The Burmese army only knows the language of force


Regime troops during the Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw in March 2021.

Through Ye Myo Huh January 26, 2022

In 1996, the National League for Democracy (NLD), the main opposition party to Myanmar’s then junta, circulated a book to members of its party. The book was a translation by William Ury Going beyond: Negotiating (in) difficult situation(s) by NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The Lady, who her supporters affectionately called the charismatic leader of Myanmar, gave the book a different title in Burmese from William Ury’s original title. No doubt she wanted people to understand that the hard people to negotiate were the Myanmar army generals whom she had failed to bring to the negotiating table. In the book’s introduction, Suu Kyi wrote, “I firmly believed that our country and our National League for Democracy party could only overcome the current crisis through negotiation.”

Recalcitrant generals thought otherwise. Successive army generals have always assumed that negotiation comes from a position of weakness and that compromise is a loss. Thus, as self-proclaimed strongmen, the generals have never engaged in negotiation and even a small compromise is intolerable to them. Historical evidence clearly shows that negotiation was never in the DNA of the top echelon of Burma’s military, which is deeply obsessed with zero-sum political thinking.

When the military first staged a formal coup in 1962, it advanced the pretext that political negotiations would lead to national disintegration. In mid-February 1962, to negotiate a political solution to the growing ethnic crisis in the country, Prime Minister U Nu convened a “federal conference” in which the leaders of the ethnic nationalities took part and discussed their proposals for the future federal arrangement. The crude generals were not fully aware of the subtle nature of political negotiations and then staged a coup claiming that “Federal negotiation would lead to the breakup of the Union”. But contrary to military claims, as U Nu writes in his autobiography “Saturday’s Son, the conference was convened to negotiate “the constitutional reforms that would strengthen and solidify the Union.” However, the generals found no value in a negotiated resolution of the political crisis and they used force to close a rare opportunity to resolve the country’s chronic problems through peaceful means.

In 1963, a year after the coup, the then junta held a peace talk with various rebel groups, as the generals were strangely convinced that they could convince the rebel groups to succumb to their rule. But, unsurprisingly, the 1963 peace talks broke down when the ruling army “rigidly demanded surrender, offering nothing more than rehabilitation”. Nai Shwe Kyin, who participated in the negotiations as the leader of the Mon armed group, said that “the negotiations failed because the Tatmadaw (soldiers) only wanted us to surrender”. Most rebel leaders believed that the military did not want to engage in real negotiations. Among them, Thakin Than Tun, leader of the Communist Party of Burma (PCB), decried the military’s unscrupulous intentions regarding the negotiations as “selling dog meat, while hanging a goat’s head”.

Again, in the early 1980s, the government, led by military dictator Ne Win and retired generals, entered into peace talks with the two most powerful rebel groups, the Kachin Independence Army. and the CPB, after announcing an amnesty for all insurgents. But, as expected, these negotiations also failed, and the generals again demanded surrender in exchange for rehabilitation. Bertil Lintner, a longtime Myanmar watcher, wrote about why peace talks failed in his seminal book “Burma in Revolt”, saying the Ne Win government offered nothing more than rehabilitation rebels without even considering political concessions. The generals had no idea of ​​concessions and compromises in political negotiations, and they want their counterparts to surrender and stick to their game plan. The most generous concession in their minds was to offer trade opportunities and material inducements to the opposition. Consequently, those who accepted the army’s offer became armed gangs engaged in illicit trade and business.

After the 1988 coup, this modus operandi remained unchanged. Despite repeated calls for political dialogue from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the democracy movement, the generals have always bitterly rejected negotiations with the opposition. Nor have they hesitated to respond to these peaceful calls for negotiations with brutal repression, arbitrary arrests and long prison sentences. While relentlessly suppressing the democratic movement in the heart of Myanmar, the military regime agreed to ceasefires with many ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in the 1990s. However, the agreements were not the result of genuine political negotiations and did not include any political agreement. The junta has officially declared that, “since the Tatmadaw is not a political organization, it has not conducted negotiations with the insurgents through political means”. Ceasefires were therefore merely military truces that the junta used to contain the EAO under its rule with incentives for territorial control and business opportunities.

