In this op-ed, authors Thiha Wint Aung and Htet Min Lwin argue for the abolition of the armed forces in Burma.
It has been two full years since the Burmese military, locally known as siq-taq (စစ်တပ်), staged a coup d’état against the democratically-elected National League for Democracy government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The military, thus, committed treason against its own country, bringing an unending nightmare to the millions of people who call Burma ‘home’. It has also been two full years since the Burmese people have valiantly refused to submit to the armed takeover of their civilian government and revolted first by the means of peaceful demonstrations as well as the organization of a ‘Civil Disobedience Movement’ (CDM) and subsequently of armed resistance. The Burmese people have been brave and bold, but beyond resistance, there is an inevitable need for new politics. In the midst of the Spring Revolution, as it has been called, has there been a new political project for the country?
The Burmese military has been dominating the country’s politics since its founding in the 1940s. Looking at the independence process in a new historical light and taking into consideration the imposition of the nation-state paradigm in the emerging global order of the period, Burmese independence can be interpreted as a nationalist response to colonialism and the colonial world order. The Burmese military was, in this regard, founded, built upon, and strengthened on the basis of an extreme attempt to discover and forge an imagined essentialist Burmese national ideology, ignoring the aspirations of many minority groups.
It did not necessarily begin with an exclusively Bamar Buddhist ethnonationalism, however. There were attempts from the successive political organizations and leaders during the anticolonial struggle and in postcolonial Burma to make the national identity an inclusive one by encompassing identities beyond ‘Bamar’ and ‘Buddhist’. But these attempts did not prevail, and ethnonationalism has eventually led to Islamophobia, genocides (most notably against the Rohingya), and countless crimes against humanity, in many of which the country’s minority groups have disproportionately suffered.
The resistance movement of today and the organizations leading it have more than once stated that they envisage a federal democracy, which would put an end to the military dictatorship and recognize the ethnic and religious diversity of the country. But to achieve the noble goals of ending the military’s dominance in politics and building a federal democratic union, the ideology that enables it – i.e., exclusive ethnic-genealogical nationalism – as well its main institutional defenders – armed groups – must be abolished.
We are not talking about simply replacing the current Burmese siq-taq (စစ်တပ်) with the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), a name used by current resistance groups in the country, or a future federal army, which will supposedly be composed of PDFs and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). We are calling for the total abolition of the so-called national army and all kinds of armed groups within this territory called today ‘Myanmar’.
Yes, the new politics need to be this bold.
The involvement of armed groups in politics has been long justified in the discourse of political actors across the political spectrum – be it the nominally anti-military National League for Democracy or the military itself. And the ethnic armed organizations exist as a response to the Burmanization process forcibly imposed by the Burmese military for seven decades. The militarization of the country can even be traced back to a more distant past: Burmese kings were also commanders-in-chief of their dynastic armies and waged wars with feudal lords (or sometimes other kings) of the surrounding territories that later became part of modern-day Burma. The country’s old political order has been perpetuated due to the existence of armed conflicts and armed groups, the Burmese military being the most brutal and corrupt among the latter. Simply replacing the Burmese military with another armed force (whether it is a PDF or an eventual ‘federal army’) would not be a solution for the country’s problems.
For a revolution to succeed, it is important to clearly identify what is necessary to transform. From this point of view, the Burmese military and the armed groups opposed to it form the very political system of Burma today. That is this sociopolitical system that the revolution must fundamentally change. Without such a revolution, what exactly will the violence of today achieve?
The answer to the Bamar Buddhist ethnonationalism espoused by the Burmese military is not more ethnonationalism or parochialism, as espoused by the EAOs and lobbied by minority elites. The ethno-federal arrangements that emphasize only ethnic differences will not resolve the majority-minority tensions that have been created and reinforced by decades of armed conflicts. To assume that it is possible to build a professional national federal army out of a plethora of armed groups with very different visions for the country is a dangerous bet.
It will take a considerable amount of time and energy to negotiate the political arrangements not only to accommodate a diverse body politic but also to address the welfare needs that the people in Burma undeniably deserve. The talks of creating a federal army after the revolution simply miss the political and social claims on the ground – and, most importantly, ignore the political history that has led to present-day conflicts.
We need to create a civic-territorial nation that encompasses and accommodates diversity while recognizing the need for unity. The military-warlord hierarchy that fosters and is fostered by ethnonationalism, the most entrenched feature of today’s Burmese political order, needs to be abolished – not recreated.
But then what about national security if there is no national army? What if China or any hostile power in the future invades Burma just like Russia invaded Ukraine?
History has proven that the ‘number one’ national security threat facing the people in Burma is not any external power but the so-called ‘national army’ itself. There has been, moreover, an outpouring of international support for and calls for intervention in Ukraine, whereas the situation in Burma (and, for that matter, Syria and Afghanistan), in which a rogue army terrorizes its own people, is viewed as a matter of ‘domestic affairs’.
In two-year’s time, the Burmese military has proven that it is not only incapable of being reformed but also destructive to the country and the people it is supposed to serve. Let’s make the Spring Revolution an example of how politics can transform both state and society in the twenty-first century. Let’s boldly call for the abolition of all armed forces in Burma – the only worthy goal for the brave Burmese people currently fighting on the ground.
Thiha Wint Aung is an independent analyst and Htet Min Lwin is a PhD student at York University, Toronto. Both are alumni of CEU’s MA program in political science.
In collaboration with Eraldo Souza dos Santos