A democratic Myanmar would still need armed forces

Thurein Naing

In a recent piece for the Review of Democracy, “It’s time to imagine a future for Burma without armed forces,” Thiha Wint Aung and Htet Min Lwin argue that the current military forces in Myanmar are flawed to the point that they must be abolished. I concur with their criticism of Myanmar’s security establishment. I cannot, however, see a future for the Myanmar political union that could stand without a capable national military.

I heartily share the authors’ preoccupations with the country’s praetorian military-industrial complex. Looking at recent history, the authors’ concerns over post-Spring revolution Myanmar are legitimate. In the past few decades, Myanmar has seen the plundering of its natural and financial resources through Khaki capitalism. However, these concerns do not need to be translated into an outright call for the abolishment of any military apparatus in the future.

Myanmar is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia. Culturally, it is second only to Indonesia in terms of sociocultural and linguistic differences. In this context, many of its territories showed only nominal allegiance to the state, even before the 2021 coup. Thus, the country could even be seen as a sub-region of Southeast Asia, rather than a proper state.

If post-revolution Myanmar were to be in the same territorial shape and arrangement as in the present, it would hence require centralized, nationalized defense mechanisms.

While I can see how a system similar to the Swiss militia might work in Myanmar, maintaining small professional armed forces while much of the military is formed by demobilized citizens in peacetime, I doubt there can be any viable national defense mechanisms in the country without a national military.

To be sure, territorial defense and policing could be done through a state militia and police force. But questions pertaining to air sovereignty would fall beyond the scope of their actions. Not all states in Myanmar would be able to acquire air-defense radars, fighters, and interceptors – or train personnel to operate them – in order to police the national airspace.  A similar concern might be raised concerning territorial waters and maritime zones. Coastal states would potentially carry the administrative and financial burdens of protecting Myanmar’s waters in the face of challenges such as piracy. Would that be fair for such states? How might they share such burdens with landlocked regions?

National defense forces are not, moreover, always built around military threats. In the twentieth-first century, most national militaries are oriented toward responses to disasters and humanitarian crises, anti-drug and human trafficking initiatives, and other national security challenges. If the military is abolished, what actors could replace the armed forces and provide such responses? How would Myanmar’s individual federal states respond to military and non-military threats in this scenario?

Around the world, there is also no indication that democratic states are eager to abolish their national militaries. So why should Myanmar follow such a path? Scandinavian states, with their massive welfare and human development schemes, maintain some of the biggest national militaries and military-industrial complexes in Europe. Sweden, for example, produces anything from assault rifles to fighter jets, whilst Finland has one of the strongest and most ready armies in Europe. Even under calls to reduce or eventually abolish the Swiss military, Switzerland still maintains a professional armed force.

While the historical development of armed forces in Myanmar – both the military (စစ်တပ်) and ethnic armed groups – poses legitimate and worrisome questions in building and maintaining a post-crisis national military, it does not have to lead to an outright rejection of security forces.

It is rather necessary to conceive of post-crisis institutional arrangements to ensure civilian supremacy and respect for democracy in the country. Germany and Japan, despite their dreadful histories with militarism, fascism, and genocide, have not seen the events of the past repeat themselves with their current national armed forces, the Bundeswehr and the Jietai. It is, hence, unclear whether a democratic Myanmar could not have a military due to the country’s historical experience with militarism and ethnonationalism.  

Despite the authors’ legitimate concerns, the abolition of the military, if not followed by viable alternatives in the face of national security threats, can potentially entrench the very social and political problems the country already faces.

Thurein Naing is a historian in training, currently pursuing an MA in Comparative History at Central European University. He is also an independent military observer, covering Myanmar military’s weapon procurements.

In collaboration with Eraldo Souza dos Santos and Ferenc Laczo

Contact Us