Since 1988, Burma has expanded its military from what was in effect a mere counter-insurgency force to what is likely to become the largest military force in South-East Asia. Moreover, a rapid and thorough modernisation process has armed the battle-hardened army with modern weaponry. The air force and navy too have increased their capabilities. For the first time in decades, Burma’s air force would be capable of taking on the air assets of neighbouring countries.
Burma’s position on the Indian Ocean is a major factor in China’s strategic planning. Much of the weaponry needed to modernise and expand the Burmese military was acquired from China, apparently on very generous terms. In return, China secured naval and intelligence-gathering facilities. Although China’s strategic interest in the region is of long standing, India’s nuclear capability and changes in the Indian political leadership that make India increasingly hostile to China have intensified China’s strategic need to achieve a presence in the Indian Ocean.
Unlike the former military dictatorships of Spain and Chile, Burma single-mindedly put all efforts into the expansion and modernisation of its military. There have been no corresponding attempts to build credible civilian political institutions that could be used as a foundation for a later, post-military society. Burma with its huge military and large number of ethnic minorities can politically be compared to the Soviet Union. Russia eventually found itself without political structures on which to build a post-Communist society and had to create new ones from scratch. If Burma one day faces a transition from military to civilian rule, the country must have credible non-military institutions or the Tatmadaw may not survive the transition. Every country has an army on its territory, its own or that of another country. Whether there is a future for the Burmese Tatmadaw will depend on its willingness to build credible civilian political institutions.
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