Guest Column

Myanmar Caught in Her Own Trap

By Mon Mon Myat 19 September 2018

The UN’s Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar recently called the country’s military, or Tatmadaw, “the main perpetrator of serious human rights violations and crimes under international law in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states.”

The FFM designed its Infographic with the image of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing as one of the six top Tatmadaw commanders responsible for the crimes. “Naming the highest levels of command, the Mission seeks to underscore their responsibility for crimes committed,” the mission said in its report.

The infographic calls the Tatmadaw’s alleged rights violations war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as head of government, and the civilian authorities are also condemned in the report for denying the Tatmadaw’s “wrongdoing.”

The report highlights the specific articles of the Constitution and other domestic laws that “enshrine impunity for human rights violations” committed by the perpetrators and former military regime. The FFM covers gross human rights violations and serious breaches of international humanitarian law committed in Myanmar since 2011 and urges the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.

Shwe Mann, a former general and speaker of Parliament, has previously confessed that the 2008 Constitution was drafted to protect military leaders who ruled the country under dictatorship.

“Because they believed that it was an essential tool to securely hand over power in the transitional period,” Shwe Mann said in a televised talk with the Democratic Voice of Burma.

Going through articles in the Constitution that favor the military, the FFM report says “impunity is deeply entrenched in Myanmar’s political and legal system, effectively placing the Tatmadaw above the law. The Constitution and other laws provide for immunities and place the Tatmadaw beyond civilian oversight.”

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been campaigning to amend the Constitution since 2014, often urging the military to consider whether it is fair that it should have such privileges. “If the Tatmadaw obtains special authority because of its armed force, how could that be dignified? Think about it,” she has said.

The state counselor has been trying to convince the military to back the amendments — which can only happen with its consent — without success to date. She again highlighted the importance of amending the Constitution to Myanmar’s democratic transition during a recent lecture in Singapore.

Though the odds remain against her, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, drawing on her personal connection to the military as an institution (her father, General Aung San, is the country’s preeminent independence hero), has always tried to reconcile with the Tatmadaw peacefully. “I do feel a kinship to the soldiers because my father is a founding father of the Tatmadaw. Not only because of my personal connection, I would like the Tatmadaw to get along with people for the sake of the nation,” she said while campaigning in 2014.

“The Tatmadaw and people must trust each other, respect each other and love each other in order for the nation to be peaceful and secure. Without that relationship, the country will never be stable and secure,” she said.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is fully aware that the mentality of the Tatmadaw is completely different from what it was in her father’s day. She has often criticized the military, comparing it with its former self. “The Tatmadaw was founded to serve people, but it becomes opposite nowadays,” she has said.

In the 1950s, “war fighters became state builders,” observed Cornell University scholar Mary Callahan. In her 2003 book “Making Enemies,” she wrote that “the military solution to internal crises crowded out other potential state reformers, turning officers into state builders and military-as-institution into military-as-state itself.”

Changing the mentality of the Tatmadaw, which has taken root over more than half a century, is not an overnight job. Sending the military back to the barracks is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s greatest challenge, as the Constitution gives the defense services “the right to independently administer and adjudicate all affairs of the armed forces.”

The FFM recommends immediate action for “significant security sector reform” and draws attention to constitutional reform as well, including abolishing the military’s 25-percent quota of parliamentary seats and its control of key ministries and placing the sector under full civilian control.

And while fully aware that the Tatmadaw is not under civilian control, the FFM blames Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for remaining silent on the plight of the Rohingya and the military’s alleged abuses.

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has said that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should have resigned as Myanmar’s de facto leader over the military’s alleged mass killing of Rohingya Muslims or risked a return to house arrest rather than being a “spokesperson of the Burmese military.” But he should know that the country took 30 years to reach the so-called-democratic transition it is now embarked on. His remark about the state counselor, who abandoned her family for Myanmar and spent 15 years under house arrest, is ruthless and shows no respect for Myanmar’s voters.

Remaining silent on the plight of the Rohingya has been regarded as an act of political suicide by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi among those who envisioned her as a democracy and human rights icon. She has chosen to commit political suicide as an icon to the outside world perhaps because she believes that remaining silent is crucial to seeing through her strategy of reconciliation with the military.

The FFM calls it an “omission.”

“The state counselor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has not used her de facto position as head of government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events, or seek alternative avenues to meet the government’s responsibility to protect the civilian population or even to reveal and condemn what was happening,” its report says.

The UN mission also accuses Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the civilian administration of spreading false and hateful narratives, denying the Tatmadaw’s wrongdoing, blocking independent investigations — including the FFM’s — and overseeing the bulldozing of burned Rohingya villages and the destruction of crime sites and evidence.

“As such, through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have tacitly accepted and approved the Tatmadaw’s brutal, criminal and grossly disproportionate actions,” it says.

The latest international tensions bring to mind the time when the West strongly condemned the Tatmadaw for brutally killing hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters in 1988. The difference now is that Myanmar is not under military rule, but under the dual leadership of the elected National League for Democracy and the military. International recommendations to take action against the military might create a nightmare for the former military generals, including former Senior General Than Shwe.

“Unless the Myanmar military and other security forces are held accountable for past, current and future crimes, violence and associated atrocity crimes will happen again,” the FFM says.

The FFM has given a full list of recommendations to both the civilian government and the military. The burning question is how much space they have to maneuver, and how open the Tatmadaw is to security sector and constitutional reform. The Tatmadaw is now caught in its own constitutional trap.

Returning to the Dark Age is not always the answer. The Washington Post’s slogan says “democracy dies in darkness.” Authoritarianism in Myanmar may be dying, but its undemocratic Constitution lives on.

Mon Mon Myat is a freelance journalist and a graduate student in the PhD program in peace building at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.