‘Don’t Believe Everything You Hear’

By Nyein Nyein & May Kha 4 June 2013

MYITKYINA, Kachin State—In Burma’s northernmost state, ethnic Kachin rebels and government officials agreed last week to a tentative peace pact to end a long-running war between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the government army. Following the negotiations, Lt-Gen Myint Soe, the commander who oversees the government army’s Kachin State operations, caught up with The Irrawaddy in an exclusive interview—his first in decades—to explain how the military has changed under the quasi civilian regime, why clashes continued in Kachin State earlier this year despite the president’s call for a unilateral ceasefire, and what he thinks of allegations of military rights abuses.

Question: What’s the military’s role in the peace process?

Answer: The peace process is done. What we need to do now is protect our country. We have a plan to give back farmland, with our soldiers assisting in the cultivation of crops if necessary. After the ceasefire agreement, we’re focusing on pragmatic plans to serve the people.

Q: When will the military return the land it confiscated?

A: I’m just responsible for military campaigns. This issue should be handled by the military’s division of transportation. I don’t know the details.

Q: The military has long inspired fear in the people. How will the military show that it is changing, and that it will serve the people?

A: Just look at the Meikhtila crisis, when the military restored peace and order. In the Kachin peace process, we’ve held discussions with the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization], and they believe what we’re doing. The KIO has accepted that the [government] army has changed its stance. In this way, I hope the public believes us.

Q: Was the military happy with its meeting with the KIO, or did the military give in?

A: Neither the KIO nor the military has given in.

Q: The KIA’s deputy chief, Maj-Gen Gwan Maw, said he wanted to integrate the KIA into the national military. Will the national military agree?

A: The Constitution says there should only be one military. If there’s more than one military group, they must all be under the command of the commander-in-chief.

Q: Although the president called for a unilateral ceasefire [in Kachin State], the military continued fighting. Does this imply the military is above the president?

A: The president issued an order on Dec. 10, 2012, calling for an end to military offensives, although we could still defend ourselves. But here, opinions differ. For example, if Maj-Gen Gwan Maw [from the KIA] is traveling back [to his base from government-controlled areas], I have to arrange for his security, so I will order my soldiers to shoot any suspect who threatens him. If they shoot, can you say a clash has erupted? Yes. But the soldier was shooting due to the situation. Many say the military is above the president because they don’t fully understand the nature of the military.

Q: What do you think about the use of child soldiers in the army?

A: We have been working on the issue with Unicef. We don’t have child soldiers. But some soldiers told us they were 18, when in fact they were younger. If we find a soldier is younger than 18 we let them go.

Q: Is there any plan for future elections for military representatives for Parliament?

A: No. Military representatives will only be chosen by the chief of staff. There is no voting in the military.

Q: There were reports of crimes committed by the military in Kachin State last year, yet no one has been punished. How does the military deal with criminals in its ranks?

A: In the military, every soldier has to obey two types of law: military law and civil law. As the military laws are stricter, there is a court of inquiry and, if found guilty, a soldier will be arrested and punished accordingly.

Q: There have been frequent reports of abuses by soldiers. Is it a systematic problem? Or are there just a few bad apples?

A: How many cases have you heard? Don’t believe everything you hear. There are many rumors, endless rumors. You should ask the military’s information department [for the facts].

Q: How are the military’s funds looking?

A: We don’t have any problems.

Q: Does the military have any enterprises it’s making money from?

A: I can’t answer that. But I can say the military will never burden the government. We can stand on our own, but we need a budget to grow.

Q: Are there any plans in the works to expand Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd, which has served as the economic backbone of the armed forces?

A: I can’t say, as I’m not the CEO. We are trying to be independent, that’s all I can say.