In mainstream politics, despite strong calls for political dialogue from the international community and the local opposition, the junta stubbornly embarked on its own roadmap by promulgating the controversial 2008 constitution and holding a mock election in 2010. In 2012, when the NLD decided to play by the rules of the 2008 constitution, growing optimism for a political pact was rekindled. Most, including prominent scholars, predicted the inevitable prospect of a political pact between former President General Thein Sein and the military’s longtime political enemy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

With the dissolution of outright military rule, they naively believed that generals automatically became enlightened to compromise with the democratic opposition, exuberantly praising a group of former generals as “the reformers” or “the democrats”. In fact, no real negotiation took place and the generals intended to subsume the opposition into their game. What Ye Hut, former Minister of Information in the Thein Sein government, wrote in his book reflects clearly the intentions of the generals. When some diehard ex-generals strongly objected to Thein Sein’s decision to introduce Suu Kyi into parliamentary politics saying “it will bring a dead tiger to life”, Thura Shwe Mann, former general and chairman of the Lower house, replied “don’t worry about bringing a dead tiger to life. Tigers are controlled with the whip in a circus. I can control it”. politics she created when she failed to control it.

Similarly, although Thein Sein’s government agreed to ceasefires with several EAOs after 2011, political negotiations rarely progressed. There is no doubt that the army was one of the main obstacles to the conclusion of the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and its bitter rejection of three groups of the Northern Alliance – l Arakan Army (AA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. – to sign the NCA has led to an incomplete national ceasefire and the resurgence of intensified fighting. Moreover, in political dialogue, in the author’s experience, the military more openly obstructed the negotiation process, and the five-year talks ultimately concluded without any concrete political settlement.

In retrospect, the military has always been opposed to political negotiation, because generals only know the language of force. For them, negotiation means that their counterparts surrender or play by their rules. In their mind, negotiations are also tools. There were several incidents where the negotiations were manipulated by the generals to drive wedges between his opposition. In this view, one cannot expect real negotiations from generals who have no principle when approaching negotiations. Rebel leaders practically believed that negotiations with generals could only be possible if their counterparts had a position of strength. This was clearly evident in the recent ceasefire agreement with AA.

In 2020, when people suffered a double whammy from the conflict and COVID-19 in Rakhine State, the military repeatedly refused to negotiate with the AA, labeling it a terrorist organization. Bypassing negotiations by labeling opponents as terrorists or illegal organizations is nothing new in the history of the Myanmar military. Recently, the military spokesperson reiterated the same regarding the National Unity Government (NUG) and the People’s Defense Forces, saying that there is no reason to negotiate with terrorists or illegal organizations. But, without deregistering the AA as a terrorist organization, in late 2020 the military began negotiations with the AA for a ceasefire after coming under heavy military pressure in Rakhine State. Thus, Charles Dunst rightly wrote that “if the army somehow succeeds in weakening the resistance significantly, … it would have less reason to engage in talks. Instead, the necessary condition for talks to have any hope of success is a substantial – and clearly acknowledged – weakening of the military’s position.

Without considering these factors, expecting stubborn generals to negotiate is pure fantasy. Repeated calls for negotiation by the international community have fallen on deaf ears in Naypyitaw. In Myanmar, the NUG and many EAOs know this reality, it is mainly those in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the wider region who are still hoping for a negotiated solution. Ultimately, the only way to bring the generals to the negotiating table might be to force them to realize that they cannot win by military means. It means battlefield victories for the opposition and a firm demonstration of an ability to control and govern territory. Instead of unrealistically calling for negotiation, the world can play a more useful role here by weakening the position of the military and strengthening the democratic opposition. Negotiation experts always advocate separating people and organizations from the problem during talks. But in Myanmar, the generals and the military are precisely the problem.

Ye Myo Hein is Executive Director of the Tagaung Institute for Policy Studies and Fellow of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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