The Tatmadaw's Role Beyond Defense

By The Irrawaddy 8 June 2019

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the Tatmadaw’s role in Myanmar’s politics. I’m The Irrawaddy Chief Reporter Kyaw Kha and I’m joined by U Kyee Myint, chairman of the Union Lawyers & Paralegals Association, and Joint General Secretary 1 of the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS) Daw Hnin Hnin Hmwe.

What is more interesting to me than the Rakhine issue in the statement of your party is the call for the Tatmadaw to reduce its role before eventually withdrawing from political, economic, and executive sectors of the country. So, why did the party urge the military to get itself under civilian control?

Hnin Hnin Hmwe: Before I explain this, I would like to brief you on an event which we organized. We held a seminar in February 2019 with the theme, “The Rakhine issue is the concern of the entire country.” And we issued recommendations for the government, the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organizations. But we found that the situation has gotten very bad in Rakhine State at the present. We have no power or authority in our hands, but we feel like we are undutiful if we ignore it. We believe that we must make our voices heard about that issue. So we organized a second seminar under the theme, “Stop war immediately and find solutions politically.” It is not just that the Rakhine issue is the country’s issue, but all issues facing all the people living in this country are the country’s issues. We highlight the Rakhine issue because the situation is the worst and most severe in Rakhine State right now, with helicopter bombs, the Tatmadaw’s deployment of troops at religious sites in ancient areas like Mrauk-U and the damages caused to artefacts, the deaths and injuries of civilians everyday. So, the situation is very bad there, and we therefore call the Rakhine issue a Union issue. The joint statement was signed by 123 groups—political parties, political forces and civil society organizations. So many groups joined it because we are like-minded organizations with the same objective. We don’t just want the reduction of the Tatmadaw’s role. We have urged it to withdraw as soon as possible from political, economic and executive functions and serve its Union defense and security duty with dignity under the civilian government. In our country, politically or economically or administratively, nobody dares to offend the Tatmadaw. We have no access to the financial figures of [military-owned] Myanma Economic Holdings. Recently I read a news report that the Tatmadaw’s municipal committee removed shops near an overpass in North Okkalap Township [in Yangon] by force. Such things happen both inside and outside of Yangon, across the country, and it’s unacceptable. The Tatmadaw’s involvement in the economy is well reflected by the prosecution of civilians by the military over land ownership disputes across the country. Taking a look at the executive sector, the Tatmadaw said at a recent press conference that soldiers serving prison terms for the massacre in Inn Din Village were released at the order of the commander-in-chief of defense services. The villagers had their hands tied and were on their knees when they were shot dead. They were not deaths caused by the exchange of fire. So, we should question if the Tatmadaw has the authority to carry out extrajudicial killings. It is totally unacceptable. To me, the fact that the murderers were unconditionally released at the army chief’s order alone holds the law and executive power up to ridicule. Again, according to the constitution, the president holds the highest rank in Myanmar. However, in reality, everyone—including the international community—knows that the president does not have the absolute power. I don’t know if it was really ordered by the President or not, but the Tatmadaw is using helicopters at the frontline and said that it was using them with the approval of the President. But if the President orders them to stop fighting, will they stop? It is in question. In democratic countries around the world the military is overseen by the president, and its only duty is national defense and security, and it has no reason [or right] to get involved in other affairs of the country. In parliament, their seats are constitutionally reserved. These things are quite a shame for our country. So, we said that the military should withdraw as soon as possible from politics, the economy and the administration of the country.

KK: The Tamadaw says it should remain in politics while the democracy and the [civilian] government are still nascent. Isn’t that true?

Kyee Myint: It is an excuse. When we gained independence after 100 years of colonial rule, the military was under the elected government. Our country can’t be more nascent than that. All the institutions should be in their correct places according to the constitution. Our country has faced a lot of problems that still can’t be resolved because the military has overstepped its boundaries. So, I’d say that the Tatmadaw’s excuse is not valid.

KK: The joint statement also called for rewriting a new constitution, and suggested that it will be a good opportunity for the Tatmadaw to cooperate. Can you explain that?

HHH: Actions are being taken in the Parliament to amend the constitution. But we found that all the military-appointed lawmakers, since the constitutional amendment proposal was submitted, raised strong objections to it by taking to their feet. Why did they do so? What is certain is that the constitution places the military above the government—above the President—so they are strongly resisting the changes. But we need to think long-term, because our country will not remain unchanged. There are always changes in the course of history. Currently, while the majority of the people are calling for constitutional changes and efforts are being made in the parliament…the majority of the people in the country do not hold a positive opinion of the military. Under such circumstances, should they cooperate, it will be a good opportunity for them. But if they continue to be bigoted about their self-importance, it isn’t good for our country or [the Tatmadaw] itself. The country will have to suffer. The tradition of nothing being able to be done without the approval of the Tatmadaw is a disgrace to the history of our country. The Tatmadaw should be aware of this and exercise restraint. It should not be bigoted. It should grasp the opportunity now.

