Commander-in-Chief’s Europe Visit: Standard Army instead of Professional Army?

  • Written by Sai Wansai/ S.H.A.N
  • Published in Op-ed

The Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing visited Europe at the invitation of the European Union Military Committee (EUMC) November last year and again starting from April 22, by its German counterpart, Chief of Defense of the German Armed Forces General Volker Weiker, which is still ongoing at this writing.

His primary goal is to pay a goodwill visit to the Federal Republic of Germany with stopover in Austria.

According to the various news reports, the Tatmadaw or the Military goodwill delegation also comprises Daw Kyu Kyu Hla, wife of the Senior General, Chief of the General Staff (Army, Navy and Air) General Mya Tun Oo and senior military officers of the Office of the Commander-in-Chief (Army).

Reportedly, according to the Commander-in-Chief’s Facebook, his delegation visited the Austria Army Museum in Vienna on April 23, followed by the visit of the Myanmar (Burma) embassy, where he stressed the gathering to welcome him to learn from the industrially developed Austria and applied it at home to help develop the country.

The Austria Army Museum is a renowned museum of Austrian Armed Forces. Built on 15 April 1850, it was inaugurated in 1856. One of the oldest buildings of Austria, it exhibits the historical facts of the Austrian empire since 1867 (mid-19th century), arms and weapon invention and modernization programmes, the development of tanks, armored vehicles, naval vessels and aircraft, and the Austrian involvement in wars including the World War I and World War II sector wise.

On April 24, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was accorded a guard-of-honor welcome by Chief of Defense Staff of the Austrian Armed Forces General Othmar Commenda at the Austrian Defense Ministry.

During the call, the Senior General said the purpose of the tour was to promote ties between armed forces of the two countries and that the two armed forces could make cooperation in many areas, including promoting bilateral relations between the two countries. He stressed that successive Myanmar leaders had recognized European countries as friends and the Senior General invited his counterpart to pay an official goodwill visit to Myanmar.

Likewise, Chief of Defense Staff of Austrian Armed Forces said that he took pride of the goodwill visit of the Senior General and expressed his firm belief that the goodwill visit would promote further relations and cooperation. Armed forces from the European Union countries wished to enhance friendly ties with Myanmar Tatmadaw. Strengthening friendly relations between Myanmar and Austrian armed forces would contribute much to relations between Myanmar Tatmadaw and other EU armed forces. He offered officers from Myanmar Tatmadaw to attend the military training courses in Austria.

On the same day afternoon, the delegation visited the Diamond Aircraft Industry, where the Commander-in-Chief was flown around with a DA-62 type aircraft and the rest of the delegation members with other types of company produced aircraft around the city of Vienna. The delegation members were welcomed by Chief Executive Officer Mr. Christian Dries and officials of the Diamond Aircraft Industry and later in the evening were treated to a dinner.

After the Austria visit, the delegation next stop will be Germany. Although no detailed agendas have been made known by the Tatmadaw or Burma Army, primarily it should be to promote the army-to-army relationship and cooperation between Germany and Burma.

Speculation are that while the Commander-in-Chief would like to materialize his “Standard Army” ambition and not “Professional Army”, Germany could also be keen to reactivate its supplier-client relationship that goes all the way back into the early 1950s when Burma newly achieved independence from the British in 1948.

German Industrial-equipment Company Fritz Werner (Fritz Werner Industrie-Ausrüstungen GmbH), specializing in weapon production, has been doing business with Burma since early 1950s during the short parliamentary era and continued to be around even after the military takeover through the coup d’etat in 1962. The then military strongman General Ne Win was a close friend of the company and often visited the company’s headquarters (Central) in Geisenheim, according to the report of Zeit Online, on April 11, 2013.

The company helped Burma in manufacturing the G3 and G4 rifles all along, but had to draw back from military-to-military relationship, due to EU’s ban on weapon export, including other type of sanctions, after the military crackdown in 1988 that killed demonstrators in hundreds.

Since the Fritz Werner is owned by the German government, the good relationship has been unbroken, even during the Burma’s military ruled period from 1962 until 2011. The military-to-military contact now seems to be picking up momentum, due to the lifting of various sanctions imposed by the West following democratization process of the country that is still in progress.

But with the re-establishment of military attache office in Berlin in 2017 by Burma, employing a full General, the Commander-in-Chief’s Germany visit should become better said Khin Maung Saw, a former lecturer in Burma Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin, according to the VOA report of April 23.

He further said: “Starting from one two years, EU countries regarding sanction issues, there were argument on whether or not to lift the sanction on weapon sale. If weapon sale sanction is kept, Burma could buy from Russia and China and would only profit them. If Burma would buy and we sell them wouldn’t it be better? As we would be selling, we would have military-to-military contact which could lead to the training of their soldiers and officers. That discussion was during a little more than two years ago.”

