‘The Tatmadaw Loves Democracy’

By May Kha 13 November 2013

With the conclusion of another round of peace talks between the central government and ethnic armed groups last week, the stage is set for a meeting next month in Burma’s Karen State. Both sides have agreed to work toward a nationwide ceasefire agreement at that gathering in Pa-an, having exchanged draft proposals of such an accord in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital, which hosted the latest round of talks from Nov. 4-5.

Critical to any ceasefire accord will be the ethnic armed groups and Burma’s most powerful institution—the military, also known as the Tatmadaw.

The Irrawaddy sat down with Lt-Gen Myint Soe, a commander overseeing the government army’s Kachin State operations, to discuss Naypyidaw’s draft ceasefire proposal and broader prospects for achieving peace with Burma’s numerous ethnic groups.

Question: Under a section titled ‘Duty for Country’ in the government-drafted ceasefire proposal, references are often made to protection, security and defense of the country. As it relates to the Tatmadaw, what is meant by this?

Answer: It is very simple. The meaning of ‘defense of the country’ is to defend all of us from enemies from other countries. This is duty for country. Today, the Tatmadaw defends the whole country. To envision a Tatmadaw made up of Shan or Kachin factions is untenable, because the Tatmadaw represents all of the country. The Tatmadaw defends our sovereignty; it is used for the defense of the country. This is not only the case in our country; it is the system in other countries as well.

Q: The draft ceasefire says ethnic minority groups and the government are to cooperate on matters relating to rule of law and governance. Does this mean ethnic armed groups will be allowed to govern in the ethnic areas?

A: There are many general issues at the state level to be worked out. For example, the immigration issue, and tax policy. They [ethnic armed groups] will not be allowed to interfere in some of these matters.

Q: Do you think ethnic armed groups will agree to submit information on the size of their armies and the military hardware they possess to a monitoring group? Some people say this could be a sticking point to any peace agreement.

A: This is done not only in this country. Look at Nepal and Sri Lanka; they have used a similar system. We did not create this system on our own. We have to use this system because they [ethnic armed groups] did not turn in their guns despite signing ceasefires. This system will work if we do it properly.

Q: There will be only one army under this draft ceasefire. Does this mean ethnic armed groups will be forced to disband?

A: We will grant them territorial claims in some areas. Their ethnic armies will continue to exist until they set up their own political parties. We will not tell them to disarm, but we will try to build trust with them first, and they will disarm once they have trust in us.

Q: But ethnic armed leaders are saying Burma’s defense must be entrusted to a federal army.

A: TheArmy is not an institution whose structure can be reformed within a day. There cannot be ethnically determined Kachin or Karen factions within a Union Army. There should be one army.

Q: So how will you respond when they push for a federal army in Pa-an?

A: They have not said anything about this yet to us. Only you, The Irrawaddy, is worried about this and saying this. They are aware of our proposal to set up a Union Army. The world uses this system—having only one army.

If there is something to discuss, it will be discussed at the meeting. They cannot cause the Army to collapse or become divided. U Nai Hang Tha [secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council], U Gun Maw [of the Kachin Independence Army], and U Mutu Say Poe [of the Karen National Liberation Army] are aware of this. Only people who are not in the know are saying this. They do not understand the system. Under a federal system, we will have power sharing and natural resource sharing.

Q: Since Gen Aung San’s assassination and the disunity that followed, Burma’s people have looked to many ethnic armed groups as their protectors. So under this draft ceasefire, as the saying goes, ‘Gen Aung San, who is our father now?’

A: [laughs] If you think like this, you are wrong. Our current army is it is Union Army. They protect the whole country.

Q: The same Army that has a record of torture, rape and other human rights abuses, especially in ethnic minority areas?

A: We cannot say everyone in the Army is good. There are bad soldiers in the Army. This is why we have laws, to punish them. We do not accept rights abuses perpetrated by any Army officer. There are soldiers and commanders who we have punished. They cannot just do as they please.

Q: Who wrote this draft ceasefire proposal?

A: The Army and government, including the president, drafted it. The president was the main person involved in this.

Q: Is the Tatmadaw biased against Burma’s ethnic minorities?

A: This is not true. We accept all peoples. Please do not talk about the past. We are campaigning for national unity. There is no discrimination based on religion or ethnicity.

Q: Will the Tatmadaw accept a democratic system in Burma?

A: Let me ask you: What does democracy mean? Democracy comes from the people. The people wrote the 2008 Constitution. The Tatmadaw loves democracy. There is democracy system within the Army. You would be wrong to say that the Tatmadaw does not love democracy.

Q: And if thepeople want to reform the Constitution and remove the privileged place that the military enjoys in it?

A: Who are they? There are 60 million people in our country. Ninety-two percent supported this Constitution. If they want to reform it, they have the right to do so.