KK: The Tatmadaw said that as it has functioned as the government and should remain involved in the country’s affairs while the democracy and the [civilian] government are still in their nascent stage, and that it would withdraw only when particular achievements are reached. What is your view on that, U Kyee Myint?

KM: This is their stance. The fact that they have drafted the constitution for their own advantage creates a negative political image with the international community. It is not good to offer excuses to retain power under the constitution. In reality, people should be treated as parents, they should be above. Those elected by the people should be above. They can’t enact their own rule. Everyone has to abide by the rules enacted by the people. If they enact their own rule, they will be distant from the people. The result will be endless war, distrust and the international community’s low opinion of us. Today we are calling for a halt to military rule, and we have reason to do so. We have been under military rule for over 60 years—since 1962—but have we seen development? For example, South Korea was under the military rule of Park Chung-hee, and yet they saw development. It was worthwhile for South Korea. But then, he was finally assassinated. We’d have nothing to say if our country has achieved development comparable to international countries. But in the 60 years of military rule, the country has declined to the lowest point, as far as its reputation, the discord between communities, the poor economic performance and low educational standards. That’s why we are complaining. U Thant Myint Oo [founder of Yangon Heritage Trust] sent a message to Yawmingyi Zayat [panel discussion] that Myanmar will cease to exist in the next 50 years if this situation goes on. If the Tatmadaw retains its grip on power, the country will be suffocated. We have repeatedly asked the Tatmadaw not to stay above the people. The Tatmadaw can cooperate in the constitutional amendment campaign. It is never too late to fix. If it cooperates, it will win the support of the people. This will resolve their problems and also bring prosperity for Myanmar people.

KK: What are the likely implications if the Tatmadaw refuses to step away from politics, the economy and the administration of the country? What will be the benefits if the Tatmadaw pulls itself out of those areas?

HHH: We called for it because we believe it is the way it should be. I am sure that we all are not Tatmadaw haters, we want to see a Tatmadaw that protects the country and serves the interests of the people. We are not making demands with hatred against them, we are just demanding things be as they should be. But if they refuse, they will be the ones mainly responsible for the potential complications. We are politicians, and since we have no power we have little authority. We can only urge, demand and suggest. But those who do not act on our demands and suggestions will be responsible for their failures to do so. The Tatmadaw has to rebuild a lot to win back the love of the people. At present, people even hate to hear the Tatmadaw, the military. In ethnic areas, there is even hatred for Bamars in connection with the military. To overcome this, the military leadership should rationally consider which to uphold and which to abandon. If they fail to take this opportunity [to collaborate in constitutional reforms], they will continue to be the most responsible persons for the country’s bad legacy… There is a saying in the Tatmadaw that says the Tatmadaw is the father and the mother of the soldiers. That slogan is wrong. As the Tatmadaw was born out of the people, the slogan should be, “The people are the father and mother of the soldiers.” We are urging this because we want to see an army that protects the interests of the country, that people love and are proud of.

KK: The Tatmadaw has said that it will gradually retreat from politics when there is stability in the country. What is your assessment of the possible impacts if this process is fast or slow?

KM: The military said it will go back to the barracks when peace is achieved. But peace still can’t be achieved and some criticize, saying that the military is deliberately delaying the process. It is unrealistic that the Tatmadaw will retreat when there is stability. The Tatmadaw should retreat for the sake of stability. These two notions are different, and we prefer the second notion. I say so because the Tatmadaw’s image is already not good. Now, our country is divided by military sympathizers, political parties that will work hand in glove with the military, and democratic forces elected by the people. We have heard about collaboration between the military and the Union Solidarity and Development Party to submit proposals to the parliament and to provide health care services. The military is paid from the public funds, and it is unacceptable that it cooperates with a political party to provide medical services. This can create misunderstanding. So, I would like to urge the Tatmadaw not to get involved in complicated issues and act with dignity. We love the Tatmadaw very much, because it is the Tatmadaw that fought for the independence of our country. And it was formed with the children of laborers, farmers and our relatives. We are just criticizing the military leadership. All the national people in the country would forgive the Tatmadaw, and they know that they [rank and file soldiers] are also suffering from troubles. We respect and love the Tatmadaw, but we want to ask them not to stay above the people. I would say the Tatmadaw’s retreat will cause no harm to the country.

KK: Isn’t it possible that the Tatmadaw is really concerned about the things that they think might happen if they are no longer involved?

KM: It is just their thinking. What will be right, self-importance or the decision made by the majority in this world? It is common sense that the decision made by the majority is right.

KK: Thank you for your contributions!