Making soldiers serve the people

Indictments from international courts will not miraculously transform Myanmar’s security forces, whose reform ultimately depends on political dynamics at home.


MYANMAR’s appearance before the International Court of Justice this month has re-focused international attention on the violent acts of the country’s security forces, and the need for these institutions to be made accountable. However, international accountability alone will not solve the centuries-old problems that drive state-led violence in Myanmar.

Just as arrests and jail sentences do not rid inner-city neighbourhoods of crime without complementary policies to improve education and social services, issuing indictments against military leaders will not miraculously transform Myanmar’s violent and corrupt security forces into service-oriented professionals. Change of that nature will depend on domestic political factors and will likely take decades.

Since 2011, the institutional powers held by civilians have increased and significant space has opened up for civil society, media and other actors to enforce public oversight over the country’s security and justice sectors. It is now up to civilians inside and outside government to instigate more comprehensive reform of security and justice institutions to ensure they are focused on keeping people safe and are accountable to a well-informed and civically engaged public. Such changes will be crucial to building a more democratic and more peaceful Myanmar, in which people can live in safety and without fear.

Myanmar’s security and justice sectors were built during nearly 200 years of colonialism, war and military rule. The police, courts, prisons and intelligence services were originally established by the British to protect their commercial interests from local resistance. The military, which emerged from the independence struggle and was heavily shaped by World War Two, eventually became a highly politicised force, deeply sceptical of external intervention and distrustful of civilians.

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After taking power in 1962, the military took over all government and economic institutions and used the police, prisons, courts and intelligence services to block internal resistance. Throughout all these eras, serving and protecting the ethnically diverse public has been little more than an afterthought.

Despite some crucial developments, most political changes since 2011 have been initiated and controlled by the military and remain frustratingly slow. The Tatmadaw has perpetuated armed conflicts through tactics that rely on systematic violence and the backing of corrupt warlord-like militias. The courts, police, and intelligence agencies are widely distrusted and still focus on quelling resistance from the public by suppressing criticism and political opposition.

Nonetheless, there are many people inside and outside government dedicating their time to reforming oppressive laws, changing authoritarian mindsets and mobilising popular movements. These steps could lay the groundwork for more comprehensive reform in coming years and should be supported by all those trying to achieve peace, justice and human rights in Myanmar.

Earlier this month, London-based NGO Saferworld, which works to prevent violent conflict and build safer lives, published a report titled “Democratising Myanmar’s Security Sector: Enduring Legacies and a Long Road Ahead”. I have summarised three dimensions of security sector democratisation identified in the report, where some progress has been made in recent years but where much more work is needed.

Vice-Senior General Soe Win reviews soldiers during a parade to mark 74th Armed Forces Day in Nay Pyi Taw on March 27, 2019. (AFP)

Vice-Senior General Soe Win reviews soldiers during a parade to mark 74th Armed Forces Day in Nay Pyi Taw on March 27, 2019. (AFP)

Developing a civilian mandate

First, elected officials need to gain greater control over the security and justice institutions. There is no democracy without elected officials, and there is no way to create a diverse and representative leadership without an open system. Although the constitution makes the armed forces virtually autonomous and places the prisons, police and intelligence agencies under indirect military control, new norms are being slowly established for a civilian mandate in security affairs.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has the most civilian cabinet since 1962, and the multi-party Union Hluttaw contains 123 former political prisoners and representatives from several ethnic nationality parties. Government officials and parliamentarians have made some initial efforts to develop security and justice policies; to draft, repeal and amend security-related legislation; and to scrutinise security and justice budgets. Aside from a few cursory statements, however, they have avoided interfering with the internal operations of the armed forces or directly assigning tasks to the Ministry of Defence.

The civilian wing of the government has also taken control of the General Administration Department, which was formerly under the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs. It has appointed a civilian National Security Adviser, and has taken steps to establish a new coastguard that would be under civilian control. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has made efforts in parliament to amend the 2008 Constitution in ways that would allow the civilian government to take control of some security forces, such as the police, or to form new ones.

After more than five decades of security policy being the preserve of a small male military clique, these changes have helped establish civilian involvement in security and justice affairs as an institutional norm. This will be hard to reverse and has laid foundations that could be built on by future generations of leaders to create more meaningful change. It is crucial that civilian leaders from all backgrounds continue to claim responsibilities from the military establishment and expand their mandate further. 

