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Taming the Tatmadaw

A 2010 file photo of Burma's military generals attending the annual Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw. (PHOTO: Reuters)

As the various parties begin to engage in the Union Level Political Dialogue and Peace Conference, the need to consider security sector reform (SSR) is more urgent than ever. Without genuine reform of the security sector (especially the Tatmadaw, Burma’s armed forces) within an implemented Union Peace Accord, there will be no sustainable peace in Burma.

The Tatmadaw strongly believes that the country can easily fracture along ethnic, religious, and political lines, contributing to the loss of unity, peace, and stability as well as the disintegration of the Union. It has a deep historic distrust of politicians and civilian governments and their ability to address the pressing problems of the country. Consequently, the Tatmadaw considers itself the only stabilizing force in the country and its guardian.

This notion of military guardianship was enshrined in the 2008 Constitution, wherein the Tatmadaw is given the main responsibility for safeguarding the Constitution, the non-disintegration of the Union and national solidarity, and the perpetuation of sovereignty. It is protected as a separate government branch that is not subject to civilian control or oversight.

The major problem with all of this is that it puts the Tatmadaw above the law. It is not just unaccountable; it is predatory and oppressive, endangering ethnic people rather than protecting them. This has led the ethnic people to seek safety and security from other sources–specifically, the ethnic armed organizations, leading to decades of armed conflict.

While the Tatmadaw considers these armed groups to be a serious threat to the security of the state, they consider themselves necessary for the security of the people they represent and as instruments to advance their ethnic social, economic, and political aspirations.

The Tatmadaw continues to call on the armed groups to renounce force and has pursued a policy of insisting on their disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) as a prerequisite for reaching political agreements. The armed groups see this as being more about removing their capacity to engage in armed struggle than about reforming the security sector, without which the Tatmadaw would continue to pose a tangible threat to the ethnic people.

For the armed groups, an agreement to formally disarm will only be possible when they are confident that comprehensive agreements have been reached over the substantive conflict issues, especially ethnic rights, and when the security sector threat to the ethnic people is removed. In other words, there can be no disarmament of armed groups without comprehensive reform of Burma’s security sector. As the armed groups have seen many times in the past, the Tatmadaw cannot be trusted not to renege on ceasefire agreements or peace accords when it suits their interests.

Security sector reform is designed to address long-standing issues which have contributed to decades of conflict in Burma through:

-Redefining the societal role of security forces in Burma as protecting citizens and defending national sovereignty as opposed to defending the party or person in power or acting against the population.

-Implementing civilian governance and democratic control over security sector institutions and the development of mechanisms to exercise such control.

-Transforming security sector institutions into effective, apolitical, rights-protecting, and accountable actors.

-Establishing a security sector that is fiscally-sustainable and appropriately-sized/resourced to meet existing and fu­ture security needs of the people and the country.

DDR is a holistic component of SSR since both SSR and DDR share the same objective of contributing to nationwide peace and stability. Therefore, DDR must be planned, resourced, sequenced, implemented, and evaluated in a coordinated manner within the SSR programme to develop synergies and prevent contradictions. It is extremely important that SSR funding includes DDR to ensure the effective inclusion of DDR within the SSR program.

SSR is centered on certain key norms:

-The security sector is apolitical, with allegiance to the constitution and understanding that defence of national sovereignty and the security of individual citizens are paramount rather than safeguarding an individual leader, faction, or regime; it respects the rule of law and international humanitarian law.

-All security sector actors are accountable to democratically-elected civilian authorities, oversight agencies, and civil society.

-Security sector roles designated for civilian actors, but with a preponderance of military personnel, are “civilianised” under democratic civilian control and oversight.

-The design of the SSR process is informed by both an analysis of existing and future threats and the revenue-generating capacity of the state.

-The size, organization, equipment, training, force posture, and budget of the security sector are strong enough to defend the integrity of the nation’s borders, yet not threaten its citizens.

