‘Federal Army’ Already Exists, Says Military Chief

By Lawi Weng 5 December 2013

RANGOON — Amid calls from Burma’s ethnic armed groups for the establishment of a “federal army,” the country’s commander-in-chief has claimed that the current military is already a federally constituted institution, owing to its inclusion of ethnic minority members within the ranks.

In remarks made to troops in Thandwe Township during a visit to Arakan State on Tuesday, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing appeared to reject ethnic rebels’ proposal for a military that would decentralize the command structure and see the battalions in certain regions comprised largely of soldiers from the dominant resident ethnic group.

The Burmese government has not yet indicated whether it will consider the ethnic armed groups’ pitch for a future army that is federal in nature, and the issue is expected to be discussed at upcoming peace talks in Karen State’s Hpa-an. Ahead of that meeting, which will likely take place sometime after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Min Aung Hlaing seemed to stake out the military’s position on the issue.

“Different ethnic groups are enlisted in our army and our army is the Union Army. This is why our army needs to build up union spirit. It is the duty of everyone in our army to avoid misunderstandings between either individuals or battalions,” said Min Aung Hlaing, who commands a fighting force, known as the Tatmadaw, that is made up largely of Burmans, the country’s ethnic majority.

During a visit on the same day to Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, Radio Free Asia’s Burmese service reported that Min Aung Hlaing told the public that he wanted Burma to practice “disciplined democracy,” adding that the military would participate in the realization of this goal.

“We want to have real, disciplined democracy. This is the first time I’ve told the public,” Min Aung Hlaing was quoted as saying. “We really want to become a democratic country. We want to have similar [system of governance] as other countries that have enjoyed peaceful and stable development. We are working to attain it. We need to have peace, rule of law and unity.”

Burma has undergone a series of political reforms since 2011, after nearly 50 years of military rule. The junta presided over a withering of the country’s economy under the mismanaged policies of the generals’ “Burmese Way to Socialism,” and a number of ethnic armed rebel groups waged war against the central government, demanding greater autonomy or outright independence.

Reformist President Thein Sein has made peace with the various armed groups a major priority of his administration since he took power in 2011, signing ceasefire agreements with more than a dozen of them.

Hkun Htun Oo, a leader of the ethnically affiliated Shan National League for Democracy, said Min Aung Hlaing’s authority did not transcend that of the Constitution, adding that only the Constitution could determine what form a future military in Burma might take.

“There is a Parliament and Constitution in the country. He does not have power to decide for it,” Khun Htun Oo said.

The current Constitution, drafted by the military and enacted in 2008, gives the military significant power, but discussions propelled by the ethnic armed groups and Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), have focused on amending the charter or scrapping it altogether.

Khun Okkar, secretary of the alliance of 11 ethnic armed groups known as the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), dismissed Min Aung Hlaing’s comments as merely the general’s personal opinion. Ethnic armed groups, Khun Okkar said, were not yet fairly represented within the ranks of Burma’s military.

The UNFC leader said the comments were likely intended to downplay a growing call for discussions about the issue among the ethnic armed groups.

“I found that he wanted to make light of the issue, which we want to talk about,” Khun Okkar said.