Fighter jets fly in formation during a parade to mark 74th Armed Forces Day in Nay Pyi Taw on March 27, 2019. (AFP)

Fighter jets fly in formation during a parade to mark 74th Armed Forces Day in Nay Pyi Taw on March 27, 2019. (AFP)

Remaking institutional cultures

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. Even civilian leaders regularly adopt overly aggressive approaches to conflicts, highly punitive approaches to crime, and authoritarian approaches to punishment and intelligence gathering.

Reforms have been most visibly lacking in the strategy, tactics and conduct of the armed forces, areas over which civilians have little influence. The armed forces maintain a “modernisation” agenda focused on technology and weaponry, but its approach to internal warfare is stuck in the past, being predicated on extreme violence against civilians and the buying off of militia. So far, civilian leaders have either diplomatically avoided discussing military issues or have actively defended the military’s actions – as has been the case with recent hearings at the ICJ.

Piecemeal reforms have been seen in the justice sector, with progressive policies for drug harm reduction and crime prevention, and some legal reforms that followed constant advocacy from civil society. However, a more comprehensive and system-wide agenda is needed to make the Myanmar Police Force more service-oriented and less militaristic, to align the prison system towards rehabilitation so that criminals don’t reoffend, to shift intelligence agencies away from public surveillance, and to ensure that judges and prosecutors interpret the law impartially and are insulated from pressure by the military or government.

Despite tepid efforts to recruit more women as low-ranking officers in the security forces, further reforms are needed to make these organisations more gender sensitive and gender inclusive, particularly at leadership levels. Work must also be done to include health, education and other departments in crime reduction strategies, so as to minimise the use of force and punitive action. The civilians in government could take much bolder steps in all of these areas even under the current constitution.


Tatmadaw troops arrive outside the Goktwin police station in northern Shan State on August 15, 2019, after it was attacked by Northern Alliance armed groups. (AFP)

Watchdogs needed

Third, the security and justice sectors must be subject to scrutiny from a wide range of non-government institutions. This requires a lively and protected civic space, in which people and organisations can engage on security issues without fear of undue retribution from the state.

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. The media needs access to reliable information and the freedom to publish, so that that the public is aware of all actions carried out in its name and to make it possible for the public to express opposition when it disagrees. The civic space has greatly expanded since 2011 but has come under new threats in recent years amid increased legal harassment by the military.

Improved education in security and justice-related subjects for civilians from all backgrounds and genders is needed to widen access to leadership and policy making roles and to support public oversight. This would help to counter a culture in which only military men are considered to have the necessary expertise to handle such affairs.

Indeed, many civilians currently in government have only a basic grasp of these fields and therefore struggle to increase their influence. Master’s programmes in political science in Yangon and Mandalay, which were banned before 2013, have increasingly included strategic and security subjects, while professors hope to start more specialised courses on these topics in 2020. Informal learning institutions such as higher education “academies” are also central to this endeavour.

Soldiers march in formation during a parade to mark 74th Armed Forces Day in Nay Pyi Taw on March 27. (AFP)

Soldiers march in formation during a parade to mark 74th Armed Forces Day in Nay Pyi Taw on March 27. (AFP)

No guarantees

There are no guarantees that Myanmar’s coercive institutions will become more democratic as a necessary outcome of the political transition. Nonetheless, political changes have created space for democracy supporters in and out of government to push in this direction.

The security and justice sectors could evolve in numerous ways. They could remain largely detached from the civilian government and in service of military leaders’ ideological or private interests. Alternatively, they could be slowly democratised, coming under increased oversight by elected civilians, becoming focused on keeping people safe, and opening up to wider participation from the public and civil society.

Much depends on whether civilians interested in the public good can successfully claim greater power and influence in relation to the military, through a combination of sustained pressure and tactful compromise. Civilians in government, civil society, the media, policy institutes and education providers all have critical roles to play.

Even as international governments and agencies continue to call for justice, such efforts must still be complemented with more constructive external aid and assistance, both for carefully targeted government initiatives and for institutions such as schools and universities, civil society, the media and policy institutes. While direct training for the armed forces will remain largely unproductive without a much greater commitment to reform from the military generals, much can be done to work with democrats across a range of sectors to shift the domestic balance of power and slowly remodel norms and institutions.

Transformational security and justice reform will only be possible in Myanmar as a result of internal political change and will only be sustainable if it is propelled by political forces within the country. While these politics are inherently messy and progress is inevitably slow, engaging with them remains the only game in town for those who want meaningful progress towards peace, democracy and respect for human rights.

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