-SSR (including DDR) requires a high degree of sequencing and ordering of reforms as reforms in certain institutions are dependent upon parallel changes in others.

-Management and oversight institutions are built first; not the operational institutions, since the management and oversight institutions will direct many of the downstream decisions driving SSR (including DDR) at the operational level.

-A balanced mix of ethnicity and region is achieved so one group does not dominate the security forces.

-A range of tools is developed and utilized to confront SSR spoilers, from political and economic inducements to coercive mechanisms.

With this in mind, there are areas of direct applicability to SSR in Burma:

-Civilian leadership must project effective leadership in statecraft, especially in respect to the ethnic affairs; have the capacity to understand, shape, manage, and oversee defence policies and affairs; and be able to build democratic institutions to facilitate the exit of the Tatmadaw from politics.

-It is not necessary for the Tatmadaw to be at the forefront of politics; so this “role” must be abandoned.

-The Tatmadaw should no longer occupy or seek to occupy positions in the executive branch or parliament. A timetable must be established for a withdrawal of Tatmadaw personnel from parliamentary and ministerial posts with capable civilians filling this void.

-Tatmadaw forces must be downsized of unnecessary troops, facilities, arms, and locations in the ethnic states to that of a country at peace and in compliance with new strategic security assessments.

-The role of the security sector must be well-defined in constitutional provisions with related and detailed laws and statutes to govern the functions of the security sector.

-The roles for civilian intelligence services, police, and paramilitary forces must be clearly defined.

-The role of security sector institutions in helping to defuse and address ethnic tensions and conflicts must be clearly defined.

-Investigation and legal processes relating to human rights violations, crimes against humanity, and war crimes must reach the highest level of the security sector leadership with the establishment of an independent security sector judiciary office within the executive branch.

-Internal security and disaster response should be the responsibilities of the state/region militias, state/region/township police, Union police, domestic intelligence, border guards, civil defence corps, prisons, immigration, and customs.

-The Union and sub-Union police forces must fill the duties of maintaining internal security without resorting to the Tatmadaw.

-The Union and sub-Union budgets should completely cover the security sector budget; no funds should come from sources that are not transparent and accountable to the public. Civilian control of the budget, planning, procurement and acquisition are critical to the democratic control of the security sector, especially of the Tatmadaw. Security sector participation in business undermines the process of reform and the Tatmadaw must disengage from business.

SSR includes a broad spectrum of institutions in Burma:

-Operational Institutions – Institutions which are responsible for directly protecting citizens and the country from security threats: Tatmadaw, police (including border guard police), paramilitary forces (including Swan Arr Shin, ethnic border guard forces, and peoples’ militia forces), prisons, prosecution services, civilian and military judiciary, intelligence services, customs and immigration authorities, civil defence corps, local village militias, and ethnic armed organisations.

-Management Institutions – Institutions which direct and manage the policy, programs, resources, and general administration of operational actors: Ministries of Defence and Home Affairs, Supreme Court of the Union, and the command structure of ethnic armed organisations.

-Oversight Institutions – Institutions charged with ensuring that the security sector serves the people: the President’s Office, the National Defence and Security Council, parliament and relevant parliamentary committees, financial management bodies, human rights commissions, civil society organizations, including media, human rights and advocacy organizations, and academia, and the political leadership of ethnic armed organisations.

Security sector reform must be embedded in the Union Constitution and codified in associated laws and statutes:

-The Tatmadaw (including military intelligence) role is confined to external defence unless there is a national emergency, such as a natural or man-made disaster, in which case, they may be deployed by presidential directive for the duration of the national emergency. The Tatmadaw no longer has a political leadership role in the Union.

-The President is the Commander–in-Chief of the Defence Services and commands the Tatmadaw.

-The President appoints the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services subject to the confirmation of the Union Parliament.

-All Union ministers, including those of the Union Ministries of Defence, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs, are civilians appointed  by the president, subject to the confirmation of the Union Parliament.

-The “civilianised” Union Ministry of Home Affairs has the responsibility for the police, border guards, and civil defence as well as the prisons in Burma.

