In 2003, Myanmar was described as one of the most tightly controlled dictatorships in the world. The main instrument used by the military regime to maintain this status was the country’s extensive intelligence apparatus, which was dominated by the Office of the Chief of Military Intelligence (OCMI), known before 2001 as the Directorate of Defence Services Intelligence (DDSI). It not only performed all the usual intelligence functions, but also played a major role in Myanmar’s political, economic and social life, and its international relations. Since 1983, this apparatus had been managed by Khin Nyunt.
The power and behaviour of DDSI/OCMI exacerbated tensions between Khin Nyunt and other members of Myanmar’s military leadership, leading to his downfall in 2004. OCMI was comprehensively purged and replaced by the Office of the Chief of Military Security Affairs. Primary responsibility for internal security shifted to the Myanmar Police Force’s Special Branch. However, Myanmar’s intelligence capabilities had been severely weakened. Since 2004, efforts have been made to recover these capabilities, but they have still not been fully restored, contributing to several notable intelligence failures.
Since the advent of Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government in 2011, and the election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy administration in 2015, there appear to have been few significant changes to Myanmar’s intelligence apparatus. The structures and practices that characterised military rule seem to have survived, although the authorities now seem to be relying more on legal rather than extra-legal means to exercise controls. Some recent developments, however, including a series of attacks by militant groups in Rakhine State, could prompt greater attention to intelligence issues.
Since 2011, Myanmar’s intelligence agencies appear to have reached out more to their foreign counterparts, both in the region and further afield. However, Naypyidaw is now facing the prospect of a return to international isolation and punitive sanctions, as the government and armed forces face charges of genocide against the Muslim Rohingyas. Relationships with Myanmar’s neighbours and some others will survive, but a casualty of its new pariah status may be developing intelligence contacts with Western countries.
Even as Myanmar faces new external pressures, it is unlikely that the focus on internal security will change. Both Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and the armed forces know that their survival – and, in their view, the country’s survival – is threatened more by disunity and domestic instability than by any international developments. This will ensure that the national intelligence apparatus will continue to be given a high priority, will still be internally focused and will remain under the control of the country’s armed forces.
This article is an excerpt from a research seminar delivered at Griffith University on 7 March 2019 by Griffith Asia Institute Adjunct Professor Andrew Selth.