He stressed: “Now Burma has changed and if it would like to buy, they (EU countries) would also sell.”

He also speculated that the integration of the East Germany’s army into the West Germany’s Federal Army or Bundeswehr could also be the topic of discussion, probably to see if this could be applicable in resolving the integration and demobilization of the various ethnic armies that have been fighting against the government of Burma.

But the BBC on April 24 reported that although there has been military-to-military contact between the EU, including Germany, with Burma, military observers said that it would not be easy to immediately lift the weapon embargo.

Especially, with the recent international condemnation of the human rights violations committed by the Burma Army in Arakan, Shan and Kachin States, it is highly unlikely that the EU would come to the stage of lifting the weapon embargo altogether, according to the analysis.

Reports concerning Min Aung Hlaing’s Germany visit would, more or less, be in the same tune like Austria, probably paying a visit to Fritz Werner Company’s central or headquarters and perhaps discussion over German unification, from the point of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) and security sector reform (SSR), where the East Germany’s National People’s Army and West Germany’s Federal Defense or Federal Armed Forces, is concerned.

Perspective

The prospect of Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to build better relation with the EU, especially with Germany, could be partly fulfilled. But buying armament and modern weapon technical knowledge transfer might have to wait a little, given the arm embargo is still being maintained.

With the German experience of DDR/SSR, if ever there is any discussion on it, the benefit would be minimum, as the situation are quite different.

The East and West Germans are the one and same nation and the crucial fact is that the East disintegrates on its own and generally, the West has to absorb all the East Germany’s institutions, including the armed forces. But Burma’s problem is rooted in ethnic conflict and it is not coming together of the same nation or ethnic group. And thus, its solution would be more of the SSR oriented implementation than just DDR, which in German experience seems to be the case.

Germany, a highly industrialized country with deep-rooted democratic system, is aiming and structuring a modern, hi-tech army, where fewer troops are needed, unlike the armies in third world countries.

Min Aung Hlaing according to his own conviction is to build a “standard army” and not “professional army” that takes order from the civilian government and subordinated to it, which he no-doubt means a Bamar-dominated army like it is now, which is materially better equipped and that would continue to call the shots in the country’s political decision-making process for sometimes to come until it decides to abdicate on its own timetable.

This would mean keeping the military-drafted constitution in tact as it is and a hybrid, the two-tier administrative system of civilian-military rule.

Lately, human-rights abuses in Burma’s Arakan State have led to mounting international condemnation and called for a United Nations Commission of Inquiry, following the insistence of

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma.

The Amnesty International annual report for 2016/17 wrote that “formation of a new civilian-led government did not lead to significant improvements in the human rights situation. The persecuted Rohingya minority faced increased violence and discrimination. Religious intolerance and anti-Muslim sentiment intensified. Fighting between the army and ethnic armed groups escalated in northern Myanmar.”

The Human Rights Watch yearly report of 2016 wrote that “Burma’s new government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) took office in March 2016 after sweeping the November 2015 elections. Headed by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw, the NLD controls a majority of both upper and lower house parliamentary seats in the country’s first democratically elected, civilian-led government since 1962. However, the new government inherited deep-rooted challenges, including constitutional empowerment of the military, repressive legislation, weak rule of law, and a corrupt judiciary.”

To sum up, constitutional empowerment of the military leads to suppression of the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) in various ethnic states, which in turn resulted in human rights violations of the ethnic peoples by the Military, depleting any trust that might have been achieved by the NLD regime. And without trust there could be no negotiation and without it, no political settlement could be reached.

Thus, in the end, we have to come back to the amendment or rewriting of the constitution to end the hybrid two-tier administrative system that is not serving the interest of the country, so that the it could move forward.

For now, the Commander-in-Chief and the Military are determined to only build a standard army and not the professional one, which means the Military has to be subordinated to the civilian government and not vice-versa as it is now the case.

Min Aung Hlaing’s vague promises that only if the country is peaceful, will the Military go back to the barracks could be years to come and even more remote, if it is going to draw its own policies, especially where the peace process and ethnic issues are concerned, and execute them as it sees fit, implying that it is the sole responsible party with sole right and ownership of the country’s sovereignty and conducts military offensives in ethnic areas.

It should be clear that the ethnic armed conflict today is rooted in the political dissatisfaction over the Bamar-dominated government’s sole ownership claim of the sovereignty and forcefully holding it together with the military might. And way out is to correct this wrong conceptual thinking into a kind of shared-sovereignty that the ethnic nationalities are demanding and voluntary participation in forging a genuine national unity, not coercively with military might.

Thus, if the Military would agree to become a professional army, the resolution of conflict could materialize in no time. But if not, the standard army ambition of Min Aung Hlaing, even if he is able to build one, would not benefit the peace process and national reconciliation.