterinsurgency approach remains stuck in the past, reliant on extreme violence and devoid of political sophistication. There are also few clear signs that civilian leaders see this as a priority, with Aung San Suu Kyi regularly refusing to single out the military for blame and often talking up the need to respond to ‘terrorism’. Meanwhile, some of her closest advisers have categorically denied military wrongdoing and have parroted military claims that the international community has treated them unfairly, while the official Facebook page office of the State Counsellor has responded to widespread documentation of alleged sexual and gender-based violence with a post emblazoned with the words, ‘Fake Rape’.

Third, a democratic and accountable security sector needs to be subject to pressure and oversight from non-governmental institutions of many types. Improved education in security- and justice-related subjects for civilians from all backgrounds and genders is needed to transform a culture where only military men are considered to have the necessary expertise to handle such affairs. Master’s programmes in political science in Yangon and Mandalay (banned prior to 2013) have increasingly included strategic and security subjects, while professors hope to start more specialised courses on these topics in 2020.

Civil society organisations need to continue pushing for legislative change, protesting against injustice and conflict, training and supporting the authorities (where they are willing), and undertaking research and monitoring. The civic space has greatly expanded since 2011 but has shrunk in recent years amid increased legal harassment by the military. This has hampered the media too, with journalists regularly facing court cases under problematic defamation laws. The media needs far greater protection from the judiciary while journalists should be given greater access to conflict areas. Policy institutes have emerged since 2011 and are becoming a crucial source of evidence-based research and analysis, but often struggle to be heard by government.

Myanmar’s security sector could develop in multiple ways. There are no guarantees that it will become more democratic, more accountable or less violent. Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders have carved out more space for civilians to influence security and justice affairs than has been seen since 1962. Meanwhile, a much livelier political and civic space has emerged, allowing influence to a wider circle of organisations and individuals.

These important institutional and cultural shifts could lay the foundations for more comprehensive change, but only if the many civilians who are pushing for democracy and peace continue to increase their power in relation to the military and remain committed to transformative change. There is always a risk that civilian leaders will adopt the cultures and practices of their military predecessors simply due to institutional inertia and because that is the only type of politics they have ever known. But there are opportunities to make change happen, and pro-democrats in government, civil society, the media and other sectors all have critical roles to play. International organisations and governments can also provide expertise and resources to support such efforts.

The struggle is best viewed realistically as a multi-decade process. When speaking in Singapore, Aung San Suu Kyi insisted – as she has done regularly since the 1980s – that her movement will not “encourage the kind of revolutions that turn the country upside down. We have to do this through negotiation and step by step…We will be patient but we will be persistent.” The security and justice sectors have been developed over nearly two centuries of oppressive rule and will not be transformed overnight. What matters is that the hard work continues and that progress is being made.

We hope that this report can provide individuals and organisations working towards these aims with a comprehensive overview of this challenge and help to shed light on the long road ahead.

Photo: Hkun Lat.