May 9, 2013
Myanmar’s rapidly evolving political landscape produced another symbolic event at the recent Armed Forces Day parade.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi attended for the first time, sitting alongside generals in the viewing stands as thousands of troops, tanks and missiles passed by.
An open question is who needed who more _ a deeply unpopular military seeking the aura of an international icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner, or a newly minted politician seeking to change constitutional provisions that currently bar her from running for president in 2015?
To the surprise of many, despite the fact that she and the rest of the country suffered 50 years of brutal military rule that devastated every sphere of the country, Mrs Suu Kyi has decided that her future lies in making friends with and perhaps co-opting the military, or the Tatmadaw.
This makes political sense, as the military still holds ultimate power, with 400,000 troops and an array of constitutional and legal tools at its disposal, including the right to dismiss its appointed civilian government. And it has the money to try to divide and rule its opponents.
Yet saying that she has always “admired” the army and appearing chummy with its widely reviled leaders, while refusing to stand up for its victims, has struck a sour note with many in Myanmar and abroad.
But it was less the symbolism than the words of the armed forces commander in chief, Lt Gen Min Aung Hlaing, that indicated the military was not completely on board with the reforms that have garnered so many plaudits for President Thein Sein’s government.
Exhorting the troops to defend the country (which the army has long thought is synonymous with defending its own prerogatives) and taking credit for bringing stability to the country after decades of civil war (when it is the army that is chiefly responsible for the continuing instability and ethnic conflicts) are standard Armed Forces Day messages from previous commanders. But it was the military chief’s defence of his institution’s performance that shows just how far the reform effort still has to go.
“We are a military that adheres not only to civil and to martial laws and regulations, but also to the Geneva Convention. Since we train our Tatmadaw men to acknowledge and adhere to the Geneva Convention, our Tatmadaw have never committed any war crimes and soldiers who [committed punishable acts] have had effective action taken against them according to military regulations.”
It is hard to imagine a less accurate statement.
The general’s mendacity ignores the army’s well documented role in decades of war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder, torture, burning of villages, abductions, forced labour, child soldiering and other serious abuses.
In eastern Myanmar, half a million civilians from the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Mon, Kachin and other ethnic communities have been displaced, often not knowing whether their village would be the next one burned down as the Tatmadaw stormed its way across the country’s hinterlands.
In Thailand alone there are an estimated 140,000 war refugees and two million migrant workers, many having fled conflict and abuses, most wishing they had never had to leave their homes.
The Tatmadaw’s crimes are hardly a thing of the past. Its deeply entrenched culture of abuse has been demonstrated anew in the past two years during the conflict with the rebel Kachin Independence Army, which has resulted in the displacement of more than 70,000 civilians, mostly along the border with China.
All of this has been carried out with complete impunity. Military abuses against ethnic Rohingya Muslims in two horrifying mass expulsions in 1978 and 1991 from Rakhine State have never been investigated by Myanmar authorities.
The knowledge that when it comes to the Rohingya the attackers can get away with murder has contributed to the recent mass violence in Rakhine State, where state security forces, including some Tatmadaw units, supported Buddhist Arakanese mobs attacking Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in June and October 2012. These were crimes against humanity committed in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, resulting in what is today an ongoing life-threatening humanitarian disaster that could easily flare up again at any time.
Min Aung Hlaing is no city-bound staff officer. He served in Mon State as an infantry officer, and succeeded President Thein Sein as the commander of the army’s Triangle Regional Command from 2002 to 2007, an area which is still a hotbed of professional Shan insurgents, and a major drug-producing area bordering Thailand, Laos and China.
Min Aung Hlaing then commanded the push against the narcotics dealing Kokang enclave astride the China border in 2009 that drove 30,000 refugees across the border into China’s Yunnan province. As a field officer, he knows exactly how his troops operate and the abuses they commit.
Governments around the world also know what the Tatmadaw has done. It was only two years ago, ahead of the 2010 elections that ushered in the new system, that many governments supported a push by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, to form a UN-led commission of inquiry into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, a campaign endorsed by a dozen countries that only dropped the idea when political and economic reforms began taking shape in 2011.
But the international failure of political will to insist on accountability does not mean the crimes documented for years are moot, or are not continuing.
The army has taken none of the necessary, systemic steps that would transform it into a professional army instead of a predatory, kleptocratic institution that has for decades devoured the country’s resources while failing to provide even the basic necessities of food, healthcare, education or infrastructure.
Min Aung Hlaing’s attempt to airbrush the past 50 years of brutality from the public discourse represents deep-seated thinking within the military. While the Tatmadaw is keen on engaging and improving ties with militaries in the West, particularly Australia, the US and the UK, his comments are a telling indicator of the Praetorian entitlement this institution has long enjoyed.
While some in the West are in a hurry to engage in training and normal military to military relations with the Tatmadaw, not least to compete with China for the affections of the Myanmar leadership, this would be folly. No amount of training or friendly interactions with a military this deeply involved in, and even committed to, human rights abuses can make a difference without a prior commitment from both military and civilian leaders to reform.
Part of this reform will have to include a commitment to justice for past and future crimes carried out by the military.
Last July, the government and, crucially, the military signed a landmark agreement with the International Labour Organisation to end forced labour by 2015. The agreement is intended to address a roll-call of exhaustively documented abuses such as widespread use of child soldiers, forcible use of civilians and convicts as porters, and a predatory “self sufficiency” policy that made pillage a duty for army units.
The government received plaudits for this agreement with little acknowledgment that for years the Tatmadaw denied such rights abuses were taking place. Western militaries would do well to see how this process goes before jumping in bed with an institution that has been unrepentant about its long, grisly record.
Min Aung Hlaing and his subordinates should understand that improving ties with Western militaries will need more than nice words and paying lip service to international humanitarian law.
It will require a sweeping internal reform of the military that removes the culture of abuse the institution has developed over decades of authoritarian rule without civilian oversight. It will require amending the constitution to make the military subordinate to an elected civilian government. It will require relinquishing the 25% of seats it has reserved for itself in parliament. It will mean that soldiers will be subject to the rule of law.
Min Aung Hlaing should start by apologising to the Myanmar people and admitting that the army has committed widespread abuses. Then the people of his country may start to believe that the army can actually play a role in the reform process instead of being the institution that grinds it to a halt.