The Burma Army’s Attempt at Unity

military, Myanmar, Burma, Sithu Aung Myint, Min Aung Hlaing, Aung San, Armed Forces Day, Than Shwe, Ne Win, armed forces, reform

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing delivers a speech at a parade in Naypyidaw to mark Armed Forces Day, the anniversary of Burma taking up arms against the occupying Japanese. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

After the Armed Forces Day parade on the morning of March 27, an unprecedented event took place at a military function hall in Naypyidaw. Later that afternoon, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and other top brass members of the military held a ceremony to honor retired army chiefs from the former regime.

The current servicemen paid respect to their predecessors—including former Gen. Tun Kyi, a 1988 military coup leader who was forced to retire from the military regime in 1997—in a ceremony which would have never taken place during the days of dictatorship.

Last month, the current commander-in-chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, visited military families in Kachin State. In the meeting room, one wall was adorned with portraits of famous army chiefs over the decades, from when the army was first formed until today. Burmese independence hero Gen. Aung San, the father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was pictured on top, higher than former dictators Gen. Ne Win and Snr-Gen Than Shwe, whose portraits were positioned side by side. The portrait of Min Aung Hlaing was on the bottom.

It is also interesting to note that during his speech at the Armed Forces Day parade, Min Aung Hlaing intentionally quoted speeches by Aung San, Ne Win and Than Shwe.

The Burma Army, it seems, is trying to portray a sense of unity, including with past leaders. This stands in contrast to the strategies of Ne Win, who attempted to wipe out Aung San’s legacy from history, or that of Than Shwe, who ostracized Ne Win after the dictator’s fall from grace.

In Burma, the army is not just a group of people in uniforms with guns. Its reach extends to military conglomerates, retired generals and their families who have amassed vast riches over the years, and the retired army officials now serving in government ministries. And as the country transitions to a new political system, it is possible we will see an army-dominant democracy with a market economy, but it is also possible the 2015 elections will lead to a pure civilian government, in contrast to the quasi-civilian government today.

As a result, army leaders are working hard now to protect not only the interests of their institution, but also the interests of army officials and their families who accumulated wealth by misusing their power under the former regime. Unity, it seems, has become a strategy to achieve this goal.

In some ways, the strategy appears to be working. As prime examples, look to Tun Kyi as well as the former spy chief, Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt. Both were rejected by the regime—punished with house arrest, detention and forced retirement after misusing their power—but they both continue to hail the army today, after being set free. Khin Nyunt was not invited to the ceremony honoring past generals on Armed Forces Day.

The highest administrative authority in Burma is the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), which makes decisions about military affairs in the country. But the NDSC may in the future be controlled by civilians. With this possibility, perhaps Burma will see the creation of a supreme council comprising former army generals, as in Thailand, where the army’s interests are largely independent from the democratic system.

Based on Min Aung Hlaing’s speech on Armed Forces Day and recent activities of the military community, it is clear that the Burma Army today is trying to reach out and ensure friendly relations with former senior members while also formulating a strategy that’s independent from any civilian government’s control.

Sithu Aung Myint is a Rangoon-based journalist who contributes commentaries on political, social and economic issues to local weeklies. This article first appeared on The Irrawaddy magazine’s Burmese language website.

5 Responses to The Burma Army’s Attempt at Unity

  1. Army has attempted this kind of approach for the past six decades. It failed. Except killing hundreds of life, their attempt goes nowhere because people do not see it acceptable. What we want is democracy, real democracy. Min Aung Hlaing’s tone is nothing new. The same tactic Ne Win and Than Shwe used in the past many years. Intimidation did not work and it is not working, and it will never work. Instead, regime better shows its genuine willingness to build democratic Union of Myanmar. People will never say ‘YES’ as long as the regime is showing us enthusiasm toward democracy. Now, Thein Sein is backsliding away from democratic reform which he promised us. His unwillingness to fix the Nargis constitution proves that he is not determined to bring real reform for genuine democracy.

  2. Unity at gunpoint is the way Army rapes ethnic women at gunpoint. Ethnic women open their legs for soldiers not because they loved those rapists but to save their own dear lives from bullets. Unity at gunpoint is what Min Aung Hlaing is talking about. Unity can never be achieved by force or by intimidation. Bullets and guns failed to achieve peace, even though Army tried for the past sixty years. Today, Min Aung Hlaing is talking the same failed method. What an idiot man!

  3. There are bunch of people who know and understand well about building democratic nation and democracy itself than Min Aung Hlaing. Min Aung Hlaing is just a stupid man in the eyes of many educated persons. Those persons are not aliens but ethnic Myanmars and ethnic Taing-yin-thars. His speech from Nay Pyi Taw on March 27, 2014 was a big big joke to many of us. Speaking that kind of rubbish in the 21st century by chief of the Army is downgrading our nation. He proved himself as an idiot man. Just an idiot man with no knowledge and no wisdom. The quality and the standard of Myanmar military can be seen through that idiot general.

  4. It is unfortunate many of them like to share the patriotism, vision and sacrifice of our nation’s father General Aung San.
    There are plenty of restraints,indebtness and self preservation instincts are with the young one. When you are in uniform you have to be neat and decisive. Lots of deputies looking for your position too. In the end it is nation’s luck. As for myself, I am happy with my wine, sunset, music and peace.
    Amongst Some of the names I read, Tun Kyi was a colorful one.Despite his occasional slip up like ‘we can ssweep off Aung San Suu Kyi with a broom’, he knows how to take car of himself. His dedication and devotion to his superior Ne Win costed him heavily. At that time, he could have seceded from Rangoon easily.

  5. Enough is enough.We understand the army’s attempt very well.

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