Burma Army Chief’s Fixation on Ethnic Disarmament Hinders Peace Process
By Lawi Weng 8 March 2016
As armed conflict intensifies amidst both an ongoing peace process and a democratic transition, the time has come for the Burma Army to change its mindset if it truly wishes to build peace with the country’s many ethnic groups.
Fighting broke out in one Kachin State location in June 2011, between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Organization. Five years later, at the end of outgoing President Thein Sein’s term, armed conflict with government forces has spread to ethnic Palaung (Ta’ang), Shan, Arakan, Karen and Kokang areas.
Governmental power will soon be transferred to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), the winner of November’s general elections. Many ethnic armed groups wish to seek peace under her leadership, but they dare not offer full trust to the Burmese government as long as there are military men who continue to attack them on their land. The Burma Army will remain an important political player, but one that has repeatedly shown itself to be an obstacle to peace and democracy in the country.
Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Burma Army, has spoken of professionalizing the military in line with Burma’s political reforms, which were initiated in 2011. He has reminded the military to treat civilians more humanely, to end the recruitment of child soldiers and the reliance on forced labor.
But one thing that has not appeared to have changed is Min Aung Hlaing’s insistence that ethnic armed groups operate under his command. This has hurt Burma’s peace process and contributed to intensified fighting in northern Shan State, where government offensives encourage ethnic armed groups to build up troop numbers, vowing not to disarm under the current conditions. Large numbers of internally displaced civilians in Kachin and Shan states is a reminder that reforms have not impacted these areas.
There is no guarantee that Min Aung Hlaing’s views on disarmament will evolve with a new NLD-led government. The Burma Army’s hope is that the ethnic armed groups will one day act as militias which defend government interests in their respective regions. For those who refuse to participate, the Burma Army will likely deploy more troops to their areas, surrounding and isolating the groups in order to pressure them to give up their struggle.
Most ethnic armed leaders do not speak of disarmament as an option; they believe they may need to fight again. They feel that their armies exist to protect their people and their regions, and to provide them with a power platform in the country. If they cease to be armed, the groups worry that the government may no longer listen to them.
These groups are aware of Min Aung Hlaing’s intentions, and they continue to reinforce troops to defend against the Burma Army, even amidst the ongoing peace process. While ethnic armed groups feel that they need to pursue peace, if left with no other choice, they will continue to use force to fight for their goals.
Lawi Weng is a senior reporter for The Irrawaddy.