Quite a few interesting issues have popped up recently in relation to the ongoing democratization and peaceful reconciliation, such as freedom of press, pending Chinese investment on Myitsone Dam, Aung San Suu Kyi’s Japan visit, human toll because of the physical resistance of the Rohingya Muslim and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing’s Europe visit, particularly Brussels.
While all the said issues are linked and important, each in its own way, Min Aung Hlaing’s Brussels visit is the most outstanding, especially as he has spelled out the military or Tatmadaw’s position on its commitment to hold on to political decision-making veto power within the government and the parliament.
Even though Burma is usually referred to as governed by National League for Democracy (NLD) regime, headed by its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the reality is that it should actually be called NLD-Military government. Because the Tatmadaw controls the three ministries of home, defense and border affairs, with twenty-five percent appointed military seats in all levels of the parliament. Thus, it is more appropriate to address it as NLD-Military government, which Min Aung Hlaing has been all along showing and proving just that, without much talking.
But in Brussels, where he, together with his delegation, was invited to attend the European Union Military Committee (EUMC) for the first time on 9 November, spelled out his often repeated Tatmadaw’s guardianship role of the country and reiterated its stance of refusal to let loose its holds on political power, until such times it sees as appropriate and secure.
Rebuttal on what Min Aung Hlaing said in Brussels
It is understandable that Min Aung Hlaing is bent on commitment to protect the military class and its interest, by clinging on to power in a new mode of political configuration, which it had helped in formulating, that would guarantee its soft landing, choosing to fade away only according to its own time schedule and desire.
But what he spelled out in Brussels needs scrutiny from the point of historical reality and as well, the democratic principles, rather than just the temptation for group survival, at the expense of the people.
Generally, Min Aung Hlaing’s speech, in Brussels, underlined the military’s main political position that emphasized his often stated commitment to act as the nation’s mainstay protector and constitutional guarantor. In other words, assuming the role of national guardian and sole protector of the sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity.
What he doesn’t say was that the military coup of 1962, which the successive military governments tried to take credit and argued to have saved the country from disintegration is, in fact, only destroying the meaningful nation-building scheme.
The federal proposal debate, to ward off the growing dissatisfaction in 1962 was the last legal effort, spear-headed by the Shan State government with endorsement of all the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities, was to ward off the brewing civil war. Thus, the military, far from being a savior of the nation is a culprit of the ethnic conflict or civil war that has been raging without any sign of stopping, until today.
From the Commander-in-Chief’s point of view, the country’s lack of development is attributable to two factors. “It is because of one, an unstable political system, and two, the existence of armed conflicts,” he said.
Again, the instability of the political setup is because of the Tatmadaw’s commitment to usurp political power, which it has from the outset destroyed the nascent democracy of the country, by the military coup, through false pretext of saving the union from disintegration. The existence of the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) is largely because of the political grievances stemming from the military suppression to subdue the ethnic rights of self-determination and equality.
He also briefly addressed the peace process in his speech, where he stressed that moving the process forward depends on the EAOs’ willingness to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). The Tatmadaw has made signing a precondition in order to participate in the political dialogues.
But he didn’t mention the Tatmadaw’s refusal to agree to the declaration of bilateral ceasefire, tripartite dialogue composition – government, military and parliament; EAOs; political parties endorsed by the United Nations for decades – and commitment of a real federal union setup, as a precondition proposed by the non-signatory EAOs, particularly the United Nationalities Federal Union (UNFC).
He also touched on the long running ethnic conflict in Burma, which he refrained from calling a civil war. Instead he carefully used terms like “armed conflict,” saying “we were not fighting against ethnic communities, but those who were holding arms.”
Again, this contrasted with its gross human rights violations unleashed against the ethnic population during decades of war waged on them, which is still ongoing. One only needs to look at the human rights violations records compiled by the United Nations and reputed rights organizations.
The senior general also defended the 2008 Military-drafted Constitution, which allows for the participation of defense services in national politics. He praised the Constitution for restricting, in a state of emergency, the military from remaining in power too long, and requiring them to act in accordance with the President’s approval.
