Guest Column

Myanmar’s Military Knows Only the Language of Force

By Ye Myo Hein 26 January 2022

In 1996, the National League for Democracy (NLD), the major opposition party to Myanmar’s then junta, circulated a book to its party members. The book was a translation of William Ury’s Getting Past No: Negotiating (in) Difficult Situation(s) by the NLD’s leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The Lady, who her supporters endearingly called Myanmar’s charismatic leader, gave the book a different title in Burmese to William Ury’s original title. No doubt, she intended people to understand that the hard to negotiate people were the generals of the Myanmar military whom she had failed to bring to the negotiation table. In the book’s introduction Suu Kyi wrote, “I firmly believed that our country and our National League for Democracy party could only overcome the current crisis through negotiation”.

The recalcitrant generals thought otherwise. Successive generals of the military have always presumed that negotiation comes from a position of weakness, and that compromise is about losing. Thus, as self-proclaimed strong men, the generals have never indulged in negotiation and even a small trade-off is intolerable for them. Historical evidence clearly shows that negotiation has never been in the DNA of the top echelon of the Myanmar military, which is deeply fixated on political zero-sum thinking.

When the military first staged an official coup, in 1962, it put forward the pretext that political negotiations will lead to national disintegration. In mid-February 1962, to negotiate a political solution to the growing ethnic crisis in the country, then Prime Minister U Nu convened a “federal conference” in which leaders of ethnic nationalities took part and discussed their proposals for the future federal arrangement. The crude generals were not fully cognizant of the subtle nature of political negotiations, and they subsequently staged a coup with the claim that “federal negotiation would lead to the break-up of the Union”. But contrary to the military’s claims, as U Nu wrote in his autobiography “Saturday’s Son”, the conference was held to negotiate “the constitutional reforms that would strengthen and solidify the Union”. However, the generals found no value in a negotiated resolution of the political crisis, and they used force to close off a rare opportunity for resolving the country’s chronic problems via peaceful means.

In 1963, a year after the coup, the then junta held a peace parley with various rebel groups as the generals were whimsically confident that they could convince the rebel groups to succumb to their rule. But, unsurprisingly, the 1963 peace talks broke down as the ruling military rigidly “demanded surrender, offering nothing more than rehabilitation”. Nai Shwe Kyin, who took part in the negotiation as a leader of the Mon armed group, thus claimed that “the negotiations failed because the Tatmadaw (military) only wanted us to surrender”. Most rebel leaders believed that the military did not want to engage in genuine negotiations. Among them, Thakin Than Tun, leader of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), disparaged the military’s unscrupulous intentions regarding the negotiations as “selling dog meat, while hanging a goat head”.

Again, in the early 1980s, the government, led by military dictator Ne Win and retired generals, initiated peace talks with the two strongest rebel groups, the Kachin Independence Army and the CPB, after announcing an amnesty for all insurgents. But, as expected, these negotiations also collapsed, and again the generals demanded surrender in exchange for rehabilitation. Bertil Lintner, a longtime Myanmar watcher, wrote about the reasons for the failed peace talks in his seminal book “Burma in Revolt”, arguing that the Ne Win government did not offer anything more than rehabilitation for the rebels without even considering any political concessions. The generals had no inkling of concessions and compromises in political negotiations, and they want their counterparts to surrender and play to their game plan. The most generous concession in their minds was to offer business opportunities and material incentives to the opposition. Therefore, those who accepted the military’s offer became armed bands engaged in illicit trade and businesses.

After the 1988 coup, this modus operandi remained unchanged. Despite repeated calls for political dialogue by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the democratic movement, the generals always bitterly rejected negotiations with the opposition. They also did not hesitate to respond to those peaceful appeals for negotiations with brutal repression, arbitrary arrests and lengthy prison sentences. While relentlessly suppressing the democratic movement in the heartland of Myanmar, the military regime agreed to ceasefires with numerous ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in the 1990s. However, the deals did not arise from genuine political negotiations, and included no political agreements. The junta officially declared that, “since the Tatmadaw is not a political organization, it did not hold negotiations with the insurgents by political means”. The ceasefires were thus merely military truces which the junta utilized to contain the EAOs under its rule with incentives for territorial control and business opportunities.

