Folly of Tickling the Tatmadaw’s Belly

By Charlie Campbell 14 September 2012

That a leading US think-tank would advocate strengthening military ties with the Tatmadaw (Burmese armed forces) has left many observers bewildered. The democracy movement, along with autonomy-seeking ethnic rebel armies, has spent the last half-century trying to weaken the military leviathan.

“The United States should use engagement opportunities to provide training to a new generation of military officers in such areas as civilian-military relations, law of war and transparency,” said a report from the Washington-based Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) released on Wednesday regarding a fact-finding trip to Burma in August.

“If the military continues to support the transition to civilian rule and observes ceasefires in ethnic minority areas, the United States should begin to consider joint military exercises with the Myanmar armed forces and provide selected Myanmar officers access to US International Military Education and Training opportunities in US defense academies.”

The CSIS also urged the United States to engage in regional forums such as the annual Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore and biannual Asean Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus. Burmese Defense Minister Lt-Gen Hla Min used the Shangri-la Dialogue in June to play down military ties with North Korea and call for regional stability.

Yet this is the same Burmese military which currently remains the biggest obstacle to the ongoing reform process initiated by President Thein Sein—the remnants of a brutal dictatorship still endowed with a quarter of parliamentary seats, a constitutional amendment veto, a deep reach into major state industries and responsible for a catalogue of human rights abuses.

Indeed, that the military cannot afford to properly pay its own 350,000 troops despite receiving almost a quarter of the national budget leaves many analysts aghast. By contrast, healthcare for Burma’s population of 60 million received just 1.3 per cent last year.

“The biggest single economic problem in Burma extends from the fiscal burden of its armed forces,” Sean Turnell, economist and Burma specialist at Australia’s Macquarie University, told The Irrawaddy. “This distorts government budgetary policy, monetary policy, exchange rate policy, trade policy… and just about everything else.”

Yet it is not just vital sectors—education, health, transportation and so on—which suffer as a consequence. Civilians in “frontline” areas where ethnic rebel armies have been active for half-a-century are those that feel the military’s pinch most acutely. And a principle cause of this is the “self-sufficiency” protocol which allows the arbitrary taxation of civilians.

“But because this [armed forces] burden is unsustainable in the orthodox fiscal sense, it directly leads to the problems of ‘direct extraction.’ Accordingly, [this is] an issue for urgent attention and solution. Solve this problem by slimming down the military apparatus, and bring with it economic dividends of profound importance. So much else is mere tinkering around the edges compared to this,” adds Turnell.

A 1997 order made each battalion of the Tatmadaw responsible for sourcing its own food. Each regional commander is given a great deal of independence regarding finances with frontline troops forced to sustain themselves—the lowest-ranking soldiers traditionally earn just US $10 per month.

Living Silence: Burma under Military Rule by Christina Fink, published in 2001, includes interviews with low-ranking troops who are explicitly instructed to engage in graft for survival.

“The officers told us to get along with the villagers. But we had nothing to eat. And so we ate the vegetables that the villagers had planted. We didn’t have the money to buy and eat them. So if they didn’t give them to us, we would go and steal them at night,” she quotes a Burmese soldier who served in Shan and Karen states.

Naturally, a hand in the lucrative drugs trade has become a necessary means for military battalions to survive in ethnic minority border regions where rebel armies have long used narcotic production as a means of survival.

What’s more, poppy growth was more prevalent in Tatmadaw-controlled areas of Shan State than those held by rebel groups, according to issue four of Shan Drugs Watch, published by the Shan Herald Agency for News in October 2011.

Elaine Pearson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told The Irrawaddy that basic accountability is needed to know exactly how much each unit is receiving and what soldiers are being paid.

“I think the self-sufficiency policy has definitely exacerbated abuses by the Burmese army like forced labor and looting of villages, though it’s not the only factor,” she said. “It’s certainly high time that the military addresses it. Part of the problem is the complete opaqueness over the military budget.”

So could greater links with the US military help reform the Burmese armed forces? Timothy Heinemann, a retired US Special Forces Colonel and founder of Worldwide Impact Now, a non-governmental organization that works with conflict-affected ethnic minority communities in Burma, is not optimistic.

“The conversation [of US military engagement] must be about balanced professionalization and empowerment of all ethnic groups within a federal union. This needs to be done at national and state levels or the place will be a mess,” he recently told Asia Times.

“Development of the military is just one small point of really developing a nation. It’s got to be tied in with a good plan on developing governance systems, security systems such as the police force and economic systems to really get a country on the right path.”

Therefore, a lot of progress—mostly reforms currently obstructed by the generals—is required before the United States should teach the Tatmadaw more efficient methods of combat. Anyone in doubt about the military’s supremacy in all things can look at the escalating conflict in Kachin State—the same fighting Thein Sein ordered to cease in December 2011.

Yet despite this wanton disregard for presidential decrees, “top-down” reform in the armed forces is already underway. In the fiscal year 2012-2013, the government aims to reduce the military’s funding to 14.5 percent of total expenditures, from 23.5 percent currently, notwithstanding an undisclosed defense fund, Finance Minister Hla Tun announced on Jan. 31.

And the squeeze comes both ways with new measures introduced to combat the use of child soldiers, pitiful wages as well as arbitrary taxation. Steve Marshall, Rangoon liaison officer for the International labour Organization, told The Irrawaddy that military self-sufficiency can be a driver of forced labor but that the problem is being addressed.

“This [arbitrary taxation] has been recognized by the Myanmar government in the recently agreed action plan for the elimination of all forms of forced labor (Plan 4L) in which it has been agreed that the Ministry of Labor, Ministry of Defense and ILO will ‘develop procedures ensuring ongoing efficient operations which comply with both Myanmar Law and international obligations under Convention 29 with necessary implementation support.’ The target being that this process will be completed for ongoing application by March 1, 2013,” he said.

Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann said in February that boosting salaries will lead to a steady elimination of corrupt practices within state bodies. Civil servants in Burma are paid comparatively low wages and many turn to asking for small bribes, or “tea money,” to survive.

Soldiers who finish two years in Defense Service Technological Academy are directly promoted to lance corporal, corporal or sergeant with the basic annual minimum salary of 150,000 kyat ($169). Captains receive 150,000 kyat and majors receive 200,000 kyat ($225), according to Maukkha Educational Magazine quoting a military source.

In his address to Parliament on March 1 to mark the one year anniversary of taking office, Thein Sein outlined the government’s three-step approach to “eternal peace” in Burma. Firstly there must be dialogue with ethnic armed groups and ceasefires, followed by forming political parties and working towards “a single armed force.” The final step would be full participation in the political process within Parliament.

However, given that the government is seeking to reduce the budget allocation of the armed forces while increasing wages and outlawing arbitrary taxation, also integrating former rebels into a Tatmadaw that offers prosperity for troops and security for the public suddenly looks precarious.

Furthermore, engagement with the US military might just restore a perverse sense of legitimacy in the Burmese armed forces that the rest of the world is desperately trying to consign to the history books. And all this just as the top brass begins to feel the financial pinch that democracy brings.

With the ongoing conflict in Kachin State, tens of thousands of refugees still hiding from rebel clashes in border regions and Naypyidaw’s Parliament boasting a swathe of green uniforms, perhaps the US should concentrate on lulling the giant to sleep rather than tickling its belly and proposing war games.