Maintaining Arms Embargo is Crucial to Peace Process

By Khu Oo Reh 26 January 2016

In 2016,the question of lifting the on-going arms embargo and related sanctions against the Tatmadaw, as the Burma Army is known, and its civilian cronies will be revisited by Western governments. The fact that the current embargo imposed by the European Union and that has existed since 1998 is set to expire on April 30th makes this inevitable. While in some ways this will be a continuation of a process of lifting political and economic sanctions by these foreign governments that began in 2011 with the transition to quasi-civilian rule and then intensified after the 2012 electoral gains of the National League for Democracy (NLD).

During the coming months, it can be expected that this process will enter a new phase with pressure from within Burma for the lifting of military-related sanctions. While senior Tatmadaw can be expected to seek this as a reward for their “good behavior,” it can also be expected that the new NLD government will also voice its support as a demonstration of its commitment to national reconciliation and the role of the military as a national institution.

It is difficult to see how any ethnic armed organization could retain any faith in foreign intermediaries—in what is already seen by many as a broken process—should they permit state-owned or private arms companies from their countries to do business with the Tatmadaw. This is because the lifting of these sanctions would undermine trust in the good faith of these governments in three key areas.

The first of these concerns the impact that this change in policy would have on the faith that ethnic armed organizations have in the commitment of foreign governments to promoting good governance and the rule of law in Burma.

Under the 2008 Constitution, the military will remain outside of the oversight and control of the incoming NLD led government, as will the administration and budgets of the ministries of Defense, Interior and Border Affairs. This independence will continue to be facilitated by the military’s control of an economic empire administered through the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, Ltd. and the Myanmar Economic Corporation, which also includes significant off-the-books income from the looting of natural resources such as timber, jade and precious stones in areas largely inhabited by non-Bamar ethnic minorities.

Additional income is also obtained through the confiscation of land, which continues to occur in places such as Karenni State as well as from Chinese companies that have been allowed to operate in Burma. One such example is the massive jade extraction in Kachin State’s Hpakant area. As the money to pay for weapons, equipment or military-related services would come from such sources, governments that allow state and private companies to do business with the Tatmadaw risk being viewed as its partner in crime and thereby taint their involvement in the current peace process.

This association can also extend to the second major issue of concern: on-going human rights abuses committed by the Tatmadaw against non-Bamar ethnic minorities in conflict-affected areas across the country.

The fact is that even after the transition to quasi-civilian rule and the beginning of the current peace process, the Tatmadaw has continued the practice of forced labor, as well as committing rape, torture and killing civilians. Such abuses have long been a feature of the military’s notorious scorched-earth “Four Cut” strategy. In addition, the Tatmadaw has also continued its practice of indiscriminately laying landmines and deliberately shelling civilian populations. In both Shan and Kachin states, the scale and intensity of these crimes have resulted in tens of thousands of civilians being displaced from their homes.

While it would be bad enough that a lifting of military-related sanctions would be seen as a tacit acceptance of these abuses, the third major issue of concern is that the Tatmadaw continues to violate ceasefire agreements and even refuses to engage some ethnic armed organizations in peace talks.

In the case of the Shan State Progressive Party, the political wing of the Shan State Army–North, this group has had more than 100 clashes with the government over the past three years. At the same time, it has been subjected to repeated demands that it withdraw from outposts, bases and towns that are under its control. It was the refusal of Shan State Army–North to withdraw from the outposts in Mong Hsu as well as the strategically located river port town of Tar San Pu in Kyethi Township, Shan State, which resulted in the Tatmadaw launching an attack that displaced about 10,000 civilians.

One doesn’t need to know much about Burma to understand that a willingness to do business with the Tatmadaw as it continues to violate ceasefire agreements and refuses to negotiate with some ethnic armed organizations would risk further emboldening it to use force against them, rather than seeking a genuine political settlement to the country’s protracted civil war.

Of course, the already weak response of the international community to these crimes and its failure to force Naypyidaw to abide either by its ceasefire agreements or obligations under international treaties—including the Geneva Conventions and Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict—has not gone unnoticed. Nor has the fact that the United States, the European Union and others have done little to dissuade or prevent countries receiving large amounts of aid from selling arms to the Tatmadaw. A recent example is their failure to stop Pakistan’s sale of JF-17 Thunder multirole fighters, which could be used not only against ethnic armed organizations but also civilian populations.

Lifting military-related sanctions would be a betrayal on a scale unseen since the United States and the United Kingdom abandoned the Karen and Kachin after World War II. For this reason, efforts by political parties, NGOs and civil society to maintain the arms embargo and other sanctions against the military must be sustained if the current peace process is to survive.

Khu Oo Reh is Vice Chairman of the Karenni National Progressive Party and General Secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council.