In mainstream politics, despite pressing calls for political dialogue from the international community and local opposition, the junta obstinately undertook its own roadmap by promulgating the controversial 2008 constitution and holding a sham election in 2010. In 2012, when the NLD decided to play by the rules of the 2008 constitution, growing optimism for a political pact was resurrected. Most, including prominent scholars, predicted the inevitable prospect of a political pact between the former general President Thein Sein and the military’s long-running political nemesis, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

With the dissolution of outright military rule, they naively thought the generals became automatically enlightened to strike compromises with the democratic opposition, exuberantly praising a batch of former generals as “the reformists” or “the democrats”. In fact, no genuine negotiations occurred, and the generals intended to subsume the opposition into their game. What Ye Hut, former information minister of the Thein Sein government, wrote in his book clearly reflected the intentions of the generals. When some hardline ex-generals strongly objected to Thein Sein’s decision to bring Suu Kyi into parliamentary politics by saying that “it will give life to a dead tiger”, Thura Shwe Mann, former general and Lower House speaker, responded “don’t worry about giving life to a dead tiger. Tigers are controlled with the whip in a circus. I can control her”. Nonetheless, the military had no compunction about dismantling the political setting it created when it failed to control her.


Likewise, although the Thein Sein government agreed to ceasefires with several EAOs after 2011, political negotiations have rarely progressed. No doubt the military was one of the major impediments to achieving the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), and its bitter rejection of three Northern Alliance groups – the Arakan Army (AA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – to sign the NCA led to an incomplete nationwide ceasefire and the resurgence of intensified fighting. Also, in the political dialogue, according to the author’s experience, the military more openly hindered the negotiation process, and the five year-long talks eventually concluded without any concrete political settlement.

In hindsight, the military has always been averse to political negotiation, as the generals know only the language of force. For them, negotiation means that their counterparts surrender or play by their rules. In their minds, negotiations are also tools. There have been several incidents where negotiations were manipulated by the generals to drive wedges between its opposition. With this in mind, genuine negotiations cannot be expected from generals who do not hold any principles when approaching negotiations. Rebel leaders practically believed that negotiations with the generals could only be possible if their counterparts have a position of some strength. That was clearly evident in the recent ceasefire deal with the AA.

In 2020, when people suffered a double whammy of conflict and COVID-19 in Rakhine State, the military repeatedly declined to negotiate with the AA, labelling it a terrorist organization. Evasion of negotiation by designating opponents as terrorists or illegal organizations is nothing new in the history of the Myanmar military. Recently, the military spokesperson reiterated the same thing regarding the National Unity Government (NUG) and People’s Defense Forces, saying that there is no reason to negotiate with terrorists or illegal organizations. But, without delisting the AA as a terrorist organization, in late 2020, the military began negotiations with the AA for a ceasefire after coming under heavy military pressure in Rakhine State. Thus, Charles Dunst rightly wrote that “if the military somehow manages to weaken the resistance significantly, … it would have less reason to engage in talks. Instead, the necessary condition for talks that have any hope of success is a substantial – and clearly recognized – weakening of the military’s position.

Without considering these factors, expecting the obstinate generals to negotiate is pure fantasy. Repeated calls for negotiation by the international community fall on deaf ears in Naypyitaw. Within Myanmar, the NUG and many of the EAOs know this reality, it is primarily those in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the wider region who still hope for a negotiated solution. Ultimately, the only way to bring the generals to the negotiating table may be to force them to realize that they cannot win by military means. This means battlefield victories for the opposition and a firm demonstration of an ability to control and govern territory. Instead of unrealistically calling for negotiation, the world can play a more useful role here by weakening the military’s position and strengthening the democratic opposition. Experts in negotiation always advocate for separating people and organizations from the problem during talks. But in Myanmar the generals and military are precisely the problem.

Ye Myo Hein is the executive director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies and a fellow with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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