What do Recent Rebel Attacks Say About Myanmar’s National Security

By The Irrawaddy 31 August 2019

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! As everyone knows, three members of the Northern Alliance launched attacks on five places and the Defense Services Technological Academy in Pyin Oo Lwin on Aug. 15. Fighting ensued and the Muse-Lashio Road was blocked. Some experts viewed it as a security breach. I will discuss with Dr. Min Zaw Oo to what extent the military and the government are lacking cooperation, and to what extent the ongoing clashes are worrying to the people of Myanmar.

It is nearly 70 years that civil war has been ongoing in Myanmar. There are nearly 20 ethnic armed groups in Myanmar. In Southeast Asia and South Asia, Myanmar has experienced a serious armed conflict with a large number of armed groups fighting over territorial disputes, and the latest attack carried out by three members of the Northern Alliance on the military academy has shocked many people. How worrying do you think the situation is?

Min Zaw Oo: It is not that difficult to launch an attack on the Defense Services Technological Academy with rockets. It is not that the rebels came into the town and launched attacks. Though the attack in Goke Twin can be called a security breach, the place is not a stronghold, but a soft target. What is worrying is the attack that has blocked for ten days the Mandalay-Muse Road, the lifeline of Myanmar’s trade. They launched the attack with the intention of cutting off the economic lifeline. The ambition is not just a military one, it is intended to cut off a strategic route for trade and commodity flows, and therefore this will impact various strata of society. The road is a strategic route and the impact is strategic, so this led to a question—how much our leaders had thought about this and prepared in advance? Rather than responding only after attacks on strategic places, we should have—there is no national security policy that identifies places critical to the interests of the whole country and the people, that outlines how to protect those interests and how to solve problems and how to connect peace and security. Because of the lack of such a  policy, certain things that should be done based on such a policy can’t be carried out. I think the political rivalries and political problems resulting from the 2008 Constitution have impacted national security.

KZM: Military soldiers, police and civilians were killed in the Aug. 15 attack, but I have barely seen any cooperation between the Tatmadaw and the government. The Tatmadaw said that there was a security breach because the NLD (National League for Democracy) government abolished some laws, including the law that requires overnight guests to register. The NLD government said the Tatmadaw could not receive that information from people because people have little trust in the Tatmadaw. The two sides are blaming each other. It is evident that there is a distinct lack of cooperation between the leaders of the two sides. What is your view on this? How closely do you think they should work?

MZO: The number one policy problem in Myanmar is there is no mechanism or group that designs national security policy. Only when a problem arises do leaders meet and discuss how to solve it. We are very reactive and there are a lot of deficiencies in decision making for adopting a proactive strategy. This is the security implication of the political problems based on the 2008 Constitution between the military and political leaders. Secondly, there must be mechanisms that feed information to the leaders so that they can make decisions regarding security matters. For example, the US National Security Council … is not a meeting. The National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) in Myanmar is just a meeting. National security can’t be guaranteed just by a meeting. There must be an institution. An institution means there are experts, professionals, mechanisms, responsibility and accountability—and a chain of command. Without such mechanisms and experts, it is like drawing in the dark when leaders design national security policy. In Myanmar’s case, the problem exists in two aspects. Policy can’t be adopted first because the leaders are not willing to talk to each other. Second, there is no necessary institution that will assist them with designing the policy.

KZM: So, what you said suggests it is quite difficult to ensure national security. There is lack of cooperation between the Tatmadaw and the government. I doubt if the two sides meet. The NDSC meeting has never been summoned. I guess the NLD government doesn’t accept it and, as you said, there is no institution in place. And the civilian-military relationship has never been good in our country. So, what should be done to improve it?

MZO: Firstly, there must be a group for adopting policy. It will be the NDSC or a similar organization. The President has the authority to form a group. Former President U Thein Sein had formed groups as necessary. There is a need for an official group. This is for the long-term. No matter which government is in office, there needs to be mechanisms for security experts and professionals to collect and assess security information and present their regular security assessment reports to policymakers so they can adopt policies, but not just the kinds of mechanisms that are separately handled by different organizations. We need teams that can make assessments from various reports gathered so that policymakers can adopt policies. If the leaders have to adopt the policy by putting two and two together from small pieces of intelligence, then there will be a wide gap between intelligence collection and policy adoption. After the [Tatmadaw’s] military intelligence unit was disbanded in 2005—not only at the level of policy-making by top leaders, but also in each separate agency like the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Office of the Chief of Military Security Affairs—Myanmar has been lacking a tier of analysts. To many people, intelligence is about collecting information on the ground, but information gathered on the ground does not have much value at the level of policymaking. There is a need for a tier of analysts who will put together the ground information and make assessments for policymakers so that they can design a policy. That tier is very weak in Myanmar. There is a need to create a platform that will allow discussions between leaders for the remaining term of the government. But, for the long-term, an institution is necessary to discuss and manage national security.

KZM: With many armed groups in Myanmar, fighting is more common. There were bomb explosions even in downtown Yangon during the time of the military regime before U Thein Sein’s administration, and I think it is not that difficult to carry out similar attacks now, but the question is if the other side will go that far. Even if they can, perhaps they won’t—we don’t know. How worrying is it for major towns like Mandalay if there are groups that want to launch [bomb attacks] given there is no proper security apparatus?

MZO: The armed conflict in Myanmar is limited, and civilians were not targeted.

KZM: But civilians have been targeted lately.

MZO: Yes. If armed organizations target civilians, it will be quite difficult to protect the civilians. For example, explosives or drugs can be carried from northern Shan State to Yangon within 24 hours. Nearly 90 percent of [inspection] gates [along the routes] have been removed. With the existing gates, it is very difficult to inspect all. Again, besides plans to prevent attacks, we also need to prepare for response plans. Armed organizations in the country may not have plans [to launch attacks on civilians], but there are threats from Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Myanmar. They have said officially that Myanmar is their target. We just don’t know when they will launch attacks. They have said they will attack Myanmar.

KZM: The damage will be greater if such groups come [and attack] Myanmar.

MZO: They don’t play by rules, they will attack civilian and public targets. They may assassinate leaders. Considering our existing capability, it is difficult for us to counter them. If international terrorist organizations are involved, coordination and cooperation between our security agencies and international ones will become very important. To summarize, at the policymaker level, there is a need for a platform to be able to adopt [security] policy, and the technical body or institution to support that platform. And Myanmar is in urgent need of intelligence reform. Without these, it will be extremely difficult for us to handle security threats that will emerge in next five to ten years.

KZM: Ko Min Zaw Oo, these are causes for concern. Thank you for your contribution.