Myanmar: The Military in Ambush? Interview with Renaud Egreteau

Caretaking Democratization. The Military and Political Change in Myanmar

Myanmar has undergone major political changes that have recently brought to power the head of democratic opposition to the military dictatorship and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi. Renaud Egreteau has published a book in which he shows the extent to which the Burmese military—despite its opening to democratic governance—remains very close to power and seems ready to return at any time. The author is interviewed on the current situation, the challenges of Burma’s new governance, and the way research can be conducted in a state that has until recently been very closed, and offers us illuminating answers.


In your book, Caretaking Democratization. The Military and Political Change in Myanmar, you write that the change of regime that has been going on in Myanmar since the 2010 elections opens the door to something else, something unknown, that could either come close to a democratic system or actually remodel an authoritarian regime. Are there serious risks of a return to a military dictatorship? 

This will depend on the new generations of military leaders. The Burmese armed forces consider themselves “guiding” a transition that has been underway, they claim, since the 1988 coup. It is the military that controls this process, and has thus far followed its own rules. The armed forces have now managed this tour de force to get what their leaders had planned from the early 1990s: the position of arbiter on the political scene, accompanied by broad guarantees of immunity. It is therefore not at all certain that the military hierarchy would want to turn back, to re-form a junta and re-take all power in hand.

Even if the military is convinced that it is essential, it appears willing to leave civilians— in particular its historical opponents, the National League for Democracy (NLD)—to deal with the administrative and political everyday management of the country. “Logistics will follow” (“L’intendance suivra”) said General de Gaulle. This is close to the Burmese military’s current state of mind. That being said, however, the military has been structured to intervene, since the country’s independence in 1948. As soon as a problem arises, a man in uniform has taken to responsibility to respond. If the country becomes increasingly difficult to govern; if there are new protests; if society falls into new waves of communal tensions—in particular between Muslim and Buddhist populations—then yes, chances are that the military would take back control. Yet if Burmese society, resilient as it has been since the 1950s, pursues painfully its efforts to liberalize and democratize while maintaining a certain level of economical development, the armed forces could make do with their current privileges as long as these are not put into question, and leave the civilians to govern as they can. 


If the risk exists, do you believe that paradoxically the democratic evolutions – the democratic institutions that have been set-up – could play a role in the return to an authoritarian regime? If such would be the case, what role and why? 

What we start to see in this transitional context is the awakening of tensions and conflicts that have been simmering for a long time and sometimes even muffled by the military dictatorship. These are phenomena that are specific to any transition or revolution causing a redefinition of the political balance among the elites of a society, and between the elites and the rest of the population. This mix of (re)emerging social conflicts, civil commotion, the advent of new elites disputing the institutional order established after the demise of the dictatorship, and the emergence of new ideologies, are all challenges for the administration in charge of this hybrid regime. Burma is no exception, and there is a good chance that the institutional foundations of this “post- junta” regime will gradually be challenged, while the military remains in a strong position.


Do ethnic and communitarian conflicts pose a threat to the very young democracy? 

This question was raised already in 1948 when the country became independent. It is still topical because none of the successive governments—democratic in the 1950s, military or semi-military since then—has been able to bring a lasting solution to ethnic and religious issues. Decades of political deadlock, civil wars, and forced or voluntary migrations have also taken their toll. How can the country’s ethnic patchwork, which is increasingly heterogeneous and complex, be managed? What should be the place of religion in a majority Buddhist country? In Myanmar, the issue of the separation of church and state has never really been solved. Beyond noble intentions, the NLD has been rather discreet on these issues, preferring a very long process of inter-ethnic dialogue rather than engaging in a grand political and administrative transformation of the country. 


On Page 47 of your book, you write,  “(...) if history is any guide in Myanmar, there are serious reasons to be quite pessimistic about the re-emerging multiparty scene’s capacity to move beyond fragmentation, clientelism and the personification of power.” Could you comment on this sentence? In particular, what you mean by “fragmentation”, and, “clientelism and the personification of power”?

