US Ban on Generals an Act of Bullying against Whole Country, Military Says

By Nyein Nyein 24 July 2019

YANGON—A military spokesman described the US travel ban targeting Myanmar’s military leaders, including the Army chief, as an intervention in the country’s domestic affairs and an act of bullying against the military, government and people, pointing out that the army chief and his deputy are state officials.

At a press conference in Naypyitaw on Tuesday, Major General Tun Tun Nyi, the deputy head of the military’s information team, told The Irrawaddy that the military considered the ban to be “US intervention in Myanmar’s internal affairs and an act of bullying against the military, government and people of Myanmar because both the army chief and deputy army chief are part of the government, as they are appointed constitutionally.”

The US last Tuesday announced sanctions against Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing; his deputy, Vice Senior General Soe Win; two other senior commanders, Major General Than Oo and Major General Aung Aung; and their families. The move bars the officers—whom the US holds responsible for extrajudicial killings of Rohingya in northern Rakhine State—from entering the US.

The military’s initial response to the US sanctions was more limited, characterizing them as an attempt to insult the military’s dignity. On Tuesday, however, the military spokesman went further, describing the visa bans as an attempt to intimidate not just the military, but Myanmar and its people.

The spokesman’s characterization of the military leaders as “part of the state” and representing the Myanmar people raised eyebrows among political observers.

They said if the Army really thinks of itself as belonging to the people, its behavior should reflect the people’s will—in particular, by interacting more with the public, building trust among ethnic minorities and cooperating with the charter change that the public has long called for.

“Even though US sanctions do not have much of an impact on the generals, as they do not have any direct relations, it hurts their dignity. Therefore they will try every possible means to protect their pride. And it seems the military wants to get out of the situation where they alone are targeted for sanctions. But if they want the public’s support and to be part of the public, they need to prove [that they are],” said U Maung Maung Soe, a Yangon-based political analyst.

He suggested the military start by cooperating with the Union Parliament’s 45-member charter amendment committee. The military has rejected the more than 3,700 recommendations the committee submitted last week. It objected to the NLD’s formation of the committee from the moment it was proposed in January, though military representatives passively participated in its meetings.

“They [the military] should be careful not to do things that the public does not want, while public calls are mounting for constitutional change and a reduction in the military’s power in the legislature and administrative sectors,” said U Pe Than, an Arakanese lawmaker from Myebon constituency in Rakhine State.

Echoing these thoughts, another observer said the military needs to show more transparency by doing more than simply feeding information to the press, adding that it also needs to devote more time to gaining the trust of ethnic groups.

“The more transparent the military is, the more it will gain the public’s trust,” said U Aung Thu Nyein, director of communications at the Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar. He added that for now, the military’s monthly press briefings are a good start, presenting its activities and views and allowing journalists, on behalf of the public, to question those points they want to clarify.

“We don’t even know the full picture of what is actually happening in Rakhine State, in both the Rohingya crisis and the Rakhine war. We hear only from one side, and it is hard to say whether it’s right or wrong. But the fact is there are more than 700,000 displaced people sheltering in neighboring [Bangladesh], [a fact that] cannot be persistently denied,” said U Aung Thu Nyein.

The 2008 Constitution gives the military extensive powers in both the administrative and legislative sectors, including control of three key ministries and 25 percent of the seats in Parliament.

“If the Tatmadaw puts more focus on state defense and [makes efforts to] leave the legislative sector soon, it would create a positive public opinion,” the lawmaker said.

But if the military keeps delaying its exit from Parliament, he added, “the public’s support will be delayed—and anyhow, the Tatmadaw will have to do it [leave the legislature] at some point in the future.”

The NLD-dominated parliamentary charter amendment committee proposed reducing the proportion of military appointees in the Parliament from 25 percent to 15 percent in the upcoming 2020 elections and by a further 5 percentage points at each subsequent general election.

At Tuesday’s press conference, the military spokesman avoided commenting on charter change or the proposed reduction in the number of parliamentary seats reserved for the military. He defended the military’s role in politics and its peace-building efforts with various ethnic armed groups. As usual, the press conference highlighted military engagements with ethnic armed groups in northern, northeastern and western Myanmar and developments in peace-building efforts during the military’s unilateral ceasefire period, which began in December.

Maj-Gen Tun Tun Nyi reiterated the military’s position that it “hopes to see a stable country free of armed conflict,” a situation he said would enable it to leave politics.

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