Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, head of the Burmese military, is the most powerful person in Burma. It is his soldiers and security forces who have been raping Rohingya women, shooting Rohingya civilians and burning Rohingya villages. It is his soldiers who have increased conflict in Kachin Sate and Shan State, displacing thousands of villagers already forced from their homes by Burmese army attacks.
Min Aung Hlaing is the one who is threating the entire peace process by insisting on hard-line conditions unacceptable to many ethnic organisations. It is Min Aung Hlaing who is blocking constitutional reform which would make Burma more democratic. Civil servants under his control are obstructing reforms and policies the NLD-led government are trying to put in place. He is also starving health and education of funds by insisting on a huge budget for the military at the same time as the health service and education systems are one of the most poorly funded in the world.
Min Aung Hlaing is the biggest obstacle to improving human rights, democratic reform, peace, modernisation, and improving health and education in Burma.
Yet somehow, he largely escapes direct criticism. Since the latest Rohingya related crisis began in October 2016 it is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who has received most attention and criticism, not Min Aung Hlaing, whose soldiers are the ones committing the abuses.
Last November Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had to cancel a trip to Indonesia, reportedly for fear of protests over her stance over the Rohingya. In the same month, Min Aung Hlaing was enjoying a red carpet tour in Europe after being invited to attend a meeting of European military heads. There were no protests against him in Italy or Belgium. As his soldiers raped and killed Rohingya, and increased conflict in Kachin State, he enjoyed sightseeing in Brussels and Rome, travelled the canals of Venice, and even toured factories of arms manufacturers, despite there being an EU arms embargo on Burma.
The current approach of the international community towards the military has been one of soft engagement, hoping they will have a gradual epiphany and realise it is in their own self-interest to agree to further reform. It amounts to a fingers crossed approach that if we are nice to the Burmese military, they will suddenly come around.
This approach clearly isn’t working. The more Min Aung Hlaing is welcomed into the arms of the international community, the more sanctions are lifted, the more UN engagement on human rights is lifted, the more they are praised for reforms, the more his confidence grows that he can continue to commit human rights violations and block democratic constitutional reform with impunity, and the more human rights violations and conflict have increased.
A key question now for the international community is how to influence Min Aung Hlaing. The international community needs to develop an approach towards Min Aung Hlaing with two clear goals in mind. First, how to persuade him to stop committing human rights violations, and second, how to persuade him to agree to constitutional change which will enable the peace process to succeed, and which will allow further democratic transition in the country.
Min Aung Hlaing will only agree to change when he decides it is in the interests of the military to do so. At the current time, he has little incentive to reduce human rights violations or agree to further democratic reforms. The military have in place the system they designed to protect their interests and give them control over areas such as security and defence. They believe only they are able to guarantee the safety and security of the nation. Yet clearly Min Aung Hlaing and his military are enjoying the embrace of the international community and want the respect of the people of Burma. This provides some leverage.
When the EU and USA lifted sanctions they made no differentiation between sanctions which targeted the government and sanctions which targeted the military and their associates. The same applies to discontinuing the UN General Assembly Resolution on Burma. This decision was justified as being in acknowledgment and support of reforms and the new government, without differentiation between the government and the military and their actions. There are two powerbases in Burma now, and different approaches are required for each.
It is time to identify potential points of leverage specifically targeting the military and how they can be most effectively applied to induce Min Aung Hlaing to agree to change. This could include United Nations investigations into violations of international law, economic sanctions targeted at their interests, visa bans, ending military training, and more robust diplomatic pressure. One option that cannot be considered is carrying on as before while Min Aung Hlaing systematically destroys hopes for peace, respect for human rights, and democracy in Burma.
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