The gloves are coming off in Myanmar, with the military pressing the government to call a top-level security meeting. But will the government respond?
At its latest press briefing, the Myanmar military asked the government when it intends to convene the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) to discuss the many security issues the country faces.
Major General Htun Htun Nyi asked, “Will you only call a meeting when we go to war?”
The officer added, “We have to call regular [NDSC] meetings” to analyze, discuss and evaluate the security situation and make decisions.
He said all parties must coordinate their work, adding that security is not based on the interests of one individual or an organization. “We have to look at the interests of the country,” Maj-General Htun Htun Nyi said.
Under the current government, which came to power in 2016, no formal NDSC meetings have been held, and relations between the government and the military are in a tailspin.
The NDSC is Myanmar’s most powerful body when it comes to decision-making on security issues or during emergencies. It includes the president, two vice presidents (one of whom is military-appointed), both parliamentary speakers, the commander-in-chief and deputy commander-in-chief, the minister of foreign affairs and the military-appointed defense, home affairs and border affairs ministers.
The secretary of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD)’s Central Information Unit said it is not yet time to call a security meeting. But if not now, when? Can the government handle security issue alone, without the military?
In 2016 and 2017 Myanmar saw security threats emerge from Muslim militants known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in northern Rakhine State.
The military’s clearance operations against the militants in August 2017 drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people to neighboring Bangladesh. Then, in 2019, the Arakan Army (AA) attacked police outposts in Rakhine State. Since then, northern Rakhine State has been mired in conflict.
In August, three ethnic armed groups who have been fighting in Myanmar’s northeast—the AA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA)—attacked a number of government and military targets. These included the Military’s Defense Services Technological Academy in Pyin Oo Lwin, Mandalay Region, as well as tollgates, anti-narcotics checkpoints and a police station in Naung Cho Township, Shan State. The three ethnic groups are known collectively as the Brotherhood Alliance.
The latest attacks were unprecedented, but the government’s reaction has been slow. The military immediately deployed troops, pushed back the rebels and regained control of the trade routes that were disrupted during the fighting, but has not yet launched an all-out offensive.
Last week, Western embassies in Myanmar issued security alerts after a classified security memo from the President’s Office to all Union-level organizations was leaked, warning of a possible attack in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw.
Some of the more established ethnic rebel groups that have reached ceasefire agreements with the government dismissed the security warning and the reported threat of attack, but there is a lack of clarity on how the government would handle the situation should a serious threat emerge.
Under former President U Thein Sein’s government, the NDSC met regularly to discuss the security issues facing the country.
Lack of coordination
Since the current government came to power, there have been no formal NDSC meetings, though a few high-level security meetings have been held to discuss issues in Rakhine State. In September 2017, a meeting of officials that included the members of the NDSC was held in Naypyitaw to discuss the situation in Rakhine State.
In January 2019, President U Win Myint led a high-level coordination meeting on national security and current international relations following the AA’s attacks on four police outposts in Rakhine State’s Buthidaung Township. The Jan. 4 raids left 14 police officers dead.
All 11 members of the NDSC were present, together with the ministers of the Office of the State Counselor; the Office of the Union Government; investment and foreign economic relations; and international cooperation, according to the President’s Office.
The government avoided describing the gathering as an official NDSC meeting due to the presence of the additional Union ministers from new ministries formed under the NLD, as well as the chairman of the Peace Commission and the chief of Military Security Affairs.
But security analysts are frustrated by the lack of decision-making at the meetings, which they blame on a lack of chemistry between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (who attends in her capacity as foreign minister) and Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The analysts point to a lack of orders being issued and measures implemented to prevent future attacks.
Myanmar is facing growing internal and external security threats, as the country’s ethnic rebels grow stronger, with a demonstrated ability to strike at key economic infrastructure and in major cities. Moreover, since 2014, foreign terrorists have staged attacks against Myanmar embassies around the region. Warnings of possible terrorist attacks inside Myanmar have been issued. There is no doubt that ARSA has connections with foreign extremist groups, despite its blanket denials.
Some observers say the decision not to call the NDSC meeting is political. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as foreign minister, can attend the meetings, but the president holds the most decision-making authority, while in terms of numbers, the military accounts for a majority of the committee’s membership.
It is believed that de facto national leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi holds her own security meetings comprising key cabinet members including the defense, home affairs and border affairs ministers, along with the police chief, but without the powerful commander and deputy commander of the armed forces.
This nine-member committee, known as the Security, Tranquility and Rule of Law Committee, was established under the government’s executive order in April 2016, and is currently led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also minister for the President’s Office.
It comprises the ministers for the Presidents’ Office; home affairs; defense; border affairs; and social welfare, relief and resettlement; as well as the attorney-general and police chief, and two other government permanent secretaries. According to an earlier assessment, this committee’s purview covers a range of security issues in Myanmar, but the top military leaders do not regularly sit in on its meetings.
On Sept. 20, Myanmar’s military and the former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) jointly proposed giving broader powers to the military-dominated NDSC, including the power to call for the dissolution of Parliament.
The 145 military-appointed parliamentarians and USDP parliamentarians jointly submitted a constitutional amendment bill to the Union Parliament.
The bill states that the 11-member NDSC, in which the military holds a majority of six, could suggest the president dissolve Parliament if checks and balances between the legislative and executive deteriorate, or if one-third of parliamentary seats become vacant in either house.
The military parliamentarians’ 25 percent share of Parliament, combined with the seats held by the military-proxy USDP and their allied parties, give the generals control of more than one-third of parliamentary seats.
The proposed amendments would require NDSC meetings once every other month, and require an emergency meeting if five members request one.
Analysts pointed out that the proposed bill clearly shows the state of the military’s current thinking, as Myanmar’s internal and external security threats mount.
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