Misunderstanding Myanmar's militaryBy Tim Heinemann
This article is written in response to Time to engage Myanmar's military by Adam P MacDonald, published on this site on February 4.
It is troubling to recently hear of international assertions that the sovereign panacea for what ails Myanmar is the mere "professionalization of the Tatmadaw" - ie, the military. This is profoundly off the mark in grasping what Burman-dominated armed forces both have been and still remain: either a brutally armed enterprise or a profit-making military machine.
"Educating leadership out of its dark old ways" reflects the same naivete that the world has witnessed in failed international interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Internationals, seeing themselves coming to the rescue in Myanmar, are on the same track again.
In order to reach viable solutions for this country with its rich geo-strategic, human and natural resource potential, there are several critical realities to be faced concerning military reform or Security Sector Reform (SSR) as it is referred to in Myanmars case. The context for this understanding should be based on the realization that the Tatmadaw is the core of a massive repressive governance apparatus, whose old power brokers are still in power.
In simplest terms, Burman generals have provided the central direction and muscle in designing and wielding the Burman-dominated Army as the lead instrument of government in dominating ethnic minorities. This has been for the specific purpose of controlling ethnics ancestral lands rich in most of Myanmars natural resources, host to the majority of its hydro-power potential, and dominating most of its borders and international trade route access. In other words, the basis for Myanmars economy.
In this regard, this is an army and a corresponding government apparatus that have been specifically designed to exploit for profit
not to protect. The notion of "professionalization" of military leaders is hardly aligned with this reality.
As unpleasant as they may be for the international community already engaging in the region, there is no short-cut around facing certain immovable facts. This done, it might then be possible to arrive at viable solutions that respect the highly multi-ethnic nature of this promising nation state.
That said, the first mistake to be corrected comes from shifting away from the Burman versus Non-Burman Ethnics paradigm that promotes a Bad Guy against Good Guy construct no matter which side of the equation one favors. The main contest today in Myanmar concerns the governments acknowledgement of ethnic state rights as the only possible basis for a functioning federal union for enduring stability and prosperity.
First, the focus on the "military in politics" theme misses the mark from the outset as to what the major issue is in Myanmar today. The Tatmadaw, whose raison detre is the for-profit internal control of landed ethnic minorities, produces symptoms that are disconcerting: the rigging of the constitution in favor of the military, the immunity of Burmese generals from prosecution, the guarantee of military controls in parliament and in other governmental decision making - all predicated on the imperative to control ethnics lands at all costs.
Correctly stated, it is not "military in politics", but instead "military in profit-making" that merits international attention. This is because politics, governance and the rest are all tributary to those who control military and economic power. It will take much more than professionalization to address the entrenched mentality, methods and mechanisms of repression still at work today in Myanmar. Politics remain subordinate and tributary to profit.
Second, it should be appreciated that America and the international community involved in Southwest Asia for the past 13 years significantly erred by automatically favoring the establishment and empowerment of strong, but unproven centralized governments and national armed forces. This ignored the reality of the highly multi-ethnic and well-armed societies in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The subsequent failure to creatively engage state and local level governments and their security forces in a fair and balanced way that respected states rights as a counter-balance to central government dominance, is or at least should now be compelling as internationals contemplate constructive next steps in Myanmar.
Third, internationals presumption that the Tatmadaw constitutes the sole legitimate security service to be engaged, is conspicuously bereft of logic. The Tatmadaw, which still remains unveted and unaccountable for decades of crimes against humanity, war crimes and human rights violations, hardly meets the baseline credibility criteria as a nation state defense force. Its ongoing attacks against various ethnic groups after decades of the same, does little to elevate the Tatmadaw to a posture of credibility just yet.
The fact that it uses ceasefires and negotiations to strengthen its hold on ethnic lands, reinforces and hardens its forward bases, forward postures its attack helicopters, and conducts intelligence and reconnaissance operations to penetrate ethnic sanctuaries, are all indicators that further cast doubt as to its sincere interest in substantive reformation that in any way threatens its profiteering, and subsequent hold on power and politics.
The all-too-apparent tendency by the international community to tacitly favor the Tatmadaw, while concurrently relegating ethnic armed forces to the margins, reflects a collective poor grasp of reality and history. Non-Burman ethnics, as the original inhabitants of Burma, preceded Burmans by almost 2,000 years in some cases.
Many championed democratic principles and died for it going all the way back to World War II, when they sided with the United States and Great Britain. They further did most of the dying on the battlefield against Burmans totalitarian regimes throughout Burmas pro-democracy era in the protection of their ancestral lands and families. It is significant to note that no Burman general ever took such a stand.
