RANGOON/HONOLULU — Since last year, Burma’s government and 16 ethnic armed groups have negotiated over a nationwide ceasefire. Substantial progress is being made, all parties say, but looming large over the discussions is a key issue that will be difficult to address: how to merge the various enemy units into a single army.
The issue of a “federal army”, as it is being called by some ethnic leaders, is so sensitive that it has been left out of the ceasefire discussions and will have to be resolved during the political dialogue that will follow after a ceasefire is signed.
During this dialogue, Burma’s ethnic minorities, entangled in a six-decade long conflict with the Burman majority’s powerful military, would also like to see their demands for political autonomy addressed through the formation of a federal union comprising ethnic states.
“What we want is simply is power sharing and no centralized system. And our demand is neither an idea of secession nor separation,” Col Sai Hla, spokesperson of the Shan State Army–South, said.
Some ethnic leaders say they would like to see their armies, totaling a combined number of more than 100,000 soldiers, control security in their areas, manage the border and have a degree of autonomy from the central command of Burma Army, which totals about 400,000 men. Yet, the units would have to be part of the same army.
Lt-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, who controls Brigade 5 of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and functions as the KNLA’s deputy commander-in-chief, is an example of a powerful local commander who prefers this approach.
“There should be state guards [comprising ethnic soldiers] and a union army. We can cooperate with the government army, but state guards must not be centralized under the union army,” he said.
“It will be difficult to structure all ethnic troops and the government army into one armed force because all ethnic minorities want to govern their states,” Baw Kyaw Heh said.
The Burma Army is obliged by the Constitution to prevent the disintegration of the union and is likely to reject areas of the country falling outside of central command control.
Bertil Lintner, a veteran journalist who was written numerous books sabout Burma and its ethnic conflict, dismissed the ethnics’ demands for a federal army as “unrealistic.” He has said there are few federal unions in the world that could form a model for a country as ethnically diverse as Burma, with only India offering a possible example.
The regional states in Burma’s large neighbor have an elected legislative assembly, their own official language and an independent police force. However, “defense is the responsibility of the central government. India has ethnic units in its armed forces, but … all under central command,” Lintner wrote in a recent article.
In an interview at an ethnic armed groups’ conference in KNLA-controlled area, Law Khee Lar in January, Saw Kwe Htoo Win, general secretary of the Karen National Union said discussions on a future army would take time, but added that United States military might be a good example to study.
During a study tour to Hawaii this reporter visited the US Pacific Command in Honolulu and asked officers and academics their opinion on the challenges of forming a unified Burma Army of the disparate ethnic groups, an issue that the US army has had to face within its ranks.
“It took the US military about 200 years to completely integrate and to finally abolish the discrimination based on race and ethnicity,” said Miemie Winn Byrd, an associate professor of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies with a specialization in the US-Burma relations.
“In Myanmar we must first change the social norms and values of the majority Burmans towards the other ethnic groups before such change will transcend into the military organizations,” said Byrd, who is also a lieutenant-colonel in the US army.
Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, Commander of the US Pacific Command in Honolulu, United States, said in an interview that the US army rewarded merit, regardless of their ethnic background. “Everyone has equal rights as positions in the military are based on people’s performance and skills,” he said.
The US is, however, a very different case to Burma as is has no ethnic army units, and its varied ethnic populations do not have home states within the country.
Discrimination in the Burma Army is another challenge that the future military would need to address. Ethnic minorities living in the central region who have joined the Burma Army said they have faced discrimination from the Burman majority and officer corps.
An ethnic Karen from Rangoon who rose to a senior officer rank within the Burma Army said that he had decided to leave after many years of service as he felt discriminated against by his superiors.
Ethnic minority soldiers “are targeted, especially the ethnic Karen who are Christian. We can’t get a higher position no matter how skillful, smart and good soldiers we are,” said the ex-officer, who declined to be named.
“I quit the Tatmadaw after I realized that I can’t rise to a higher rank and I don’t see my future in the Tatmadaw,” said the man, who has since gone into business.
Saw Yan Naing is an East-West Center’s 2014 Jefferson Fellow and this story is published under the Fellowship program with the theme “Challenges in Democratic Transition.”