While the international community holds various broad examples of the inherent flaws in military institutions in government, Myanmar’s short history of democracy blows any other example far out of the water. The Tatmadaw is arguably one of the most dangerous military institutions to the concept of democracy worldwide, repeatedly and viciously acting of its own accord, in its own interest, and entirely without regard to the interests of the civilian population.
Part of the responsibility of a proper democratic institution is to curb such undue power and facilitate the growth of institutions without this manner of authoritarian influence. With the severity of the military’s seemingly permanent influence over Burmese democracy, it begs the question of whether democracy in Myanmar was ever given the opportunity to be strong enough to “erode.” Overinvolvement of the military in the early stages of Burmese democratization destroyed the chance for Myanmar to grow and maintain a functioning democracy.
Like many Asian states gaining independence following World War II, Burma was rife with difficulties in its attempts to build democracy from war-torn ruins. Despite an initially successful attempt to create a united state with all residing ethnic groups in 1947, these foundations were immediately shaken following the assassination of several members of the negotiated transitional government (including Aung San, the prime minister). Its acquisition of full independence kicked off a 14-year period of parliamentary democracy, similarly structured to its colonial roots. However, a constitution with limited regard for ethnic and regional strife, and a corruptable parliament with neither proper representation nor enforcement mechanisms led to the beginning of the Tatmadaw’s inflated presence in government; the military caretaker government of ‘58 began validating a public distrust of civil government among its citizens that permeated throughout Burmese political culture, even following the temporary re-establishment of the civil government in 1960. The subsequent coup in 1962 saw the abolition of both the central legislature and the federalist system that encouraged a range of sovereignty for ethnic states.
The initial successes of the military-led government, especially those which benefitted the poor-working class farmers to whom policies were focused, were often outweighed by their aggressive anti-democratic actions. Though the military regime was somewhat welcomed in the face of the previous government, the complete criminalization of political opposition and full nationalization of the press, education, and cultural institutions cemented this, and concretely negated the chance of a return to civil society in the coming future. Even under the one-party Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, these restrictions were not lifted and were even intensified with another military coup d’etat in 1988 following the 8888 Uprising, a rule which would not waver in their autocracy until 1990. Despite the holding of multi-party elections – in which the people of Myanmar expressed their disapproval of the military government – the military forcibly retained power until 2010, when the next general election was held and protested by the National League for Democracy, the opposition party, who then won handily in the 2012 and 2015 elections. These victories enshrined a new period for Myanmar, one without dictatorial military rule, censorship, without oppression. It was meant to be, at least.
To observe it from a democratic breakdown perspective, it is best to consider the progression from 2011, at the beginning of the democratic transition. As reforms were being progressively implemented to reintroduce democratic norms to civil society, including the relaxation of censorship and labor crackdowns, citizens of Myanmar were presented with a rapidly liberalizing government, which the 2015 elections proved to be popular. However, the political institutions that a democratic Myanmar had to rely on were still only backed by a military without a penchant for mutual toleration or forbearance. It is, unfortunately, obvious that Burmese democracy did not erode, but was kneecapped before it could even stand on its own. It is a shame, however, that its own vulnerability came from an unshakable and dangerous foundation of itself: an unaccountable army.
Even prior to the 2020 elections that sparked international awareness of the current status of Myanmar, the Tatmadaw has had a dangerous role in attempts for liberalization and democratization. In the theoretical period of democratization between 1990 and 2010, the Tatmadaw served as an elite party with which liberty was bargained for. With no proper way to delegitimize military coups, state-led violence, or election rejection, Burmese democratization will be doomed to fail so long as the military has a say in it. Both the military’s institutional independence and its legitimizing influence throughout its post-war history in civil society have made it the sole threat to democratization. Its history pre-2011 reminds me greatly of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in Taiwan’s post-war era until 2000, when it was under a one-party government with martial law in place from 1949 to 1987, before gradual lessening of restrictions allowed for a competitive political environment with waning interference from the ruling class. Myanmar, however, was not afforded the smooth transition from the junta to democracy that Taiwan enjoyed. Without meaningful steps to build, encourage and maintain democracy in good faith by the existing authoritarian regime, democracy cannot build from such an infrastructure.