The Burma Army’s Attempt at Unity

By Sithu Aung Myint 9 April 2014

After the Armed Forces Day parade on the morning of March 27, an unprecedented event took place at a military function hall in Naypyidaw. Later that afternoon, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and other top brass members of the military held a ceremony to honor retired army chiefs from the former regime.

The current servicemen paid respect to their predecessors—including former Gen. Tun Kyi, a 1988 military coup leader who was forced to retire from the military regime in 1997—in a ceremony which would have never taken place during the days of dictatorship.

Last month, the current commander-in-chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, visited military families in Kachin State. In the meeting room, one wall was adorned with portraits of famous army chiefs over the decades, from when the army was first formed until today. Burmese independence hero Gen. Aung San, the father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was pictured on top, higher than former dictators Gen. Ne Win and Snr-Gen Than Shwe, whose portraits were positioned side by side. The portrait of Min Aung Hlaing was on the bottom.

It is also interesting to note that during his speech at the Armed Forces Day parade, Min Aung Hlaing intentionally quoted speeches by Aung San, Ne Win and Than Shwe.

The Burma Army, it seems, is trying to portray a sense of unity, including with past leaders. This stands in contrast to the strategies of Ne Win, who attempted to wipe out Aung San’s legacy from history, or that of Than Shwe, who ostracized Ne Win after the dictator’s fall from grace.

In Burma, the army is not just a group of people in uniforms with guns. Its reach extends to military conglomerates, retired generals and their families who have amassed vast riches over the years, and the retired army officials now serving in government ministries. And as the country transitions to a new political system, it is possible we will see an army-dominant democracy with a market economy, but it is also possible the 2015 elections will lead to a pure civilian government, in contrast to the quasi-civilian government today.

As a result, army leaders are working hard now to protect not only the interests of their institution, but also the interests of army officials and their families who accumulated wealth by misusing their power under the former regime. Unity, it seems, has become a strategy to achieve this goal.

In some ways, the strategy appears to be working. As prime examples, look to Tun Kyi as well as the former spy chief, Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt. Both were rejected by the regime—punished with house arrest, detention and forced retirement after misusing their power—but they both continue to hail the army today, after being set free. Khin Nyunt was not invited to the ceremony honoring past generals on Armed Forces Day.

The highest administrative authority in Burma is the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), which makes decisions about military affairs in the country. But the NDSC may in the future be controlled by civilians. With this possibility, perhaps Burma will see the creation of a supreme council comprising former army generals, as in Thailand, where the army’s interests are largely independent from the democratic system.

Based on Min Aung Hlaing’s speech on Armed Forces Day and recent activities of the military community, it is clear that the Burma Army today is trying to reach out and ensure friendly relations with former senior members while also formulating a strategy that’s independent from any civilian government’s control.

Sithu Aung Myint is a Rangoon-based journalist who contributes commentaries on political, social and economic issues to local weeklies. This article first appeared on The Irrawaddy magazine’s Burmese language website.