At this year’s Armed Forces Day commemoration, Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing did not inspect the troops from the back of a moving military vehicle, opting to do so on foot.
In his speech, he said the country is lagging behind even its neighbors in the region.
In order to catch up, he urged people to work hard and show the “spirit of Myanmar”—interestingly, he also told the people of this Buddhist majority country to avoid racial and religious prejudice.
He reiterated his commitment to protecting the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. The military chief also urged all armed groups to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement without making impossible demands.
“Instead of pointing to the past and finding fault,” Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said, “it’s time to learn the lessons of the past and to work for the country’s development.”
In what has become something of a tradition for military leaders during Armed Forces Day speeches, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing devoted the first part of his speech to the Tatmadaw’s role in the independence struggle.
He mentioned Aung San, father of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the independence struggle, using the military training he had received from Japan to drive out the British colonizers. He and the rest of the legendary “Thirty Comrades” entered Myanmar through Thailand to liberate the country, which was then colonized by the British.
Min Aung Hlaing briefly touched on the Dawei and Mawlamyine columns that entered Myanmar from Thailand.
“Among the columns, the Dawei column was the core one and it was cordially welcomed by local residents of all kinds on its arrival in Dawei,” he said.
It is well known that residents of Dawei (known as Tavoy in southern Myanmar) welcomed the Myanmar soldiers, then part of the Burma Independence Army (BIA), and that many in Dawei joined the army. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is himself from the town.
The army chief then went on to discuss the post-independence period, and highlighted two major issues: the invasion by the Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) of eastern Myanmar, and the Mujahideen insurgency in the west.
In January 1950, KMT troops from China, backed by the American CIA, crossed the border from Yunnan and occupied northeastern Shan State, prompting the government under Prime Minister U Nu to formally complain to the UN. Myanmar forces, including the air force, bombed KMT troops and a series of fierce battles were fought.
In 1953, the UN passed a resolution calling on the US to work for the removal of the KMT troops from Myanmar.
Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing then touched on the Mujahideen insurgency in western Myanmar. In the Burmese language, he talked about the “bad, naughty kalar.” (A derogatory term for those of South Asian descent).
In northern Rakhine starting in 1950, separatist Bengalis who had migrated from what was then East Pakistan took up arms against the central government, he said. The military launched several operations including “Operation Mayu.” Mujahideen leaders fled or surrendered and the rebellion finally ended in 1961.
Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing related this story to demonstrate how the armed forces had played a role in protecting Myanmar’s sovereignty. He did not refer directly to the current crisis in Rakhine State, however.
Modern Army and Military Professionalism
The Tatmadaw leader did not fail to mention the ongoing efforts to build a modern army and to “effectively utilize technology and military professionalism to collectively serve military affairs.”
Freedom of Speech
He also touched on freedom of speech.
“Today, our country is marching toward becoming a modern and developed democracy,” he said.
“Democracy is a negotiation of different views from multiple directions and it is a way to live cohesively with those attitudes. Whichever policies are pursued in the country, there shall be laws, rules and regulations promulgated.”
He added, “In democracy, there is freedom of speech in line with democratic norms, but these must also be in accordance with rules and regulations, as well as accountability…. Baseless speech leads to animosity and degrades the prestige of our country, hindering nation building.”
On Ethnicity and Religion
The commander-in-chief stated that more than 130 ethnic groups have existed in Myanmar for decades.
“Among these ethnic groups, some number in the hundreds of thousands, while others have a population of just a handful. However, population is not the main issue, and all ethnic groups have equal rights under the Constitution. Although the majority believes in Buddhism, there is also freedom of worship for other religions. Thus, speech spreading disinformation must be restrained in relation to religion.” One wondered whether he was preaching “tolerance” as some army officers, well-funded thugs, vigilantes and extreme nationalists have been accused of involvement in attacking minorities and Muslims.
On Rules of Engagement
“Discipline is the backbone of the Tatmadaw,” Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said.
“Our Tatmadaw is strong because it stands on the firm ground of good military discipline and obedience. Each and every serviceman must strictly follow rules and regulations, orders and instructions.”
He told military personnel to adhere to the military code of conduct.
He said, “Moreover, apart from following civil laws, military laws and laws related to war, we must also abide by rules of engagement [ROE]. ROE is a legal instruction as well as guidance for circumstances and restrictions to be followed by units and corps in the accomplishment of military objectives. I would like to say that legal action will be taken against anyone who violates the code of conduct, rules or regulations.”
The comments appeared to be aimed at deflecting international criticism of the military crackdown on Muslim insurgents, terrorists and the self-identified Rohingya population of northern Rakhine State.
On the NCA
During peace talks, he said, it would be more practical to negotiate toward likely outcomes, in view of long-term benefits, instead of wasting time and setting impossible conditions.
In conclusion, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing spoke about peace, prosperity, development of the nation and unity, and urged people not to dwell on the past.
He repeatedly mentioned multiparty democracy and federalism and urged people to avoid racial and religious prejudice.
He did not mention anything about government leadership changes, but his speech indicated that he was trying to put his house in order as well as to counter international condemnation, tougher sanctions and accusations of ethnic cleansing and genocide.