The Burmese military celebrates its 70th Armed Forces Day this month. Over those seven decades, the military have wreaked incredible carnage on the country, yet staged an ostentatious military parade in the capital, Naypyidaw, with rows of tanks, marching soldiers and rockets. It was an emblem of the slow pace of change in a country that is supposed to be marching towards democracy.
While the prevailing narrative is that the country has embarked on a reform process that will shake off military control of the government, the reality is that the process is looking increasingly shaky and showing clear signs of backsliding. Within the military there is a smug certitude that the transition to civilian control will be nominal and only advance at a pace that guarantees that the Defense Services, or Tatmadaw, and its political and business interests, remain intact, while escaping justice for past and ongoing abuses is ensured.
Despite a plethora of international punditry that predicted that the military would relent and back reforms that could include constitutional amendments that could erode or end its quota of 25 percent of seats in parliament, drop a provision that bars Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president, and place the military officially under civilian control, the army has agreed to none of these changes. Indeed, the military spurns civilian oversight and remains pugnaciously unapologetic over its legacy of repression.
The Tatmadaw’s truculence and allergy towards accountability for human rights abuses has hardened noticeably over the past year. The torture and extrajudicial killing of freelance Burmese journalist Par Gyi in October, an incident the military initially owned up to but then dissembled into a defense of “shot while trying to escape,” has not been resolved, and the Tatmadaw refuses to cooperate with any investigation. Early this year, the rape and murder of two young ethnic Kachin schoolteachers allegedly carried out by locally deployed army personnel evinced strong denials and even threats of lawsuits by the Tatmadaw to anyone who publicly claimed the army was involved. This is not a small problem: the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, wrote in her recent report to the UN Human Rights Council that the Tatmadaw actively pursues “criminal proceedings for defamation or providing false information when making allegations against the military,” intimidating any civilian who makes claims of killings, sexual violence in conflict and other serious crimes.
Since Burma’s independence in 1948, the military has been involved in abusive, drawn-out wars with various ethnic groups along its borders with Thailand, China, and India. The prospects of a nationwide ceasefire agreement with 17 ethnic armed groups have faded away with recent fighting. In the past few weeks, hostilities have escalated in Kachin State, the scene of armed conflict since 2011 that has entailed many well-documented army abuses often reminiscent of past decades of brutal pacification practices. In the ethnic Chinese Kokang enclave in northern Shan State, numerous reports have emerged of abuses against civilians in army operations, with tens of thousands fleeing the area into China and further south in Burma. Increased use of airstrikes, hitherto quite rare in Burma’s counterinsurgency operations, spilled over into China recently, killing five Chinese citizens, wounding several others, and eliciting unprecedented threats from China against the Tatmadaw if it didn’t moderate its behavior.
With general elections scheduled for October, the military is strengthening its hold over civilian structures. Military personnel are reportedly being transferred to the Myanmar Police Force, which has been responsible for recent violent dispersals of student protests, including arrests of student leaders in Rangoon on Friday. More officers are also being redeployed to the Ministry of Home Affairs General Administration Department (GAD), a little-understood entity that serves as a key instrument of local-level surveillance. The hardline stance of the Home Affairs Ministry is better understood when one realizes its minister is serving Tatmadaw Lt-Gen Ko Ko, implicated in a Harvard University report as the commander of a military offensive between 2006-2008 in which widespread war crimes were committed.
The Tatmadaw has long been deeply involved in corrupt official and unofficial business activities, which augments the funds it receives through the powers granted in the 2008 Constitution to set its own budget. Army involvement in widespread land grabs has accelerated, as reported by Global Witness recently, while the involvement of the military-controlled Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) in extractive industries is well documented. Its joint venture in the bitterly contested Letpadaung copper mine project has been the scene of numerous civilian protests that have been violently suppressed by the security forces.
In numerous speeches, the commander in chief of the military, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, has made clear that the military intends to preserve its role in “safeguarding the constitution,” a euphemism for a refusal to allow any constitutional reform. In a rare, lengthy interview with Channel News Asia in January, the commander in chief defended the military quota in parliament and their continued control over key ministerial portfolios. The supposedly reformist president (and former general and military era prime minister), Thein Sein, defended the Tatmadaw in a recent interview with the BBC when he said: “In fact the military is the one who is assisting in the flourishing of democracy in our country. As the political parties mature in their political norms and practice, the role of the military gradually changes.”
This has been a frequent line from Thein Sein and other officials, but it seems aimed at misleading public opinion in Burma and abroad since, sadly, there are no signs of change.
This month’s milestone of military longevity would have been cause for celebration if it had been a farewell party for the army from its role in politics and business. Instead, it was a salient reminder of the Tatmadaw’s failure to reform. The international community should have seen this coming, but now that most diplomats concede that the reform process has stalled and reversed, concerned governments should find their voice and speak more clearly about the necessity of constitutional and other reforms as the price of its continued support.
David Scott Mathieson is Senior Researcher in the Asia Division of New York-based Human Rights Watch.