Tatmadaw Chief Offers Cryptic Definition of Military’s Political Role

By Nyein Nyein 2 December 2017

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – Myanmar Army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said the military as an institution must be free of political influence, while at the same time asserting the principle that the Tatmadaw continues its efforts in support of “national politics.”

During an address to newly graduating officers of the Defense Service Academy’s intake 59 in Pyin Oo Lwin, Mandalay Region, on Friday, the Army chief also singled out for praise his troops’ handling of the Rakhine State crisis and peace-building efforts in the country.

His remarks drew criticism from observers and political analysts, who pointed to the fact that 25 percent of seats in the legislature are reserved for military appointees, while the Tatmadaw also retains control of three key ministerial posts.

The Tatmadaw “must be a professional army that is apolitical; to be out of the shadow of political influence, it must not be involved in party politics or national politics,” said Dr. Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst.

Only when the Tatmadaw is a professional institution will it be able to assist in the country’s democratic transition, he said.

To achieve that, he said, the Tatmadaw “needs to end its involvement in the government and parliament sooner rather than later.”

While the Army Chief has stressed the importance of making the Tatmadaw a “standard” army, this is different from the professional institution advocated by many observers.

Defining what is meant by being “free of the shadow of political influence” is tricky, said Kheung Sai, an adviser to the Restoration Council of Shan State. Only Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing can really say what this means, Kheung Sai said.

He suggested two possible meanings for the general’s remark: that the Tatmadaw is a professional army that does not participate in politics; or that the Tatmadaw is not influenced by a particular political party.

Allegations of rights abuses denied

Despite accusations of human rights violations against ethnic minority areas during the civil war over the past seven decades, most recently in northern Rakhine State, the Army chief insisted that his troops strictly followed orders, rules and regulations.

“No one is above the law,” he said, adding that the Tatmadaw has a constitutional duty to protect citizens and the state without harming the state’s sovereignty.

He urged the new graduates to be good officers who are loyal to their superiors, respected by their subordinates and trusted by the people.

Highlighting the Tatmadaw’s role in the current Rakhine crisis, he said that while the military’s efforts have been in accordance with the law, international institutions and some Western media misunderstood the Rakhine crisis due to the dissemination of incorrect information and propaganda.

Though he did not mention any specific reports, it is likely that he was referring to those published by international human rights organizations during the past three months.

Human Rights Watch has accused Tatmadaw troops of killing Rohingya and committing mass rapes against Rohingya women and girls. The United Nations and the U.S. have described the situation in Rakhine State as “ethnic cleansing”, and Amnesty International has labeled the political situation there as “apartheid”. Some Western media have suggested the Rohingya are the victims of genocide. Most people in Myanmar use the term “Bengali” rather than Rohingya.

Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing reiterated that his men “strictly followed orders and acted in accordance with the rules of engagement [ROE] during the recent Rakhine crisis.” He said the Muslim militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – which the government regards as a terrorist group – coordinated attacks on 30 police outposts and an Army base and brutally killed local villagers. The general did not specify any groups of victims by name, but they are known to have included Rakhines, Mro and Hindus.

Groups of minority Hindus were brutally killed in an ARSA attack on Aug. 25. Their bodies were unearthed one month later, on Sept. 24.

“The Tatmadaw will provide full protection for those minority groups in Rakhine State to protect them from ‘genocide’,” he added.

Push for NCA implementation

Regarding the peace building process, he affirmed the Tatmadaw’s view that the six-point policy for peace should be followed by all sides, as it was drafted based on past experiences and the current circumstances.

He emphasized the importance of signing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the eight ethnic armed groups, adding that “NCA principles don’t impose any restriction nor prohibition on the rights of the people and allow them to enjoy their rights as much as possible. Thus peace can be achieved by quick implementation of the NCA.”

The Army chief’s remarks about the NCA were welcomed by Kheung Sai, who said the military leader’s comment would help smooth the path for further negotiations.

Negotiations at a recent meeting of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee and a review of the NCA’s implementation involved heated debates over each term of the NCA, he explained.

However, he said, “it should be clear that there are still some terms on which the ethnic armed organizations [EAOs]’ leadership and the Tatmadaw have yet to agree.”

One of these sticking points concerns the definition of security reintegration, he said, with questions remaining over whether reintegration refers to assimilation into society or disarmament. This still needs further clarification, Kheung Sai said.

EAO leaders want detailed discussions of security sector reforms (SSR). However, the Tatmadaw wants to limit discussions to disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) under the topic of security sector reintegration.