Myanmar military’s white paper highlights growing openness

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The low-profile publication by Myanmar’s armed forces of a defense white Paper in February marked the first time that the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, released this type of strategy document to outsiders. The paper, which outlines the military’s broad plans for the coming years, is markedly more comprehensive than the last defense policy statement, issued in 1999, and seems partly aimed at a foreign audience — albeit a very limited one.

The release of the document comes nearly 20 years after Myanmar became a full-member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, in 1997. For the small group of foreigners who received the paper — mainly Yangon-based military attaches and diplomats — it was an encouraging sign of the Tatmadaw’s growing openness. For regional governments, it represented a welcome contribution to the ARF’s confidence building measures, and a reflection of Myanmar’s increasing confidence about venturing into multilateral diplomacy, particularly in the regional arena.

The decision to release the paper, which follows the country’s successful chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014, probably reflects a new awareness within the Tatmadaw that it should follow the example of its neighbors in publishing a defense white paper. The timing also suggests that amidst the country’s unprecedented transition from decades-long, military-backed rule to an administration run by the National League for Democracy, the Tatmadaw wants to signal that it remains the institution controlling security policy.

While the foreign audience for the white paper is still restricted, the 99-page document provides a general overview of Myanmar’s perception of national, regional and international security challenges, a basic outline of national defense policy, and the objectives and structure of the armed forces. In its underlying message, the paper essentially reinforces the 1999 defense policy statement, with the assertion of the Tatmadaw’s “legitimate and firm stance” on safeguarding the “independence, sovereignty and national interests” of Myanmar. These goals, it notes, are “reflected vividly” in the new paper.

Set in an realist tone, the first chapter, on the international and regional security situation, puts new emphasis on international cooperation, noting the “irreplaceable” role of the United Nations system. At the same time, it highlights the tendency of great powers to use the U.N. Security Council system for their own ends, with both negative and positive effects, including international crisis intervention. It also notes the rise of China and its implication for international politics. An interesting point is the paper’s positive view of China’s 21st century diplomacy, and the prognosis that it has “become more active, transparent and influential.” It lauds China’s “capable” management of confrontations with other superpowers in international crises, noting: “It is expected that China could consolidate relations with her old partner, Russia, and will try to achieve better relations with regional developing countries both to avoid regional conflicts, ease regional tensions and to consolidate bilateral relations.” But in something of a contradiction — and possibly a clue to future regional security priorities — the paper highlights “power rivalry” between China and India and notes their “quite obvious” attempts to dominate the Asia-Pacific region.

Five fields of security

In a section dealing with Myanmar’s national security, the paper focuses on five areas: political, economic, military, social and “other.” On the political front, in a veiled reference to China’s involvement with some ethnic armed organizations operating close to Myanmar’s borders with China, it highlights “external and internal destructive elements against national reconciliation, border areas development and peace and development”. Addressing economic challenges, the paper dwells on economic sanctions against Myanmar, while on the social front, it cites “neo-colonialism” as a concern – a reference no doubt to growing Western influences on Myanmar as it opens up.

In military terms, the paper states, the three key challenges for Myanmar are: the military build-up of neighboring countries; the “provision of equipment, financial assistance and encouragement by external elements to internal armed groups”; and unresolved boundary issues. In related challenges, the white paper names the “diversity of ethnic groups and existence of armed groups and their chance to take refuge along the boundaries.”

The six key objectives for Myanmar’s national defense policy, according to the paper, are first, to prevent all actions that could undermine the country’s so-called three main national causes. The three “causes,” frequently outlined in Tatmadaw speeches and papers, deal with perceived threats to internal cohesion and are listed as: non-disintegration of the Union; non-disintegration of national solidarity; and the perpetuation of sovereignty. These phrases underpin the military’s firm policy of curbing secessionist sentiment and reinforcing the central government’s rule.

