How a new Amnesty report sheds light on Myanmar’s civil-military relations

Photo: juls78 / CC BY-SA

The recent Amnesty International report about the Myanmar military’s alleged war crimes highlights the country’s civil-military imbalance and the significant impact it will have on the country’s general election.

By Umair Jamal

What is the Rakhine and Chin situation all about?

In a recent report, Amnesty International said the Myanmar military’s indiscriminate use of airstrikes on unarmed civilians in Rakhine and Chin states amounts to “war crimes.”

Armed conflict has raged between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) in Western Myanmar since 2018. The last two years of intense fighting has displaced thousands of people in these states.

A prolonged government-imposed internet shutdown in these regions mean that there is little credible information about the severity and scale of the violence. Recently, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for an immediate end to “the world’s longest government-enforced internet shutdown”.

Several ethnic and religious minority groups, particularly the Rohingya, are caught in the crosshairs of the conflict. There is growing evidence to suggest that the military’s relentless use of force against ethnic minorities is pushing thousands of people from their homes.

Calls from international organizations to hold the Myanmar military accountable have not yielded any results. The government in Myanmar maintains that it is trying to address allegations of abuse involving soldiers.

However, the civilian government has not said anything about the institution itself and the culture of impunity that prevails in the military’s ranks. “Despite mounting international pressure on the military’s operations in the area, the shocking testimonials we have collected show just how deep impunity continues to run within Myanmar military ranks,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director.

With no accountability to the civilian government, the country’s powerful military continues to accumulate power by leveraging its influence in domestic politics. 

The military’s use of force in Rakhine and Chin states is not necessarily a decision made by the government. The actions involve larger institutional interests and a power struggle between the government and the military over the question of how to address the political demands of minority ethnic groups.

The ongoing conflict and the military’s use of force to resolve the crisis will have far-reaching implications in the coming general election later this year. Civilian leaders are likely to lose ground to the military as the generals make decisions from the sidelines that will influence the election’s outcome.

How does Myanmar’s military project its political power?

Despite Myanmar’s recent shift to civilian leadership, the military has kept significant power over issues relating to national security, economy and domestic politics.

The civilian government should not be the target of all blame. The recent crackdowns in Rakhine and China are mostly the work of Myanmar’s military chief, Min Aung Hlaing. “He is the person to whom blame should be primarily directed,” says Francis Wade, a journalist and author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other.’ “What is interesting is that the military, as an institution, has essentially engineered itself into a position whereby it can commit such atrocities but Aung San Suu Kyi takes the blame.”

In March, the military blocked a major constitutional amendment that sought to limit generals’ political power. According to The Economist, the government was “hoping to reduce the army’s big role in government, by gradually trimming the number of seats in the national and regional parliaments filled by military appointees.”

Some political analysts believe that the current government cannot function effectively without the the military’s support. Myanmar’s transition to civilian rule only became possible because the military, also known as the Tatmadaw, allowed it to happen. “Since 2011, the generals have been aiming for a controlled withdrawal from government, while retaining the Tatmadaw’s institutional independence and a major role in national affairs,” notes Andrew Selth, writing for Future Directions International.

Analyzing the prevailing organizational imbalance between civilian and military institutions in Myanmar, Wade says that “There is no one in power who appears either willing or able to rein in the military.” In fact, it is the civilian government that echoes the military’s rhetoric in domestic politics, rather than vice versa.

Domestically, the military doesn’t consider itself accountable to any other institution let alone any civilian leader, including incumbent State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. After 2015’s general election, the current government prioritized a resumption of the peace process to address ethnic groups’ demands for federal autonomy. Over the last four years, the military has insisted on using brute force even when the government pushed for dialogue. This has severely undermined the government’s authority and credibility in the eyes of international observers and domestic ethnic minorities that hoped change would come with the revival of democracy in the country.

It is possible that the military, with its deep stakes in the country’s politics and economy, may not want to give away any administrative autonomy to ethnic armed groups like the AA. From the military’s perspective, any such negotiations may encourage more ethnic groups with similar demands, weakening the military’s ability to rule the country with an iron fist and undermining its institutional role in domestic politics.

Any efforts on the part of the elected government to initiate dialogue with the rebel groups may not hold any value unless the military supports such a policy.

How will the current situation impact the coming general election? 

The coming general election is not going to change much in Myanmar in terms of the country’s domestic security policy. The next government will have to share power with the military, as mandated by the constitution, but also in order to retain power and push its agenda. 

The military’s ongoing operations against the AA are not likely to become a significant part of any party’s electoral agenda. If anything, civilian leaders looking to gain votes are likely to criticize the AA and its demands for dividing the country on ethnic lines and undermining Myanmar’s national unity.

Political parties and leaders contesting the election understand that impressing the generals holds the key to power. Myanmar’s last two general elections were hardly free and fair and the military’s interference remained a key issue. The next election may also see the military supporting their favorite candidates from behind the scenes.

Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: Comune Parma / CC BY-SA

Before coming to power, Aung San Suu Kyi called for reconciliation and dialogue with political groups asking for more constitutional rights. In the past, she has also criticized the military for its heavy-handed approach against ethnic minorities. However, her political stance shifted greatly after coming to power as she became yielded, at least in part, to the military’s way of dealing with ethnic groups demanding more autonomy. Her critics say that “she has transformed herself from an international democratic icon and a champion of human rights to a denier of genocidal acts,” as political scientist Nehginpao Kipgen wrote in the Bangkok Post. She may no longer be willing to criticize any aspect of the military’s operations against rebel groups, especially during her electoral campaign.

In this election, political parties’ rhetoric on the Rakhine and Chin conflict will be an important factor to watch. If political parties want to win the support of ethnic minorities in these states, and potentially other ethnic states and regions, they will have to become more conciliatory towards the ethnic groups’ political demands. However, any such move may annoy the military’s leadership. November’s election will be a test case for Myanmar’s democratic forces.

Myanmar’s military would like to see a peaceful election. However, with few international election monitors expected to enter violence-wracked northern Rakhine and southern Chin, it will be difficult to check the credibility of state-disseminated information during the election. Since the election in these states will take place under the watch of the military, the chances of rigged voting will also increase. 

The AA and other rebel groups, on the other hand, are interested in seeing more violence before and during the upcoming election. The rebel groups would want to expand the scope of their present military campaigns to show their relevancy in Myanmar’s politics.

Rebel groups may target political rallies, security forces and other state installations to help discount the public’s impression that the military is winning and that their political demands hold little sway. Resistance from rebel groups in Rakhine and Chin states is unlikely to drop in the coming months, with violence and the surrounding political rhetoric continuing to be a major factor in the election.

In any case, the real power to determine Myanmar’s national security policy will continue to rest with the military and not with the next president or parliament. This imbalance can become deeper still if a weak governing coalition emerges after the next election. Any such eventuality would leave the military more space to enforce its own vision of the country’s controlled democracy.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15