A Turning Point for Burma’s Fighting Forces

Tomorrow is the 68th anniversary of Burma’s “Anti-Fascist Revolution Day,” which marks the beginning of the uprising against Japan’s WWII occupation of the country on March 27, 1945. Since the 1970s, however, it has been commemorated as Tatmadaw Day, in honor of Burma’s armed forces.

Although the role of the armed forces in Burma’s colonial and post-independence history has been controversial, this year’s Tatmadaw Day may be an occasion for change. When Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Vice Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing delivers his speech tomorrow, he may have a different message.

Traditionally, Tatmadaw Day has been an occasion for the commander-in-chief to call on his troops to defend the country against rebel armies and Western neocolonialism. This year, however, there is not much fighting on the ethnic rebel front (with the very notable exception of the conflict with the Kachin Independence Army), and the countries of the West (especially the US and Australia) have begun to renew ties with Burma’s long-shunned military.

During his recent trips to Europe and Australia, President Thein Sein was accompanied by Deputy Commander-in-Chief Gen Soe Win and Joint Chief of Command Gen Hla Htay Win. This fact alone speaks volumes for the dramatic change in the West’s image of Burma’s armed forces since Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government came to power two years ago, ending nearly five decades of direct military rule. Not so long ago, all three men would have been banned from entering most Western countries.

Especially since opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy joined the army-backed Parliament after winning in by-elections last April 1, perceptions of Burma’s military have fundamentally changed. Even Suu Kyi—who spent much of the preceding two decades a prisoner of the former junta—has recently spoken of her “fondness” for the Burmese armed forces, which were founded by her father during Burma’s struggle for independence.

What is even more remarkable, however, if the way that many of Burma’s ethnic armed groups have responded to the government’s calls for ceasefires, even as the situation on the ground in many ethnic areas remains far from stable. While there are still many who doubt that a lasting peace will take hold anytime soon, just two years ago it would have been almost unthinkable that the Karen National Union—which has been engaged in an uninterrupted war with the government for as long as Burma has been a modern nation—would ever agree to a truce.

In other words, this Tatmadaw Day could conceivably be the last that Burma’s armed forces—and all the other militias in the country—are forced to fight each other in a seemingly endless civil war. If that is the case, then all of the fighting forces in Burma need to rethink their roles and plan for a future in which war in no longer the norm.

On the occasion of this year’s Armed Forces Day, then, I offer the following suggestions:

1.    All armed groups, including the Tatmadaw, should undergo sweeping reforms that include training their troops to be professional soldiers whose orders ultimately come from the country’s elected civilian government.

2.    All armed forces should devote a significant portion of their budgets to caring for comrades wounded in action and the families of those who fell while fighting.

3.    All armed forces should build monuments to honor those who fought honorably.

4.    The government, Parliament and people of Burma should recognize the sacrifices of all those who died in action, regardless of which side they were on.

It is impossible to calculate how many soldiers have died in Burma over the past 65 years, but we can get some sense of the incredible waste of human life if we consider the fact that the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, one of the smallest armed groups in the country, has lost 1,024 troops since it was formed in the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. Imagine, then, how many others must have died as casualties of all the armed groups that have fought in Burma since it became an independent nation.

National reconciliation will only be possible when all sides in Burma’s myriad conflicts can begin to recognize that they are not the only victims of the senseless cycle of violence that has dragged the country down for more than half a century.

Htet Aung Kyaw is a former student activist who fled to Burma’s ethnic rebel-controlled areas in 1988. He is now a freelance journalist and writer in exile.

6 Responses to A Turning Point for Burma’s Fighting Forces

  1. Optimistic but true. Its about time the MM Military becomes an Organization for peace and security.

  2. Fanciful,and naive opinion piece really, deliberately or not. Bit disappointing coming from former student activist meaning the emphasis is on “former”. As is just about all the activists nowadays.

    Funny the thought of demobilization when the army is getting more and more child snapping than ever and expending then ever in the “Peace” areas. Ad asking for more money which is really due as they want to look and act like the Yanks who they truly admires with night goggles and drones. Even their paid economist Tin Maung Maung Than is asking for MOTRE money, not less, for this PEACE TIME military. For killing more of their OWN citizens. All this Bamar Sit-tut has done in the last 68 years is killing Burma’s own citizens. and MORE Htat Aung Kyaw are being KILLED and MAIMED today than ever.

    It is particularly stupid to count the wars as one, two three and say if it is one, it is OK. The problem is the reason and the manner of these peace and war events. Peace are simply armed ‘leaders” of the similar name ethnic groups dividing up the land and resources for letting the Sit-tut have free hand in the land which they hitherto defended with life. And killing off of the like of Pahdo Mann Shar and the rise of the like of Sae Po. Bo Mya must be turning in the grave.

    It is quite admirable you can dissociate yourself from the tragic realty to call killing and burning the food and driving away the peaceful villagers in hundreds of thousands to most awful deprivation using torture and rape as weapons even if those are put upon those lowly Kachins as only one war is left, so this is OK. Incredible!

    The west (which, for this discussion, includes Japan, Korean and most of ASEAN). What of it. Where in the history of the “west” they have done anything for the oppressed majority? They simply are opportunists who have proven themselves to be the rapist and destroyers of all the lands and societies in South America, (Read some papers) and Africa (read some papers) and Asia (ditto). They are now overjoyed with their opportunity to rape and pillage a major virgin land full of uneducated and un-cared for masses for ready exploitation. And they support this Sit-tut shooting their own citizens using air force and chemical weapons on sleeping monks! Some honorable sentiment.

    And Aung San Suu Kyi is their own best advocate. Public of Burma hoodwinked by the prolific “western” endorsement are realizing more and more about who side she is on now.

