Analysis: Sacking of Senior Army Officers Unlikely to Reduce International Pressure over Rakhine

By Moe Myint 26 June 2018

YANGON — Despite the Myanmar Army’s announcement of the expulsion of a couple of high-ranking officers on Monday over their mishandling of the northern Rakhine issue, which caused nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh in late 2017, many political analysts and politicians predict that international pressure on Myanmar will continue to grow ahead of the United Nations General Assembly in September.

The European Union (EU) released a list of targeted sanctions on Monday against seven military and border guard police officers directly involved the clearance operations in 2017. On the same day, the Office of the Commander-in-Chief announced its punishment of the officers. The targeted sanctions were not new; in February 2018, the EU condemned widely alleged human rights violations by Myanmar security forces and it has been preparing targeted restrictive measures on the responsible officers since then.

The EU statement targets the following officers for sanctions: Lieutenant General Aung Kyaw Zaw, the commander of Bureau of Special Operations No. 3 at the military’s Western Command from 2015 to 2017; Major General Maung Maung Soe, chief of the Western Command of the Myanmar Armed Forces from 2016 to 2017; Brigadier General Than Oo, commander of the 99th Light Infantry Division; Brigadier General Aung Aung, commander of the 33rd Light Infantry Division; Major General Khin Maung Soe of the 15th Light Infantry Division (a branch of Infantry Battalion No. 564); Brigadier General Thura San Lwin, head of the Border Guard Police; and Commander Thant Zin Oo of the 8th Security Police Battalion in northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township, who assisted Brig-Gen Aung Aung during the operations.

A statement subsequently released by the military reiterated the Army’s March 6 suspension of Maj-Gen Maung Maung Soe from his position and his official removal on June 25 as the Western Command chief for failing to carry out the necessary actions against members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) despite having received prior information about the group’s attacks on civil servants and members of the security forces, as well as his mismanagement of military operations on the ground.

Additionally, Lt-Gen Aung Kyaw Zaw, who was assigned to closely supervise operations in Rakhine State, voluntarily resigned on May 22 and Brig-Gen Thura San Lwin was removed from his position in the same month. The Office of the Commander-in-Chief did not mention whether action would be taken against the three other Army officers and one Border Guard officer.

The Irrawaddy phoned Police Commander Thant Zin Oo on Tuesday but he declined to answer questions, saying, “I am too busy with security matters and meetings with my superiors.”

The Burmese-language Army statement used the phrase “violent Bengalis”. “Bengali”, the term used by most people in Myanmar to refer to Rohingya, implies they are immigrants from Bangladesh brought in by British colonial administrators to fill a labor shortage in northern Rakhine.

Some political analysts and politicians concluded that the Army announcement was prompted by international pressure, while others saw it as a normal development.

Yangon-based political analyst Dr. Yan Myo Thein welcomed the Army’s move as an initial step, saying it represented a break with the past. He interpreted it as diplomatic gesture expressing a willingness to maintain a positive relationship with the international community. Dr. Yan Myo Thein pointed out that the support of the EU, the US and other Western countries was crucial to Myanmar’s democratic transition. If international pressure is mounting, Myanmar should strategically tighten its relationship with the international community, he said.

The analyst urged the military to apply the law equally to every single military officer by closely monitoring them to ensure they follow the laws, rules and regulations of the Army (or Tatmadaw), as well as social norms. When officers overstep their legitimate authority, the Army should investigate the alleged abuses and reveal its findings to the public, he said, adding that it is standard practice around the world for militaries to monitor the behavior of its soldiers and carry out inspections.

“I think the Tatmadaw will do this more in the future,” Dr. Yan Myo Thein said.

He believed that increasing engagement with the UN could reduce the challenges, dilemmas and international pressure on Myanmar, as the country is itself a member of the world body, though he acknowledged that there would be advantages and disadvantages to this approach.

Ethnic affairs expert Maung Maung Soe, who spent time in northern Rakhine before the armed conflict, agreed that the recent move by the Army to kick out three senior officers would do little to reduce international pressure on Myanmar.

“It’s very important that both the government and Army should broadly engage with the EU and the international community. And facilitating the opening of a new EU office in Naypyitaw is one of the significant steps that Myanmar intends to take,” Dr. Yan Myo Thein said.

National League for Democracy Lower House lawmaker Daw Pyone Kathy Naing, who is also a member of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, said the EU sanctions were widely expected, adding that the Army’s latest step demonstrated that it is willing to take legal action against officers who abuse their authority. However, she said simply blaming all security members would be unfair, as several key actors like the armed rebel group the Arakan Army (AA), as well as ARSA militants and narcotics gangs, were also moving around the region. Community hostility in the villages involved in the attacks also contributed to the explosive situation, she said.

“Army officers should find evidence to prove the other groups’ abuses, rather than simply making verbal arguments at this time,” she said.

She urged the international community to understand that Myanmar experienced terrorist attacks in late 2017 for the first time ever, and that the country might have some weaknesses when it comes to implementing counter-terrorism operations.

“It’s really good for us to take lessons from past experiences,” Daw Pyone Kathy Naing said.

While some politicians welcomed the Army’s move, Arakan National Party (ANP) Lower House lawmaker U Pe Than had a different stance. He said punishment was unnecessary to ease the international pressure on Myanmar, as other countries had similarly mishandled conflicts. He argued that the situation on the ground made it extremely tough for members of the security forces to determine who was a terrorist, because by the time the clearance operation began every village involved in the serial attacks in August 2017 was either directly or indirectly linked in some way to ARSA. This was a result of poor law enforcement in the region for years, which had allowed ARSA militants to gain a foothold, he said.

“Today’s situation, in which we see continued referrals [of Myanmar military leaders] to the ICC, is the result of the international community’s lack of information regarding what is happening on the ground. Whenever they talk about the northern Rakhine conflict, they focus solely on human rights and the mass exodus,” U Pe Than said.

While their views on the EU sanctions and Myanmar’s short-term future may differ, local analysts and politicians generally agree that the international pressure will likely rise again in the run-up to the UN General Assembly, which is scheduled to be held in September, as Rohingya sympathizers and lobbyist groups’ ultimate goals are to bring Myanmar military officers before the International Criminal Court (ICC) and to secure a citizenship guarantee for the Rohingya.