Have Myanmar’s Armed Forces Gone Too Far?

Recent Features

Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Have Myanmar’s Armed Forces Gone Too Far?

Recent events show just how far Myanmar has to travel on the road to reform.

Have Myanmar’s Armed Forces Gone Too Far?
Credit: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

In one week in March, Myanmar’s Army bombed territory inside China, killing five Chinese farmers, while police forces beat and arrested protesters around the country for peacefully demonstrating in Yangon and Letpadaung. Does this stepped-up aggression mark the return to a military authoritarian state?

Not necessarily: Myanmar has long struggled to contain armed ethnic groups that rely on networks across the porous border with China’s southern Yunnan province, and Myanmar’s Peaceful Assembly Law, which has drawn criticism from international observers, allows the security sector to step in if it deems actions harmful to the state. However, the fact that these two events happened in such quick succession is cause for concern, and Myanmar’s government must go further to grant full legal protection to peaceful demonstrators. Additionally, President Thein Sein’s administration must do more to demonstrate that the civilian government exercises full authority over the military branch.

The 2008 Constitution places the Myanmar Police Force (MPF) under the control of the Ministry of Home Affairs, which also controls the murky General Administration Department (GAD), responsible for surveillance under decades of authoritarian dictatorship. The Minister of Home Affairs, U Ko Ko, still serves as a lieutenant general in the tatmadaw, the Myanmar military, which favors national unity and loyalty to Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing above all. The confluence of Myanmar’s military and civilian bureaucracy means that the motives of the security sector and top officials remain shadowy.

On March 15, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang issued a harsh rebuke of the Myanmar Army for its incursion into Chinese territory and the resultant deaths of five farmers. Myanmar officials at first denied the allegations, though China’s official government position remained adamant in its claims. The day before Li’s remarks, General Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, warned Myanmar’s government that it must prevent its battles with ethnic insurgents from spilling across the Chinese border. Later that day, a senior spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense, Senior Colonel Geng Yansheng cautioned that another such event would trigger “decisive measures” by the Chinese military. Myanmar later issued a formal apology for its actions, blaming the Kokang ethnic insurgents for the violence.

While actual armed conflict between the Myanmar and Chinese militaries remains highly unlikely, the rift between China and Myanmar, formerly close partners, has widened immensely since Myanmar’s democratic transition in 2011. One of President Thein Sein’s first executive orders was to suspend the giant Myitsone Dam, a Chinese-funded hydroelectric project on the Irrawaddy River in northern Kachin State. The Myistone Dam would have diverted nearly all of its energy to China. The decision certainly ruffled Chinese feathers, and consultants from the China Power Investment Corporation have urged Myanmar’s government to reconsider with environmental impact assessments and pledges of greater compensation to displaced citizens.

China’s past skirmishes with Vietnam (a border war in 1979 and naval battle in 1988) mean that military aggression is not completely out of the question. But today China’s greater strength, wealth, and integration into the world economy make it less likely to provoke a war with a smaller and far weaker state such as Myanmar. Despite the low probability of conflict, Myanmar would do well to heed Beijing’s warnings and put a lid on provocations along the border.

Myanmar long kowtowed to China’s demands as the Chinese government overlooked the military junta’s repression of its people and funneled massive sums into the pariah state to buy patronage. Now that Myanmar has undergone substantial reforms, it can no longer afford to clamp down on peaceful protests with the use of force, as it did in the case of nationwide demonstrations in 1988 and 2007. Naypyidaw also no longer enjoys the quiet protection from Beijing that it once did.

Domestic Crisis

The Burmese government faces a domestic crisis stemming from its reaction to student-led protests. Beatings and detentions now make headline news, and force security forces to weigh international norms. Last June, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Myanmar’s parliament) passed amendments to the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law following months of debates. While it was generally seen as a positive step for Myanmar, international observers pointed out that law still contained provisions enabling the military government to crackdown on peaceful protestors in a harsh manner out of step with international human rights norms.