-General Administration Department bureaucrats are employees of the agencies they work with at both the Union and sub-Union levels, not reporting to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.

-The National Defence and Security Council is solely an advisory body under the President with no executive powers.

-Only the president has the right, during a state of emergency, to restrict or suspend fundamental rights of citizens.

-State/region militias are under the command and control of their respective state/region chief executives unless the country is threatened by external enemies. With a presidential directive, they can be placed under the Tatmadaw for the duration of the external threat. Also, one state/region’s militia cannot be used in another state/region unless there is an external threat.

-All state/region ministers are civilians appointed by their respective state/region chief executives subject to the confirmation of the state/region parliament.

-Seats in both houses of the Union parliament, held by the Tatmadaw, are phased out over five years; while those seats in state/region parliaments and the leading bodies of the self-administered areas held by the Tatmadaw, are immediately phased out.

-The Tatmadaw does not choose any of the three persons who will be either the president or one of the vice presidents.

-The president has the sole power to grant pardons and amnesties with no pardon or amnesty given to any previous or serving member of government (including the security sector) who has committed any war crimes, crimes against humanity or serious human rights violations.

While the Tatmadaw is only one component of the security sector, it is the one which has had the most negative impact upon peace and security in Burma over the past 55 years. Consequently, the role reorientation of the Tatmadaw should stipulate that its function is to safeguard the safety of nation by upholding national sovereignty and maintaining Burma’s territorial integrity

This role reorientation must be informed by a thorough analysis of the actual security threats and the security needs of the country, the capacity it would need to face these threats effectively and accountably, and the ability to fund that capacity. The findings of such an analysis are reflected in a national security policy which can, in turn, be translated into a national security strategy containing operational objectives for both the Tatmadaw and other security sub-sectors, such as the intelligence services, police, and justice.

Decisions on the mandate, structure and composition of the security sector will impact upon the numbers of personnel needed in a reformed security sector, including the Tatmadaw, police, militias, intelligence services, and other security sector forces. Following this, personnel in the ethnic armed organisations and the Tatmadaw must be selected, utilizing accepted objective professional criteria, to serve within the reformed security sector with remaining combatants demobilized and reintegrated into society. Reducing the number of all combatants is a fundamental aspect of SSR.

For sustainable peace in Burma, it is necessary to remove the Tatmadaw threat to the ethnic people and at the same time, remove the ethnic armed organisations’ threat to the State: they must be planned, funded, and implemented together holistically within the SSR, not as separate SSR and DDR programmes.

The security sector must accept civilian control of their activities and be constructive and legitimate security providers. The executive branch with its relevant ministries and parliament must be both willing and capable to exercise their responsibilities in managing and overseeing the country’s security institutions. Civil society organizations must join the executive branch and parliament in monitoring the security sector.

The SSR process must do more than reform security sector institutions; it must change the mindsets, behavior, and culture of the security sector. Soldiers and policemen are transformed into people toward whom citizens go for protection rather than run away from in fear. It is about ensuring their safety and making them feel safe.

But having said all of this, the “devil is in the details” – that is, in deciding how to implement SSR given the Tatmadaw’s strategic culture and its privileges and what benefits would accrue to the Tatmadaw from SSR. As it stands now, the Tatmadaw feels it has no need or incentive to make any changes or reforms. So with this perception of the Tatmadaw, one can expect the peace process will go on over many years with the key issue of security sector reform unresolved. Unless this issue is addressed and resolved, the ethnic armed groups will not give up their guns and the cycle of conflict and suffering will continue into future generations.

The Tatmadaw’s predatory nature toward the ethnic people must cease: It has killed too many ethnic people, raped too many ethnic women, and displaced too many ethnic people into the jungle, refugee camps, and third countries. Thus, it is the time for everyone to see the elephant in the room and address security sector reform now.

Moe Gyo is a political consultant and strategist working for Strategic Border Consulting in Mae Sot, Thailand. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.