Putting a New Face on Myanmar’s Military

By Aung Zaw 12 July 2013

This year’s Armed Forces Day was, by all accounts, spectacular.

For the first time ever, Myanmar’s Tatmadaw, or armed forces, showed off its heavy weaponry and jet fighters as the commander-in-chief, Snr-Gen Min AungHlaing, received salutes from marching troops.

The speech that followed was far less remarkable, but if one listened closely, there was more to it than just the standard reiteration of the Myanmar military’s leading role in national affairs.

Although the military would, of course, continue to play a “leading political role” in accordance with Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, which reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for military officers, it would also “keep on marching to strengthen the democratic administrative path wished by the entire people,” said the Tatmadaw’s supreme commander.

Giving some weight to his professed commitment to staying on the democratic path was the presence of Daw Aung San SuuKyi, who was attending the Armed Forces Day ceremony for the first time since emerging as Myanmar’s pro-democracy icon during the nationwide uprising against military rule in 1988.

The reason for The Lady’s surprise appearance at the event was probably related to the release of a report on the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in early March, according to political observers and members of her National League for Democracy (NLD). The report, drafted by a committee headed by Daw Aung San SuuKyi, recommended continuing with the Chinese-backed project, despite strong public opposition.

At any rate, her presence at the March 27 ceremony was less surprising than it might have been just a year or two ago. Since last year, she has repeatedly expressed her “affection” for the Tatmadaw, which was founded by her father, Gen Aung San, during Myanmar’s struggle against British colonial rule.

Last year, for instance, she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that she had no hard feelings toward the generals who kept her in detention for most of the past two decades. “I’ve always got on with people in the army,” she said. “This is why I have a soft spot for them even though I don’t like what they do—that’s different from not liking them.”

For his part, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing also seems to have buried the hatchet with the woman long seen as the nemesis of Myanmar’s former military leaders. According to an NLD member who attended the ceremony with her, the commander-in-chief waved to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as he departed from the ceremony in his car. She returned his wave, and also spoke with several young cadet army officers and generals who came to meet her after the ceremony.

Things have indeed changed since the days of the former junta, led by retired Snr-Gen Than Shwe. This is all the more striking considering the widely held view that the former strongman continues to wield considerable influence over military matters. It is believed that he not only handpicked Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, but also his successor: According to well-informed sources, Lt-Gen Myat Htun Oo, another staunch Than Shwe loyalist, is next in line to lead the Tatmadaw once Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s term expires.

The question on many minds, however, is whether the current military leadership is ready to make a real break with the past. And perhaps the best way of assessing this is by looking closely at the man who, at least ostensibly, holds the reins of Myanmar’s still-powerful armed forces.

Very little is known about Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, apart from the fact that he leapfrogged several four-star generals to get to his present position, including U Shwe Mann, the speaker of the Lower House of Parliament. This came as a surprise to many, given the fact that he had not spent much time in the War Office before becoming commander-in-chief. Clearly, however, it served an important purpose: to shield the former head of the junta and his family from the danger of a more powerful military leader turning against him.

Perhaps even more significantly, putting a relatively junior general in the top military post also helps to minimize the risk of the new commander-in-chief using his considerable constitutional powers against the president or Parliament. It also makes it easier to maintain harmony within the powerful National Defense Security Council (NDSC), which brings together the commander-in-chief and senior members of the government, including the president. (There are rumors, however, that the NDSC’s regular meetings have been strained by tensions between President U Thein Sein and U Shwe Mann.)

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing first came to the attention of observers in August 2009, when the then major general oversaw the military offensive against the Kokang ceasefire group known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, which had refused to become part of the Border Guard Force (BGF), formed in 2009 to bring ethnic ceasefire groups under Tatmadaw command.

A graduate of the 19th intake of the elite Defense Services Academy, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has spent most of his military career in Myanmar’s border regions, particularly in Shan and Kayah states. He has served as commander of the Triangle Regional Command in eastern Shan State and the Northeast Command in northern Shan State, and later became chief of the Bureau of Special Operations 2, which controls the Northeastern, Eastern and Triangle regional military commands.

In his current role, he has also been involved in military operations in Kachin State and talks with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has recently come closer to reaching a ceasefire agreement with the government to end a conflict that began in June 2011.

One of the toughest challenges now facing the commander-in-chief is the Tatmadaw’s tense relations with the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s largest and best-equipped ethnic armed group.

Late last year, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing met with Wa leaders in Kengtung, eastern Shan State, to tell them to stop producing and trafficking illicit drugs by 2015. But with recent reports that China has stepped up its military support for the UWSA in an effort to increase its leverage over Naypyitaw, it will be increasingly difficult for him to exert much influence over the group.

Farther south, the commander-in-chief has had much less to worry about. In January, he met with Karen National Union leaders who came to Naypyitaw to meet President U Thein Sein. The meeting was cordial, but nothing substantive was discussed, and the senior general was dressed in civilian attire when he received the Karen leaders, signaling that meeting was intended to be seen as informal.

Although Myanmar’s armed forces and quasi-civilian government appear to be on the same page on most issues, it’s not always clear who is in charge. In Kachin State, for instance, the military continued its offensive despite repeated appeals from the president to avoid clashes unless necessary. The fighting continued to escalate until the end of last year and early this year, when helicopters gunships and jet fighters were deployed to attack the KIA stronghold of Laiza.

The trouble is that in this fragile transition period, there is confusion over the role and power of the commander-in-chief and indeed, the armed forces itself, which remains the most powerful institution in Myanmar.

Under the Constitution, the commander-in-chief possesses extensive power and a position equal to vice president. But some in the government have argued that the president should be the supreme commander-in-chief and call the shots when the country faces external or internal threats or any other crisis.

It is also not known whether the position of the defense minister (currently held by Lt-Gen Wai Lin, another Than Shwe loyalist who previously served as the Naypyitaw regional commander) is equal to that of commander-in-chief. As a result, some army insiders say the lines of communication and the chain of command are baffling.

It is also an open secret that the Tatmadaw controls the economy. The military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd and Myanmar Economic Corporation are two of the country’s largest conglomerates, and they wield enormous influence over many key industries, including energy extraction.

Tatmadaw scholar Mary Callahan, the author of “Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma,” has noted that both corporations are completely lacking in transparency. “Though they are owned by the Defense Ministry and serve as a capital fund for the military pension system, their accounts have never come under public scrutiny,” she wrote in The Journal of Democracy last year.

Since reforms began two years ago, there has been growing criticism of these military-backed business entities, particularly for their long-standing practice of confiscating land for future investment. Some sources close to Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing say that he is opposed to the practice and wants to return confiscated land to farmers. If true, he will certainly face opposition from within the armed forces and army conglomerates.

Another issue that will be of growing importance to the commander-in-chief is military relations with the West. He will likely try to develop regional cooperation with armies in the region and in the West, pulling away from Myanmar’s reliance on China. He has already asked for assistance from the West, and the US has agreed to provide military training. (The volatile situation in Arakan State, where a steady flow of immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh has caused increasing tensions, could be one area where Myanmar’s military might seek cooperation with the West.)

But some of Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s plans may be overly ambitious. In his speech on Armed Forces Day, he stressed the importance of building a modern and patriotic army, quoting excerpts from a speech by Gen Aung San in 1947: “The air force should have at least 500 airplanes. The army should have a strength of one million when fighting war. It must dare to respond to even the slightest provocations.”

If this is his wish list, he will have a hard time fulfilling it. If he really wants to build a professional army, however, he could begin by cleaning his own house and regaining the respect of the Myanmar people first.

This story appeared in the July 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.