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The Burma Army and Its Language of Aggression

By Burma Partnership  •  January 21, 2014

MYANMAR-refer-articleLarge-v3Mixed messages on the peace process came out this week as the government proposed for the first time to commit a substantial amount of money into the peace process. Yet the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s inflammatory comments on the indestructibility of the Burma Army and blaming the conflict on the country’s ethnic armed groups expose the attitudes of the country’s most powerful institution. Meanwhile, a second round of formal talks between ethnic armed groups and the government’s Union Peace Working Committee on the nationwide ceasefire accord have been postponed until February as ethnic representatives further discuss the accord.

A local newspaper, True News, published comments made by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing at a briefing to officers in Naypyidaw in November 2013. The language of peace and reconciliation was conspicuously absent in his address, “We made peace agreements, but that doesn’t mean we are afraid to fight. We are afraid of no one. There is no insurgent group we cannot fight or dare not to fight.” The Burma Army chief also states that he intends to follow the path laid down by Senior General Than Shwe, the former head of the military junta that suffocated and terrorized Burma from 1988 to 2011. Burma’s underdevelopment, he adds, is “because of internal insurgents who caused conflict in the country.”

Such comments are certainly food for thought for the ethnic armed groups who are locked in discussions regarding a proposed nationwide ceasefire accord that the government wants to be signed with great fanfare in Naypyidaw. The government, however, is negotiating this accord without the support of the Burma Army, whose mind-set is evidently stuck in confrontational mode. Despite the acclaim attributed towards President Thein Sein’s government’s attempts at peace and the tentative ceasefires signed, troops continue to behave as if nothing has changed, thus highlighting the lack of control by the government over the Burma Army. Attacks in Kachin State have been ongoing since June 2011; the Free Burma Rangers explained how two Karen villages as well as their medical team were fired upon by the Burma Army last month.

Disturbingly, the Burma Army continues to use rape as a weapon of war. A report released by Women’s League of Burma highlights 100 cases of reported rape since Burma began its reform process in 2010. The real figure, however, is likely to be much greater given the difficulties of documentation, the fear of retribution and social stigma associated with admitting these violations, as well as the lack of an independent and competent judicial system for effective means of redress and access to justice. These are not just isolated cases. As the report points out, “their widespread and systematic nature indicates a structural pattern: rape is still used as an instrument of war and oppression.” It is with impunity that the Burma Army commits these horrific acts. The 2008 Constitution provides that soldiers are immune from prosecution in civilian courts, instead relying on military tribunals which are ultimately controlled by Min Aung Hlaing himself, thus undermining accountability and perpetuating impunity.

Yet moves towards amending the 2008 Constitution which institutionalizes the Burma Army’s immunity and dominant role in the political landscape of Burma are shunned. Daw Aung San Kyi revealed how she has still not met with Min Aung Hlaing, whom she has wished to discuss constitutional reform with, since she was released from house arrest.

While the government has requested around US$7 million for peace process efforts, the first time a substantial amount has been requested, such reconciliation efforts need to have the military on-board. It is the Burma Army that is continuing to attack ethnic armed groups and commit appalling human rights abuses such as mass rape. Money thrown at the process, whether from the government or overseas donors such as the US$96 million pledged by Japan last week to improve infrastructure in conflict-affected areas, can be helpful if there is a conducive environment where trust and confidence has been built, but it can contribute to the expansion of the Burma Army’s presence in the ethnic areas and thus in turn contribute to an increase of human rights abuses. Root causes of the conflict, such as the denial of ethnic people’s autonomy and right to self-determination, resource management, and pervasive human rights abuses committed by the Burma Army need to be addressed, not least by amending the 2008 Constitution as soon as possible. Boasting of the power of the Burma Army and blaming the ethnic armed groups for the country’s problems is not a step in the right direction, no matter how much President Thein Sein talks peace.

It is imperative that peace talks include the Burma Army, as they are still a major obstacle in finding a solution. These peace talks must address the power of the military and political grievances of ethnic nationalities in order to find a political solution. International donors must also see these talks as the key to achieving a long lasting peace, and aid and development money must not be seen as a solution to the protracted conflicts that Burma’s ethnic nationalities have suffered from for so many decades.

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This post is in: Blog, Peace and National Reconciliation

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