Guest Column

Troop Withdrawal Crucial for Peace in Myanmar

By Edith Mirante 2 August 2017

The Tatmadaw—Myanmar’s armed forces—should withdraw its bases from ethnic regions where its presence continues to be linked to human rights violations and resource grabbing. Troop withdrawal is not to be equated with political dialogue, or the lofty goal of federalism, or a new Panglong Agreement. It is simply a basic practicality: by removing occupying Tatmadaw troops, you remove the source of conflict.

As has been seen in northern Rakhine State—where security forces’ “clearance operations” in late 2016 included reported rape, murder and torture—when the Tatmadaw pursues military campaigns or economic venture in ethnic regions, the abuse of civilians inevitably occurs. The recent viral video of soldiers kicking and beating Ta’ang captives in Shan State in 2015 revealed one incident among a myriad of well-documented and severe human rights violations by the military. When these troops systematically treat ethnic people as subhuman, they prove they are capable of making any conflict worse.

The Tatmadaw, which retains significant political power in Myanmar’s partially elected government, has long had economic incentives to entrench itself in resource-rich ethnic areas, from the extraction of jade and timber to the construction of petroleum pipelines. Long-running conflict in those regions has been used to justify the military’s bloated numbers, creating the perceived need for more than 300,000 troops and a US$2.1 billion budget, as of the 2017-2018 fiscal year.

Yet the Tatmadaw’s Commander-in-Chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, in a speech opening the 21st Century Panglong Conference in August 2016, lectured ethnic representatives that “clinging to armed struggle” was “contrary to democracy.”

It is time that the senior general apply this same logic to the state’s own vast military machine. Likewise, his counterparts in the civilian government should not shy away from advocating for troop withdrawal. While political and economic solutions to Myanmar’s conflict have been the worthy focus of negotiations, the practical step of Tatmadaw troop withdrawal must be brought to the forefront as a crucial demand by ethnic armed groups and civil society organizations.

An Occupation

It seems counterproductive for State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to preside over 21st Century Panglong conferences when such peace negotiations have no chance of success as long as Tatmadaw presence continues in areas in which it is unwelcome.

As was seen in 2011 with the breakdown of the 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Tatmadaw, lasting peace cannot result from agreements that leave occupying bases in place and with the potential to expand their reach.

Therefore, it is especially urgent that the Tatmadaw withdraw its forward bases from Kachin State. The ongoing war in the region has driven more than 100,000 civilians from their homes, and thousands of Tatmadaw soldiers have reportedly died. It is arguably the Myanmar government’s own version of the Vietnam War, in which air power and invasion cannot overcome guerrilla fighters on their own terrain.

The American farmer and poet Wendell Berry once wrote, “people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love.” The KIO struggle is a war of defense, while the Tatmadaw is fighting a war of occupation.

The KIO has shown that it is able to provide social services in its territory; even under wartime conditions, health care, education and a civil court system are maintained, and the KIO’s small-to-medium scale hydropower projects have provided electricity to the Kachin capital of Myitkyina. The KIO has secured and administered its own border with China for decades with considerable diplomacy, and has demonstrated itself to be responsive to input from civil society.

With this in mind, self-governance can be considered viable for the Kachin people. After all, to the east of Kachin State, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) is allocated an autonomous region without notable interference or military occupation by Myanmar’s government.

Aggressively Forward Posture

In southeast Myanmar, the Karen National Union (KNU) is observing a ceasefire but Tatmadaw bases have remained in place. In “Ceasefires, Governance, and Development: The Karen National Union in Times of Change,” a December 2016 report for The Asia Foundation, writer Kim Joliffe observed: “While the Tatmadaw has retreated from governance, it has retained an aggressively forward posture and has strengthened its facilities and infrastructure significantly.”

Karens representing civil society and the KNU have recently insisted on Tatmadaw troop withdrawal in order to guarantee the safe return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees.

An October 2016 Karen Human Rights Group report, “Ongoing Militarisation in Southeast Myanmar” quoted a village leader, Saw B.: “If the Tatmadaw stay near us, the villagers have to be afraid of them… Therefore, we want the international community to help us and advocate for us so that the Tatmadaw’s camp will be withdrawn.”

IDPs at Ei Tu Hta settlement in Papun District of Karen State protested military occupation in May. An IDP, Naw Hsa Gay, stated, “I fled from home because of their abuses and I dare not go back. I want Burma Army troops to move out completely from our areas and burn their bases. Only then, will we dare to return.”

Former Vice Chairperson of the KNU Padoh Naw Zipporah Sein told The Irrawaddy in April, “My biggest concern is the Burma Army. It should withdraw its troops from the KNU territories, especially areas near civilians’ homes.”

Troop withdrawal, she pointed out, is something that she had advocated for since 2012, and which they believed would be carried out after the KNU signed the 2015 nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). More than a year later, she commented, “no one mentions it.”

Demands for Tatmadaw troop withdrawal from other ethnic areas are increasing. In Karenni State, a June statement by the Karenni Civil Society Network made clear their “calls to the Burmese government to start withdrawing Burma Army troops from Karenni State and close down the No.14 military training centre in order to build trust in the peace process.”

Few of the Myanmar armed forces’ current bases in ethnic regions are located on international borders; most are in areas endowed with minerals, timber, plantation land, or petroleum transport routes. Tatmadaw troops are positioned there to assert control of those resources, which often involves committing violence against local people. The stationing of Tatmadaw troops in ethnic regions is expensive, exploitive and has caused immense harm to generations of civilians. If Myanmar is to progress toward a peaceful and just society, this military occupation must end.

Edith Mirante is founder of Project Maje (distributing information on Burma since 1986) and author of “The Wind in the Bamboo: Journeys in Search of Asia’s ‘Negrito’ Indigenous Peoples.”