Monday, July 24, 2017

Tatmadaw strengthens grip on militias

The Myanmar Armed Forces held an unusual ceremony on May 5. At this event, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and top military officers appointed members of the Central Advisory and Supervisory Committee of Border Guard Forces as honorary gazetted Tatmadaw officers and pinned badges on their uniforms.

An ethnic Border Guard Force leader receives honorary gazetted officer status from the Tatmadaw on May 5. Photo: Facebook/Senior General Min Aung HlaingAn ethnic Border Guard Force leader receives honorary gazetted officer status from the Tatmadaw on May 5. Photo: Facebook/Senior General Min Aung Hlaing

What does this signify, and why was this ceremony held? Shortly after the military government took power in 1988 through a military coup, it began negotiating ceasefires with ethnic armed groups, particularly those that had broken away from the Communist Party of Burma, such as the Wa, Kokang, Mongla group and New Democratic Army (Kachin). It reached a ceasefire agreement with the Kachin Independence Organisation in 1994, after which the military government announced it had reached agreements with 17 ethnic armed groups. More groups signed up later, including the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, which broke away from the Karen National Union.

In 2009, the government pressured these ceasefire groups to turn into Border Guard Forces (BGF) and People’s Militia Groups (PMG). While some groups, such as the NDA-K, which is headed by Zahkung Ting Ring and based in Kachin Special Region 1, accepted the proposal, most groups, such as the Wa, the KIO and the New Mon State Party, did not. Even for the groups that did accept the plan, the decision was far from unanimous; there were disagreements – sometimes violent – among the leadership of both the NDA-K and the DKBA.

The ceasefire groups became 23 Border Guard Forces and 84 People’s Militia Groups. Under the set-up of the militias, the younger soldiers work with the Tatmadaw while the older leaders are appointed as members of the Central Advisory and Supervisory Committee. While the regiment commander is appointed a Tatmadaw major – the highest rank in a Border Guard Force – the ethnic leaders who originally led their group and were appointed to the central committee didn’t hold a formal military position.

That changed on May 5, however, when Senior General Min Aung Hlaing appointed them honorary gazetted officers. While they don’t meet all of the standards specified for a gazetted officer, the Tatmadaw explained that appointments were agreed on by a working committee from the Ministry of Defence after taking into consideration the situation in their regions, their influence within the Border Guard Forces and the respect with which they are held by lower-ranking members. The recently appointed ethnic leaders are from forces in Kayin and Kayah states; four were appointed colonels, five were appointed lieutenant colonels and five were appointed as majors.

It is no coincidence that these appointments occurred at a time when the government is negotiating with ethnic armed groups over the proposed nationwide ceasefire agreement. Also, we are seeing some ethnic armed group leaders who are trusted by the government taking an increasingly active role in domestic political affairs.

Of these, the most active have been leaders from the Karen National Union. Late last month, KNU chair General Mutu Sae Pho met the president and commander-in-chief as well as leaders of the United Wa State Army and the Mongla group to ensure their participation in the nationwide ceasefire agreement and broader peace process.

The deputy leader of the KNU, Naw Zipporah Sein, also recently visited Yangon. During her trip, she met chief government peace negotiator U Aung Min and officials from the Myanmar Peace Center, as well as political leaders and Kayin people in Ayeyarwady Region.

In this context, the Tatmadaw leadership is keen to ensure that the Border Guard Forces and People’s Militia Groups under its control do not unite with those armed groups, like the KNU, that wield significantly more power with the people.

Appointing some leaders of these groups as honorary gazetted officers is a means of reminding them where their loyalties lie.

Translation by Thiri Min Htun