Military MPs attend Burma's parliament. Pic: AP.

Military MPs attend Burma’s parliament. Pic: AP.

A heated debate broke out in Burma’s lower house Monday over efforts by the opposition to overhaul the constitution prior to the 2015 elections. As per previous debates, the military contingent – which takes up a quarter of seats and thereby wields effective veto over such matters – resisted the idea that charter reform, and allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president, might benefit the country. “I would like you all to remember that the constitution is not written for just a person but for the future of everyone,” Colonel Htay Naing, one of the uniformed MPs, told parliament.

But he deployed another buzz phrase that illustrates very succinctly how the military perpetuates the myth that it is the only viable protector of a country beset by internal discord. The constitution shouldn’t be changed, Col. Htay Naing added, because ongoing fighting in the border regions threatened to destabilize Burma. Therefore “unity”, in the shape of fealty to a constitution the junta rushed through in 2008 amid the chaos of Cyclone Nargis, is required.

This raises several questions. One concerns the reasons as to why Burmese should wish to stand by a constitution that was passed amid conditions that make a mockery of democratic processes (it allegedly received 98% of the vote from a 92% turnout, despite the fact that several million people had been left destitute by the cyclone, on top of the several million more in conflict zones that were unable to vote). Suu Kyi’s party earlier this year collected signatures from 10% of the population wanting a referendum on the constitution, suggesting that not all are in agreement with Htay Naing’s vision of “the future of everyone”.

More pertinently, however, he exploited a situation in the border regions that the military plays a direct role in fueling. Despite some progress in ceasefire talks, bouts of heavy fighting are ongoing, with the army continuing to attack civilians. But Htay Naing’s logic follows that the instability resulting from the fighting, which the military is arguably the key driver of, is apparently reason enough for it to retain power. It’s a useful illustration of the circular strategy of the military – perpetuate instability, draw on it to justify dominance, and then refer back to it when that power is challenged.

Were this merely a case of one man pointing to one incident then it wouldn’t be means for great concern. But it’s a strategy the elite in Burma has used for decades to both rationalize its rule, and to cast those who challenge it as criminal saboteurs bent on destabilizing the union. It can be used to illuminate the more subtle ways in which the military, or those in government who share its resistance to democratic transition, has actively sought to foment unrest that it can then capitalize on – one example being the Buddhist-Muslim violence.

On top of the various suggestions that security forces played an active role in aiding Buddhist mobs (not to mention the decades of anti-Muslim government propaganda that has helped normalize the current-day attacks on Muslims), government ministers have been fingered for complicity – Aung Thaung, a powerful MP known to be close to former junta leader Than Shwe, was recently sanctioned by the US government reportedly for his role in provoking anti-Muslim sentiment (the US government isn’t the only one to share this suspicion).

Indeed when violence first broke out in Rakhine state in June 2012, prominent Rakhines called for troops to come in and “protect” them against the Rohingya. This is despite the fact that the Rakhine have a long history of quite vitriolic resentment towards the Burmese military and have continually resisted its efforts to influence the affairs of the state.

In this sense it’s plain to see how the military actively benefits from instability – Colonel Htay Naing spelled it out quite clearly. Why this is of particular concern with regards the constitution is that this document, were it revised, could be the one thing that dilutes the military’s power, and then codifies a new order in which the military doesn’t have veto over legislation in what should be a civilian parliament. Resisting this will have a serious impact on whether something approaching a genuine form of democracy ever emerges in Burma. At present, however, conflict clearly remains politically profitable, and because of that we may see the military continue to stoke it for some time.