This argument is like just a drop of water falling on a heated stone. The main crucial point is that in a democratic system, military belongs to the barracks, period.
He also said that 85 percent of the population in Burma are ethnic Burmans or Bamar, which is an inflated number compared to other demographic estimates of 60 to 70 percent.
This intentional inflation of Bamar majority statement is to buttress the point that a small percentage of minorities are trouble makers in nation-building process, underlining his tendency of ethnocentrism or Bamar racial supremacy over other ethnic groups.
He also repeated his urging of building of a “Standard Army,” for which he has asked for non-lethal assistance from the EU.
It should be noted that by the usage of this “Standard Army” label, he meant to develop the existing Bamar dominated army’s fighting capacity with it supremacy intact, not a genuine federal army that the EAOs have called for, which is a crucial negotiation point to end the armed ethnic conflict.
Regarding the military withdrawal from the political arena, he vaguely said that when there is a sound guarantee to the nation and its citizens, the role of the armed forces would be re-evaluated. In his own words, “When there is a firm guarantee for the State and the people, the armed forces will reconsider its role.”
This is hardly a guarantee for Burma’s democratization process. In other words, the Tatmadaw will continue to call the shots, in many areas of policy-making and implementation, with or without the NLD regime.
Two core solutions
Having said that, core problems of the conflict, which are “ownership of the sovereignty” and finding a “solution to the transitional period of EAOs’ troops maintenance”, should be first addressed, in order to instill a peaceful atmosphere, conducive to the ongoing peace process, which has not progressed meaningfully, with wars still going on in ethnic areas, after more than four years of peace negotiation process.
There has been constant confusion on which authority is responsible to give out directive on matters related to sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity.
For example, the Tatmadaw considers itself as being above the elected NLD government and makes its own policies, especially where ethnic resistance and politics are concerned, while NLD seems to have no say. Thus, it looks like that there are two sources of power leading the country, which sometimes don’t even see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues. In other words, the NLD rules the towns and cities, where there are no threat of war, and the Tatmadaw, the ethnic areas where wars are ongoing, making its own policy and implementing it, without taking orders from the NLD government.
The case in point is that during President Thein Sein’s tenure, his directive to stop military offensive to the commanders in the field were conveniently ignored, even though he was an ex-military general.
Besides, the two contending power or two-tier of decision-making power within the government, the military and the NLD, EAOs also are involved in making use of their share of sovereignty rights, with their existence and maintenance of their troops knowingly or unknowingly.
The EAOs’ administrative structure, complete with taxation and natural resources extraction are testimonies of a shared-sovereignty implementation. The clearest example is the United Wa State Party (UWSP) administration of its designated and areas of influence, where no government functionaries are allowed to enter, without its permission.
EAOs’ main thrust of its political discontent is achieving a shared-sovereignty and don’t recognize the sole ownership of the NLD regime or the military.
But if the government and military insisted upon sole ownership, without accommodating the ethnic shared-sovereignty aspirations, the ethnic conflict would go on without end. Because sustainable measures for the EAOs during the transitional period have to be in place. Otherwise, issues like taxation to natural resources extractions would become a permanent source of friction that would lead to armed conflict, thereby continuously putting back the peace process to square one, all the time.
Thus, resolving the ownership of sovereignty is the main problem and the sooner the contending parties accept this as the most important focal point in peace negotiation, the better. To put it differently, the contending parties should resolve the ownership of this sovereignty collectively through political means and refrain from presuming that either one party has the sole legitimacy of ownership. In this sense, shared responsibility and shared ownership of the country’s sovereignty might be the only way out, which could be negotiated within the mold of a genuine federalism.
In sum, acceptance to tackle the ownership of the sovereignty and finding a transitional solution to the maintenance of the EAOs’ troops would be the two most crucial points in resolving the ethnic armed conflict, as a first step, before wading into a deeper peace negotiation and reconciliation process.