The Irrawaddy

‘The Govt and Military Should Be United Against Sanctions’

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Recently, the EU has imposed sanctions on seven high-ranking officials of the Myanmar Army. Political analyst Dr. Aung Myo will join me for the discussion. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

The EU has imposed sanctions against seven high-ranking officials of the Myanmar Army including commander of the Western Command Major-General Maung Maung Soe, commander of the Bureau of Special Operations Lieutenant-General Aung Kyaw Zaw, and commanders of divisions 33 and 99 regarding the Rohingya issue in northern Rakhine State.  Soon after the EU’s imposition of sanctions, the Tatmadaw announced that it had sacked Lt-Gen Aung Kyaw Zaw and Maj-Gen Maung Maung Soe. What is your assessment of those developments?

Aung Myo: Some of the actions [of the army] went beyond the limits. That’s why sanctions were imposed. But their actions are somewhat understandable. If somebody else were in their shoes, the same thing could have happened. The EU doesn’t know what happened exactly. The mob attacked [police] outposts with swords, spears, sticks, mines and arms. It is the procedure of the military to conduct clearance operations in the villages where attackers came from. But the attackers were not wearing uniforms and it was very difficult to differentiate [between attackers and civilians].

As hundreds of people came and attacked the outposts, it is understandable that the military might think all of them are insurgents. Therefore, the Tatmadaw conducted intensive clearance operations for five days and then they stopped. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing ordered them to stop to avoid going too far. Clearance operations were an inevitable consequence.  And it is difficult for them to explain what happened.  They had to do their military duties. So, we can only blame fate for them being sanctioned. If I were in their shoes, the same thing would have happened no matter how much I heed human rights. I do think it was the right move for the Tatmadaw to sack those officials though to show that it does not accept human rights violations.

YN: In his address on Armed Forces Day, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said that action would be taken against anyone who violated the Rules of Engagement (RoE). Then, subsequent actions followed. Despite the Tatmadaw’s dismissal of the officials, international pressures are still growing—there is the possible prosecution by the ICC (International Criminal Court) and sanctions by the United States and EU. It is likely that international pressures will keep growing. There are reports that the Tatmadaw has threatened to stage a coup because it is not satisfied with the measures of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government to reduce those pressures. A journalist named Larry Jagan wrote this in the Bangkok Post. What is your assessment of the tense civil-military relations?

AM: Citing the [2008] Constitution, people say that the civilian government has no influence over the Tatmadaw. This is not true. According to the Constitution, the president can order military actions in coordination with the National Defense and Security Council. But neither the president nor the military can order a war with a foreign country. They need the approval of Parliament to wage a war. The Constitution does not deny the government’s intervention in military affairs. But the Tatmadaw has some degree of power. One of the provisions says that the Tatmadaw shall assist [the government] as necessary in the case of a threat to the country.

The international community regards Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a champion of human rights. And she is the de facto leader of the government. These two roles are contrary. The roles of statesman and human rights activist can’t stand together. She must choose one decisively. Lately, [NLD senior member Monywa U Aung Shin] said that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would not defend [human rights] violators.  She should not say that publicly, only privately. Her statement will be understood as she will not take responsibility. By saying so, she has taken the perspective of a human rights activist, not a statesman.

If she understood the actions of the military and cooperated from the perspective of a statesman, [we would be able to overcome] sanctions. I don’t like sanctions. Both the people and the government suffer from sanctions. But when sanctions are imposed, the two siblings [the government and the military] should face them with unity. The army does not want to seize power. Everyone knows the trouble of holding power. But the army has a limit in its relationship with the civilian government. We don’t want that limit to be reached. If the army has to seize power because that limit is reached, it can tell the international community that it will hold a free and fair election in 2019 or 2020; and that it will form an interim government for the time being, and support that government from behind. Then, there will not be such much pressure from the international community. It will not seize power like the Revolutionary Council did. It will not seize power like it did in 1988. Everyone has limits. The army also has limits. I don’t want that limit to be reached because the Tatmadaw does not want to seize power; it knows the trouble of seizing power.

YN: Now, sanctions have been imposed. It is likely that the ICC will open a case against Myanmar. Bangladesh is cooperating with the ICC. The ICC has asked Myanmar to respond to its request. What further steps do you think the ICC will take and how can we respond?

AM: We have not made any agreement with the ICC. Our country is not a member. So, we can neglect this. For example, [the international community] said that it is impossible that [the Rohingya] burned their homes and villages. In fact, when they decided to leave this country or when they thought they could no longer live in this country, it was impossible for them to take their homes along with them. They could only take their clothes and belongings. So, why should they leave their homes for those who they hate? They would burn them down. It is the scorched-earth policy. Russia exercised it when Napoleon attacked. Even the British destroyed oil fields in our country so that Japan could not use them. They practiced a scorched-earth policy. [The Rohingya] may have also practiced it.

I am not sure if they did. But it doesn’t matter what evidence is provided; the ICC can give a verdict in absentia to blame the government. The nature of a court is that the longer we refuse to respond, the faster the court reaches a verdict. No matter what verdict it gives, the most important thing is for Myanmar to overcome international sanctions. Ours is not a military junta but a democratic government. Things are different from those of the past. Why can’t we attract foreign direct investment? Some individuals came to invest in Myanmar even during the time of the military junta. The main problem is that we ourselves have tightened our rules and regulations. The trade policies of the junta were no different from self-imposed sanctions. However, it was able to survive. Why can’t we now? Our local banking system, the government and the current finance minister have never thought of using public savings as an investment. We can respond to sanctions in various ways. We don’t need to worry about them. We can neglect the ICC.

YN: You said you would neglect the ICC but the proceedings of the court will continue. As a result, negative media coverage will persist and the country will continue to earn a bad name. Therefore, it will be very difficult to get loans required for the reconstruction of the country and tourists will not come to Myanmar. We need to break such a cycle. How can the military and the government cooperate to overcome this?

AM: What the government can do is form an independent commission as proposed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. There is a foreigner on the commission. The military and others have been criticizing the formation of the commission. In my opinion, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is right in forming the commission. Findings of the commission will be accepted by the international community only when there is a foreigner on it. We need to make sure the world accepts the findings of the commission. The military should exercise caution and restraint from now own.

I read a slogan in the Tatmadaw Newsletter that said: “Respond to enemies like fire, like the sun.” I can’t remember the wording exactly but we need to change our attitude. Leadership in the military should also remember this, and they need to treat enemies who surrender accordingly. If it is difficult to distinguish someone whether he is a member of armed organization or a civilian, we must treat him accordingly. Care should be taken in such situations as it is difficult. Currently, we have failed to do so. In the past, our country was isolated and did not possess information technology. Now it has become clear that whatever we do will be known by the world immediately and we can no longer do as we like. Therefore, military laws and ROE should be widely taught to officers and other ranks in the army. We can understand what happened [in Rakhine State].

As Rakhine people were being attacked and killed, security forces responded with force when their outposts also came under attack. I can understand that. Everyone would be like that in such a situation. Therefore, I never look down and condemn the officers against whom action was taken. They were in a very difficult situation. Those positions – commanders of infantry divisions and regional commands left vacant by them – will be filled by others. Nobody knows if they will face the same situation. Therefore, both the government and the army should have sympathy and understanding for them. If the military has already shown them understanding, the government should commiserate with them. I want the military and the government to be united and share what they have with each other no matter what problems arise. It would be better for the country.

YN: Thanks for your contributions!