Ethnic Alliance Ponders Future Federalism, Creates ‘Federal Union Army’

By Saw Yan Naing 9 December 2014

The 12 ethnic armed groups of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) officially announced that they planned to form their own so-called Federal Union Army, an initiative they said that would bolster defense cooperation and help with the creation of a single federal army for Burma in the future.

“We intend to form the Federal Union Army with the aim of integrating it into a model federal army of Burma in the future,” said Gen. Bee Htoo, chief of staff of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), referring to a time when the government, Burma Army and ethnic groups have signed a nationwide peace agreement.

News of the plans for the creation of a Federal Union Army had circulated for some time but was officially confirmed by the UNFC this week.

Col. Khun Okkar, joint secretary of UNFC and a leader of the Pa-O National Liberation Organization, said the Federal Union Army initiative also served to strengthen defense cooperation between the 12 UNFC members, who he added would “help each other if one is attacked” by the Burma Army.

The UNFC includes most major rebel groups, such as the Kachin Independence Army, units from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Shan State Army-North, but several powerful groups, such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Shan State Army-South and the Mongla militia, are not members.

Bee Htoo said he was appointed chief of staff of the planned Federal Union Army at a UNFC meeting in late November, while KNLA vice chief of staff and Lt-Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh was named commander of Federal Union Army’s southern region. KIA Chief of Staff Gen. Gam Shawng has been appointed commander of the new army’s northern region.

The UNFC troops when unified under a Federal Union Army could potentially field a total of some 25,000 fighters.

The UNFC representatives said an important reason for creating the Federal Union Army was to help further the process of the creation of a federal army comprising ethnic groups and the Burma Army, a demand of the ethnic groups during the ongoing national ceasefire process.

Since mid-2013, the government, Burma Army and an alliance of 16 ethnic groups have held a number of high-level negotiations to reach a comprehensive ceasefire agreement. But the sides are still far apart on the ethnics’ demands for a degree political autonomy for ethnic minority regions under a federal union of Burma, the formation of a federal army and calls for reforms to the undemocratic 2008 Constitution.

The issue of a federal army is scheduled to be discussed in the political dialogue, a protracted phase of negotiations that would follow a nationwide ceasefire. In recent months, the nationwide ceasefire process has hit deadlock, however, and trust in the process has fallen, in particular in the wake of a surprise attack by the Burma Army on a KIA training camp on Nov. 19 that killed 23 cadets

“We will talk about how to form a model federal army based on the results of the political dialogue. If we reach an agreement over a federal army, the [UNFC’s Federal Union Army] will be abolished,” said Khun Okkar.

Bee Htoo said the UNFC’s initiative was not intended to rival with the Burma Army, but to begin to set up an army in which the different ethnic peoples of Burma feel they have a place. He added, “We don’t accept the current structure of the Burma Army that was founded by the ethnic Burmans.”

The road to establishing such an inclusive army will be long, however, as the Burma Army remains militarily and politically powerful, and the Burman majority-dominated army appears unlikely to give up centralized control over the country for which it has fought during decades of internal conflict.

Burma Army Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing in a recent interview with sVoice of America rejected the idea of the UNFC forming its own Federal Union Army.

“In fact, we already have the Tatmadaw, like all nation states have their own national army. But there are not two or three national armies in any nation. Not in the United States, not in neighboring India, China, Thailand, nor in Bangladesh,” he was quoted as saying.

Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing added, “There are differences in defining federalism in the constitution written by UNFC and in the [2008] Constitution” of Burma.

Under British colonial rule, the army was made up of different units that were formed by the country’s ethnic groups, such a Burman units, Karen and Chin units. Shortly after independence in 1947, civil war erupted in Burma and the army fell apart along ethnic lines.

Veteran journalist and Burma expert Bertil Lintner said the creation of a federal union and federal army for Burma would be extremely complex, adding that he believed that the ethnic groups had not formed a clear idea yet of how to approach negotiations over these issues with the government.

Lintner said India’s federal states and federal security forces structure offered the best example for a country as ethnically diverse as Burma. In India’s federal states, he said, ethnic groups are allowed to maintain law and order through their own security forces in their regions, while issues of national importance, such as border affairs, fall under control of India’s national army that is under central government command.

The best option, Lintner said, “would be if the ethnic armies could become state police forces in their respective states, under the command of a democratically-elected state government, but then Burma would have to become a federal union first.”