    And if there is no need to fight with the current “leaders’ of the FORMER opposition, that does not mean the fighting is any where over. It simply moves down one rung. Now it is the real masses versus the likes of YOU as well as the traditional enemy, YOUR ESTEEMED SIT_TUT. Battle lines are getting clearer. Reform, my foot!

  3. The generals are not real soldiers, they are merely gangsters in fancy dress The best thing the army can do, is go back to the barracks and allow the people of Burma to clean up the unholy mess created during the last 50 years in inept military rule. The military have nothing to be proud of whatsoever.

  4. George Than Setkyar Heine

    That’s YOUR SIDE of the COIN of course.
    I bet Min Aung Hlaing’s SIDE of the COIN would be UGLY no doubt.
    Don’t you get the GAME until today mate?
    The GAME PLAYING at Naypyidaw today is NOT what you see/are seeing man.
    Look at the Nargis 2008 constitution which Min Aung Hlaing has VOWED to DEFEND/PROTECT as per his speech given on March 27, 2013, at the garrison town of Naypyidaw and Suu Kyi and her lot as well were FORCED to OBLIGE the SAME when they were CORRALLED in Thein Sein’s puppet parliament after winning the April Fool’s Day elections last year.
    Every game has RULES, right?
    And the 2008 constitution is their RULE/REGULATIONS which you have to ADHERE TO in case you want to PLAY their GAME and on their TURF as well.
    Of course I WOULDN’T PLAY their GAME much less UNDER THEIR REGULATIONS and NOT ON THEIR TURF you bet!
    Only LOSERS and LIARS (saying SMOKE BOMBS knowing PHOSPHORUS (incendiary) BOMBS are used in FIREBOMBING the luckless Buddhist monks and people at Letpadaung Copper Mine site) would PLAY in that LOPSIDED GAME and on an UNEVEN – not level – FIELD as well.
    Specifically, KOW TOWING to the Chinese communists and KNEELING to the GENERALS in Burma would HOLD NO WATER for BURMA’S DEMOCRACY and FREEDOM much less HUMAN RIGHTS as well I say.
    Even people with LIMITED EDUCATION the likes of Naw Ohn Hla and a Karen women amongst
    millions KNEW FOR A FACT the POINT: BURMA’S DEMOCRACY, FREEDOM and HUMAN RIGHTS WOULD NOT COME OUT of Than Shwe/Thein Sein’s PUPPET PARLIAMENT and as long as the BURMA ARMY is DEFENDING/PROTECTING Than Shwe drawn 2008 Nargis constitution, a tool/instrument only to COVER Than Shwe, his family, CRONIES’ ASSES and SAFEGUARD their ILL-GOTTEN WEALTH not to mention GUARANTEE the ETERNAL RULE of the MILITARY ELITE in BURMA in place of the SOVEREIGNTY and TERRITORIAL INTEGRITY, most importantly the CITIZENRY of BURMA for the better folks.
    Of course the ABSDF is the SYMBOL and HISTORY of the Burmese students’ SACRIFICE and LANDMARK in the STRUGGLE to TOPPLE MILITARY RULE since JULY 7, 1962, I say.
    Thousands of students have SHED their BLOOD since 1962 until today, not only 1024 for the record.
    And the MILITARY DICTATORS are STILL HOLDING the HELM of BURMA until today, any bets?
    Even OXFORD EDUCATED PEOPLE are COLLABORATING/COOPERATING with the MILITARY RULERS today, CITING in the INTERESTS of the PEOPLE and COUNTRY of course, if you don’t know yet.
    Why would the KIA, ABSDF and an Arakan (Rakhine) contingent STILL HOLDING THEIR FORT until today?
    Simply because they (KIA, ABSDF, Arakan Contingent) are SMART and TRUST their GUTS not to mention KNOW the PRINCIPAL (priority) and HAVE the PRINCIPLE (backbone) as well in addition to KNOWING/LEARNING the most important fact: LEOPARDS DON’T CHANGE THEIR SPOTS until and unless THEY GET SKINNED only as well.
    Likewise as long as Min Aung Hlaing LED BURMA ARMY is DEFENDING Than Shwe drawn Nargis CONSTITUTION and PLAYING PROXY to the Chinese communists in Beijing while COVERING Than Shwe, his family and CRONIES’ ASSES and SAFEGUARDING their ILL-GOTTEN WEALTH like today, BURMA’S long longed for DEMOCRACY, FREEDOM and HUMAN RIGHTS WILL BE IN THE DREAMS of the PEOPLE specifically like Suu Kyi and her lot in Than Shwe/Thein Sein’s PUPPET PARLIAMENT BELIEVING in “STOOPING to CONQUER” is the ONLY WAY to POWER and would PROPEL THEM to GREATER HEIGHTS on both the short and long runs.
    An ACCESSORY to a CRIME CARRIES the SAME PUNISHMENT/WEIGHT as the PRINCIPAL CRIMINAL in the EYES of the LAW as well, lest they forget.
    Remember, PLAYING POLITICS is no less than PUTTING YOUR LIFE ON THE LINE like you, me and ALL who are in the SAME BOAT – struggling to topple military rule and restore representative rule in Burma – today.
    And Suu Kyi like ALL in this LIFE/WORLD has ONLY ONE LIFE to LIVE as well I say.

  5. “During his recent trips to Europe and Australia, President Thein Sein was accompanied by Deputy Commander-in-Chief Gen Soe Win and Joint Chief of Command Gen Hla Htay Win. ”
    Min aung laing will not accompany with thein sein because ming aung laing is than shwe’s right hand man so min aung laing is higher than thein sien. US and Aus agree joint military exercise with Bama military thugs very soon so China will agree with Wa for joint military exercise.

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