To now automatically give deference the Tatmadaw without seriously and substantially engaging, empowering and developing state and local ethnic governments and their armed forces, does not credibly pass the fundamentals of real politick for multi-ethnic societies. This imbalance is dangerous to peace and progress.
The line of reasoning that the international community might better pursue is one of "inclusive security sector reform" and not "one-side professionalization of the Tatmadaw". Security sector reform (SSR) logically involves balanced participation by all military, intelligence and police services including Burmans and non-Burman ethnics alike.
It should be appreciated that ethnic armed forces have witnessed Tatmadaw oppression, and have seen Burmans get enormously wealthy and powerful off of this, yet Burman generals are somehow now elevated by the international community as "legitimate enough" for professionalization, because of Myanmar government assertions of "reform on the march".
This is perplexing, to say the least, for those who have held the line against Tatmadaw attacks against ethnic villages for decades, and who continue to defend against Burman generals insisting on controlling ethnics lands for profit. Transformation nor professionalization, is certainly in order here, as the aggression and profiteering continue.
The larger issue, however, that Burman and non-Burman ethnic generals are collectively squandering a phenomenal opportunity today based on a single fact: Myanmar has the best potential in all of Southeast Asia for broad-based prosperity. This is a circumstance not enjoyed by many other nations around the world which have not been so blessed by geography, climate and human diversity.
This is the potential tie that binds all sides today In Myanmar, and is precisely where the international community and America need to focus their constructive engagement. Much of it is about naturally evolving Myanmar out of its Dark Ages approach to "profit for a few", and instead exploring many options on how to optimize prosperity by which all might benefit.
Prosperity over profit
Internationals professionalization of the Tatmadaw alone will only likely ensure Burmans continued exploitation of well-armed ethnic minorities and thereby assure more conflict in the future. The dirty reality in Myanmar is that "it is all about the land
the control of it and the prospering from its fruits". The international community can run, but it cannot long hide from this reality.
This community can best assist by promoting dialogue, concepts and practical initiatives that respect and balance the rights of all Burman and non-Burman stakeholders. The present top-down programmatics of aid, development and business initiatives that remain under Burman control, is hardly a creative or viable way forward.
There are abundant models around the world of inclusive economic and community development that can be shared, adapted and piloted today in Myanmar in ways that empower ethnic communities respectful of their states rights within a federal union.
These rights are specified in the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, Dec 1933, which is internationally regarded as the authoritative basis for statehood criteria. This elevates the discussion today in Myanmar to the level where it needs to be: One of states rights counter-balancing the power of central government
.Not the old "Burmans versus non-Burman Ethnics" contest.
If we further look at the verbiage in the UNs Declaration on the Right to Development, 4 December 1986, its Article 1 addresses the fundamental issue of Development, in which all-important land control is pivotal in Myanmar:
1. The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.
2. The human right to development also implies the full realization of the right of peoples to self-determination, which includes, subject to the relevant provisions of both International Covenants on Human Rights, the exercise of their inalienable right to full sovereignty over all their natural wealth and resources.
Past and present assertions of the need for "international professional engagement of the Tatmadaw" as the center of gravity for reform in Myanmar is true in a narrow sense, but it does not fully convey the approach to be taken for full inclusion of non-Burman ethnic minorities which have long met the criteria as states.
These assertions further fail to address the "land control" issue which should be center stage in developing durable central government - state governance compromises.
The security of commonly shared development prosperity has the potential to be more of a compelling motivator to bring all sides together in thoughtful contemplation of prosperity for all, than does the prospect of mere political dialogue and lopsided professionalization of one part of Myanmars multi-facetted, multi-ethnic security sector.
In the end, it will come down to face-to-face discussions between military power brokers, not their negotiators, on both sides on the issue of land control and the security of land in a balanced manner so that all sides may prosper. This likely means coming to grips with the balanced professionalization and empowerment of national and state police forces, armed forces, and intelligence services by which both economic and political power at both state and nation state level can be mutually protected.
In the end, this has little to do with Tatamadaw professionalization, and everything to do with its evolution toward an inclusive profit-sharing model that respects ethnic states rights
Tim Heinemann is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, and former Dean of Academics, US Army Command and General Staff College, who is now a counter-terrorism trainer for US Department of Defense. As a lead US Special Operations planner in 2003, he unsuccessfully promoted the concept of inclusion of ethnic minorities in balance of power solutions in Iraq. He has just returned from northern Iraq working on an initiative to assist ethnic Kurds contain ISIS. He has worked with pro-democracy ethnic minorities in Burma since 2004.