Armed Forces and Democratization in Myanmar: Why the U.S. Military Should Engage the Tatmadaw

Even after the November 2015 landslide electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy the armed forces of Myanmar (Burma) continue to be the country’s most powerful political institution. This is hardly surprising. The Burmese military—also known as the Tatmadaw—has been the most influential political player since the country’s independence from Britain in 1948, and outright ruled it from 1962 to 2011.

It must be acknowledged, however, that the 2015 election itself was the culmination of a deliberate—if extremely cautious and non-linear—liberalization process, the regime started over a decade earlier. Since the elections, Burmese military leaders have found ways to work together with State Counselor (and de facto government leader) Aung San Suu Kyi and her government.

The United States should recognize and encourage the Tatmadaw’s cooperative role and foster its professionalization and speedy withdrawal from politics. The Pentagon—in close consultation with the State Department and Myanmar’s civilian leadership—should intensify its thus far minimal engagement with the Burmese army. At the same time, the United States must ensure that the government in Yangon retains significant leverage to use against the army if necessary.

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