 Today, the NLD seems united behind its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. That’s precisely the problem. What will happen when she is gone? How will the NLD, a bureaucratic machine, be able to survive its charismatic leader and overcome its potential flaws, failures, and political mistakes to come? How will internal tensions be dealt with? These questions have been raised for all Burmese political parties that have emerged since Independence and have never been able to institutionalize themselves or create the necessary internal mechanisms that would allow them to successfully deal with internal rivalries, maverick voices, or opposing ideologies that exist within them. Political parties have too often been used as personal vehicles and tools for the interests and ambitions of a charismatic leader and his/her close circle, whose loyalty is absolute. 
In Myanmar, as in many other societies in development, power is both personified and personalized. Burmese political parties struggle to deal with dissidence coming from within as much as they struggle to survive the death of their leaders. This may explain the tremendous number of divisions and other splits within all Burmese political parties. The NLD is no exception - the personal conflict between the two former generals U Aung Gyi and U Tin Oo illustrates this, as does when dissidents created the National Democratic Force (NDF) during the 2010 electoral campaign to oppose the boycott requested by the NLD’s executive committee.
In a nutshell, considering the circumstances, Burma’s ongoing transition and the “post-junta” democratic consolidation seems to depend on one single person, her capacities... and her life expectancy. 


The book clearly shows that the army has not totally withdrawn from political bodies and institutions. Is there a power structure in particular within which its presence remains strong? Can the army accept to stop 'being' the State? 

The army now defines itself as the ultimate decision-maker. It leaves the civilian power, now embodied by the NLD, to manage logistics and the daily administration of the country. The risk now is to see the armed forces move from a situation in which they “are” the state, and embodied it—as Louis XIV claimed in his time, “the state is me”—to a configuration in which the military institution becomes a “state within the state”. As the NLD and its parliamentary majority begin to push the limits that the armed forces have assigned the party, especially through the 2008 Constitution, there is a good chance that the military will dig in and defend their reserves, their economic base, and their immunity, while showing less and less cooperation with civilian power.


Lets come back to your research path. You have ben working for many years on a regime that was until recently very closed. What has led you to work on this state and what has proven particularly interesting in your study? 

When I began my graduate studies, I had behind me a long companionship with Asia, with numerous trips to China, Sri Lanka, Japan and India, as a child. Once a student, I thus sought to deepen my connection and I started studying oriental languages ​​and civilizations at the French National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations (INALCO). My first choice was South Asia, India in particular. Before continuing my post-graduate studies in comparative politics at Sciences Po Paris, a discussion with Christophe Jaffrelot, who would later become my PhD supervisor, guided me toward the study of the relations between two successor countries to the British colonial "Raj", i.e. India and Burma. That was in the spring of 2001. So I came to Burma from India and the Indian subcontinent to which Burmese society owes many of its own political and cultural traditions, not from Thailand and Southeast Asia, like many of my colleagues.


And how has it been possible to conduct research in social sciences in a closed State led by the military? How is it possible to have access to first hand sources? 

Actually, it is wrong to think that the country opened up to the world during the 2010s. The real opening up, which allowed for the making a training of a new generation of researchers and journalists specialized on Burmese affairs, occurred in 1988. This was when students and pro-democracy activists protested in Rangoon and when Aung San Suu Kyi first appeared on her country’s political scene. Despite the coup staged in September 1988 and the establishment of a new dictatorship, the country did not turn in on itself as had been the case between 1962 and 1968 with General Ne Win. During the 1970s, the visas that were given to foreigners only lasted three days; during the 1990s and 2000s they lasted four weeks. This allowed many anthropologists, linguists, historians, political scientists and even international correspondents to move across great parts of the country. I discovered Burmese society during the 2000s through regular fieldwork from Yangon to Myitkyina, Sittwe, and Kengtung, as well as from borders accessible from the province of Yunnan, Thailand, or even Bangladesh and the Indian Manipur. Myanmar in the 2000s was not North Korea and for anyone knowing where to go, a lot of data, observations and even interviews were possible here and there. 


Yet one can imagine that the opening up – even if, as I have understood, the term should be considered carefully – and the transition that have been visible in Myanmar for some years ease access to the research material. Does the regime offer access to archives? 

Indeed. Even if conducting research was possible before the 2011 transition, the difference is inarguable. Before 2011, there was almost no access to political elites. Above all, meeting opponents was taking a great risk, as was distributing and collecting questionnaires, a tool political scientists use a lot. Since 2011, however, a foreigner can meet a former political prisoner in a public space without drawing attention of intelligence services. It is also possible to access state bodies such as Parliament or ministries in Naypyitaw, or even meet high-ranking military officials. 

As one of the rare specialists of the Burmese armed forces, Mary Callahan had been authorized as early as 1991 to consult the Burmese military archives for the pre-1962 period. The main problem is not the access in and of itself, although it can often be blocked for no real reason. The main problem is the lack of organization, efficiency, and methodical classification of the archives collections, even though efforts were made with the transfer in 2005 of a great part of the Yangon national archives to the new capital, Naypyitaw. Very often, Burmese archivists do not even know if the collection exists or if it has been classified. This being said, it is possible to conduct research at the National archives. 

Interview by Miriam Perier, CERI

Back to top