The law requires that permission be given in advance of any peaceful protest and does not make allowances for spontaneous assemblies. Article 5 of the law gives police forces the power to deny permission to peacefully assemble when they determine that the assembly would be “in breach of the security of the State, rule of law, community’s peace and tranquility, and public morality.” Likewise, provisions inserted in Article 12 of the Law require that peaceful protesters “must not say things or behave in a way that could affect the country or the Union, race, or religion, human dignity and moral principals…[and] must not spread rumors or incorrect information.”

Such vague provisions for legal permission ensure that the government has full, and seemingly arbitrary, discretionary power over citizens’ attempts to engage in peaceful protest. In light of such ambiguity, the stage is set for a challenge for citizens who believe that the government is using its power to resist protest for their own political reasons. This legal grey area will test the amended law, and the reform posture of its government sponsors. It is here where the law and government forces failed in perhaps the most visible manner in the reform era when police faced off against students in the streets of Letpadaung, just 90 miles north of Rangoon, Myanmar’s largest city.

On March 10, police armed with batons lashed out at students and activists in Letpadaung, arresting 127 people and transporting them to prison in trucks. This followed a violent crackdown the week before, in Yangon in which state-run newspapers reported authorities dispersed the protest because demonstrators had not sought government permission as required by the Peaceful Assembly Law. Joining the chorus of international condemnation, the U.S. State Department condemned MPF’s “use of force against peaceful protestors.” The bloody crackdown by the government of Myanmar illustrates how the amended Peaceful Assembly Law, once seen as a positive step in the reform effort, is now among evidence of government backsliding in the country’s vaunted transition to democracy.

With the arrested protestors now set to appear in court and the results of a government inquiry into “whether security forces acted properly in dispersing the protesters” set to be released, there will no doubt be further scrutiny on the amended Peaceful Assembly Law. Of specific concern is Article 18 of the law, which makes it a criminal offense to conduct a peaceful assembly without permission, providing for up to six months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to 30,000 kyat (roughly $30). International standards are clear that a failure to notify the authorities of an assembly should not be the basis for dispersing a peaceful assembly or for assigning criminal liability, and certainly not imprisonment.

How the government treats the protestors that they have taken into custody will shed further light on what citizens of Myanmar can expect from the amended law. With President Thein Sein defending the officers’ harsh crackdown on the protestors, however, there is cause for concern. Indeed, it remains to be seen what lessons the government will learn from this high profile test of the amended law.

Moreover, Myanmar analysts fear that President Thein Sein’s civilian executive branch does not wield full authority over the military branch. The tatmadaw has encroached on ethnic armed groups in Kachin and Shan States, fueling further displacement and the recent bombings in China’s Yunnan Province. Despite repeated calls for restraint on the part of the armed forces, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing appears to be calling the shots when it comes to military strikes. The easily avoidable deaths of Chinese farmers is but one case in point, leaving President Thein Sein’s diplomatic team to handle the embarrassment of the international crisis caused by the tatmadaw.

These two events are striking examples harkening back to Myanmar’s pariah state-past. Perhaps more striking, both flashpoints have managed to draw the attention of Myanmar’s most important foreign benefactors, China and the U.S. While one week’s events cannot portend the demise of a reform effort now in its fifth year, they do serve to demonstrate just how far Myanmar has to go before it can be considered a reformed state.

Hunter Marston is a Myanmar and Southeast Asia analyst. He holds an MA in Southeast Asia Studies and a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Washington-Seattle. He has traveled to Myanmar on multiple occasions and served in the U.S. Embassy in Burma in 2012. Andrew Morgan serves as in-house legal counsel at an international NGO based in Washington, D.C. He received his JD from the University of Washington School of Law in 2014, where he was an editor for the Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal and wrote about Myanmar. He also obtained a Master of Public Service degree from the University of Arkansas – Clinton School of Public Service in 2012.