In EU Meeting, Min Aung Hlaing Defends Army’s Political Role

By The Irrawaddy 10 November 2016

It was his first official visit to EU as he was invited to take part in European Union Military Committee (EUMC) meeting. The EU and the Western world think providing Burmese army leaders with exposure to the West, where they can learn about the role and practices of professional armed forces, can have a positive influence. But either to impress some or to disappoint many, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing sticks to his guns.

In his discussion paper, the commander in chief spoke about the role of the Burmese army in politics. He also spoke about the controversial 2008 Constitution in which the army has a 25 per cent stake in Parliament, but he did not forget to mention the ethnic insurgency and some aspects of Burma’s colonial past.

The senior general, who was the first top Burmese military leader to visit the EU in decades, defended the 2008 Constitution, which allows for the participation of defense services in national politics. He praised the Constitution for restricting, in a state of emergency, the military from remaining in power too long, and requiring them to act in accordance with the President’s approval.

He mentioned the British occupation of the past and Burma’s annexation to India under British rule and how migrants, including people from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), were brought into Burma.

The senior general, who recently ordered troops to quell the militant attacks in restive Arakan State along the Bangladesh border, frankly stated that “people from Bengal”—a term also used to described self-identifying Rohingya in the region—were “not included” among Burma’s ethnic minorities.

Min Aung Hlaing, a Buddhist, also noted in his remarks that 87 per cent of Burma’s population are Theravada Buddhists, 6 percent are Christians and 4 percent are Muslim—figures which correspond with the results of the country’s 2014 census. He also said that 85 percent of the population in Burma are ethnic Burmans—an inflated number compared to other demographic estimates of 60 to 70 percent—any other figure, he added, was due to a “misunderstanding” that can be traced back to colonial rule. In his official line, he strictly followed his predecessors.

He also touched on the long running ethnic conflict in Burma, which he refrained from calling a civil war. Instead he carefully used terms like “armed conflict,” saying “we were not fighting against ethnic communities, but those who were holding arms.”

Even though he mentioned the ethnic insurgency and the once formidable threat of Burmese communists in the past, he did not mention the 1988 nationwide democracy uprising and the role of the army in a violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, which subsequently led Burma to be confronted with US and EU sanctions. What he did say was that due to “various circumstances,” the once good relations between the EU and Burma went “cold.”

After the military’s violent crackdown in 1988, it is known that the Burmese armed forces continued to buy weapons from Western nations through the black market, but it was China—and Russia, on a moderate level—that became a main source of arms supplies and hardware support. Subsequently, Burma also turned to some Eastern European countries for weaponry. Since Burma’s shift to a quasi-civilian government in 2011, the EU has lifted all sanctions but maintained its arms embargo.

A 2012 report indicated that Burma had used Swedish-made arms, including M-3 Carl Gustav anti-tank weapons, against ethnic Kachin troops in northern Burma. Sweden also imposed an arms embargo on Burma. Soon after the news reached the international media, an investigation was launched in Sweden and weapons used in the attacks on Kachin insurgents were found to be part of a larger shipment of arms sold to the Indian government in 2003.

Min Aung Hlaing did not mention State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in his remarks, but did speak of ex-President Thein Sein, the former general who led the nominally civilian government from 2011 until 2016.

The army chief also praised Burma’s armed forces for assisting with and implementing the 2015 election so that it could be considered free and fair, and for helping to create a smooth administrative transition with full cooperation.

One of the senior general’s favorite and repeated topics of discussion has long been the building of a “Standard Army,” for which he has asked for non-lethal assistance from the EU.

The US, after lifting all remaining sanctions in October, is also said to be eager to improve military to military engagement with the Burmese armed forces. It is likely that we will see more exchange in the near future, which will boost the image and legitimacy of the armed forces once considered to be a pariah.

During a recent visit to the UK and US, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi mentioned the role of a professional army being selfless in defending and protecting a country’s citizens. As early as 2013, she also gave her endorsement for Burmese military officers to receive trainings and education in the UK unrelated to battlefield military training. Officers from the British Defense Academy were involved in the training and the courses focused on human rights, humanitarian law and accountability.

After winning Burma’s historic election in 2015, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and top party members of the National League for Democracy entered into delicate negotiations with Min Aung Hlaing regarding the transfer of power. Now, there is an elected civilian government in office, though the military remains a powerful force in Burmese politics and national affairs.

Burma’s armed forces have a poor record on human rights and credible reports have documented crimes committed by the Tatmadaw’s troops in ethnic regions and on front lines.

Until recently, the Ministry of Defense controlled Burma’s two largest industrial conglomerates: the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (UMEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). These companies were, until October, under US sanctions and continue to dominate many of the country’s key economic sectors including jade mining, gems, tourism, imports, real estate, exportation of foodstuffs, automobiles, banking, transportation and large-scale construction. Burma’s richest tycoons and cronies have strong connections to the generals who are considered to be the wealthiest and richest individuals in Burma. Still, if not directly, the army controls and influences the cronies who continue live in fear of being too close to democratic forces and opposition.

It is also interesting to note that Min Aung Hlaing stuck to the term “Standard Army” in his speech, as he no doubt knows the meaning of the more commonly used “professional army.” But his goal is to remain loyal to the 2008 Constitution, which allows the armed forces to play a key role in politics. Moreover, the army will not cease to be a key player in Burma’s economic affairs.

But he pledged to protect democracy in his remarks to his European counterparts. He vaguely said that when there is a sound guarantee to the nation and its citizens, the role of the armed forces would be re-evaluated. But what was not said was whether the military, as an institution, would ever withdraw from Burma’s political scene.