A Turning Point for Burma's Fighting Forces
By Htet Aung Kyaw 26 March 2013
Tomorrow is the 68th anniversary of Burma’s “Anti-Fascist Revolution Day,” which marks the beginning of the uprising against Japan’s WWII occupation of the country on March 27, 1945. Since the 1970s, however, it has been commemorated as Tatmadaw Day, in honor of Burma’s armed forces.
Although the role of the armed forces in Burma’s colonial and post-independence history has been controversial, this year’s Tatmadaw Day may be an occasion for change. When Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Vice Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing delivers his speech tomorrow, he may have a different message.
Traditionally, Tatmadaw Day has been an occasion for the commander-in-chief to call on his troops to defend the country against rebel armies and Western neocolonialism. This year, however, there is not much fighting on the ethnic rebel front (with the very notable exception of the conflict with the Kachin Independence Army), and the countries of the West (especially the US and Australia) have begun to renew ties with Burma’s long-shunned military.
During his recent trips to Europe and Australia, President Thein Sein was accompanied by Deputy Commander-in-Chief Gen Soe Win and Joint Chief of Command Gen Hla Htay Win. This fact alone speaks volumes for the dramatic change in the West’s image of Burma’s armed forces since Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government came to power two years ago, ending nearly five decades of direct military rule. Not so long ago, all three men would have been banned from entering most Western countries.
Especially since opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy joined the army-backed Parliament after winning in by-elections last April 1, perceptions of Burma’s military have fundamentally changed. Even Suu Kyi—who spent much of the preceding two decades a prisoner of the former junta—has recently spoken of her “fondness” for the Burmese armed forces, which were founded by her father during Burma’s struggle for independence.
What is even more remarkable, however, if the way that many of Burma’s ethnic armed groups have responded to the government’s calls for ceasefires, even as the situation on the ground in many ethnic areas remains far from stable. While there are still many who doubt that a lasting peace will take hold anytime soon, just two years ago it would have been almost unthinkable that the Karen National Union—which has been engaged in an uninterrupted war with the government for as long as Burma has been a modern nation—would ever agree to a truce.
In other words, this Tatmadaw Day could conceivably be the last that Burma’s armed forces—and all the other militias in the country—are forced to fight each other in a seemingly endless civil war. If that is the case, then all of the fighting forces in Burma need to rethink their roles and plan for a future in which war in no longer the norm.
On the occasion of this year’s Armed Forces Day, then, I offer the following suggestions:
1. All armed groups, including the Tatmadaw, should undergo sweeping reforms that include training their troops to be professional soldiers whose orders ultimately come from the country’s elected civilian government.
2. All armed forces should devote a significant portion of their budgets to caring for comrades wounded in action and the families of those who fell while fighting.
3. All armed forces should build monuments to honor those who fought honorably.
4. The government, Parliament and people of Burma should recognize the sacrifices of all those who died in action, regardless of which side they were on.
It is impossible to calculate how many soldiers have died in Burma over the past 65 years, but we can get some sense of the incredible waste of human life if we consider the fact that the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, one of the smallest armed groups in the country, has lost 1,024 troops since it was formed in the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. Imagine, then, how many others must have died as casualties of all the armed groups that have fought in Burma since it became an independent nation.
National reconciliation will only be possible when all sides in Burma’s myriad conflicts can begin to recognize that they are not the only victims of the senseless cycle of violence that has dragged the country down for more than half a century.
Htet Aung Kyaw is a former student activist who fled to Burma’s ethnic rebel-controlled areas in 1988. He is now a freelance journalist and writer in exile.