Another objective is to further strengthen the strategy referred to in the paper as “national defense with the people’s war,” which is based on combining the Tatmadaw’s forces with local communities in a civil-military approach and more generally, to seek broader engagement with the entire civilian population. The third objective concerns international engagement and defense against external threats, or in the paper’s words, “to boldly and effectively prevent any foreign aggression and various ways and means of interference in the internal affairs of the Union, while avoiding interference in the internal affairs of other nations.” Fourth, the paper states, Myanmar must strive to build a defense system that leads towards friendly external relations in accord with the “five principles of peaceful coexistence” — a reference to the 1954 agreement with China and India to uphold mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. Interestingly, one of the six key objectives is opposition to forming and participating in any military alliance with any other nations, and avoiding the deployment of any foreign troops on Myanmar’s soil. In the final objective, the paper calls for cooperation with the international community on “nontraditional security issues and anti-terrorist matters,” and also in fields such as external assistance when natural disasters hit the Union. These six objectives are significantly revised and updated from the original four objectives that appeared in the 1999 statement of defense policy.

Key defense missions

In defining defense missions of the Tatmadaw, the paper calls for: (a) the building of a “strong, capable and modern patriotic Tatmadaw,” combining also reserve elements; (b) the formation of a self-sufficient “people’s defense system,” which neither seeks nor requires foreign assistance; (c) to abide by the provisions of the country’s constitution; (d) to train and develop a strong defense force with military, political, economic and administrative aspects that can help achieve military, administrative and organizational capability – something the paper calls the “three capabilities.” For the Tatmadaw, the paper states, this is essential in order to “participate” in national political leadership in the state in future.

In a chapter titled, “Establishment of National Defense,” the paper briefly explains the National Defense and Security Council, the military dominated council that combines parliament, government and military leaders, and the structures of the three branches of service — army, navy and air force, as well as the Corps and Services arm, and the reserve forces, including officially sanctioned militia units, as well as the police force.

While limited in terms of its scope of information on matters such as manpower and military hardware (compared with the white papers of some other countries’), these references are significant — not least as they are the most detailed yet in any publicly released Tatmadaw document.

In the same chapter, citing its spirit as “guardian of the state,” the Tatmadaw lays out other key priorities. First, it places a specific emphasis on ending conflicts with armed ethnic groups through peaceful means, aiming at national reconciliation — specifically because, the paper notes, armed conflicts among ethnic groups pose a threat to internal security and hinder national development. Second, the paper emphasizes a more political role for the Tatmadaw in the peace process with ethnic groups, with its reference to “providing assistance to the respective organizations for the internal security, stability and rule of law which are vital preconditions for the development of a nation.” Third is the new emphasis on social welfare, as the paper outlines plans for the Tatmadaw to participate “enthusiastically in rendering social services, prevention from natural disasters, relief and reconstruction tasks.” There is also specific reference to the growing problems of Myanmar’s narcotics trade, describing the Tatmadaw’s role in drug eradication as a “national duty” and calling for more cooperation with the international community to protect the nation from “non-traditional security threats.” Among these are terrorism, human trafficking and transnational crime problems.

In further elaboration of its defense missions, in Chapter 5 the paper addresses the issues related to the protection of territorial land, waters and airspace. It also covers the military recruitment system, training, and organizational activities related to improving discipline, unity and public relations. The paper here also gives a broad outline of military equipment for each infantry regiment, and Corps and Services units as well as defense-related research and development and defense expenditures for the years from 2011-12 to 2015-16.

Even though it falls short on detail, in terms of numbers and scope of information, it is the first time for the Tatmadaw to provide such information historically considered as sensitive and secret.

Chapter 6, the longest of all with 20 pages and another nine pages displaying 18 photographs of military activities, is devoted to what the Tatmadaw calls “state building” activities. This features a strong justification of the military’s political role and its cherished right to “step in” or “prevent” the Union from disintegration. It is then followed by a long presentation on infrastructure development and humanitarian assistance carried out by the Tatmadaw since 1988. The latter part of the chapter focuses on the Tatmadaw’s contributions to the “Peace and Stability of the State” and “Prevalence of Law and Order.” Continuing its historical justifications, the paper discusses the once-pervasive martial law administrations in some parts of Myanmar, as well as anti-human trafficking operations by the navy in 2015.

The last chapter is about security cooperation with international organizations. Particular attention in the chapter is drawn to various ASEAN-centered activities and meetings hosted by the Tatmadaw during Myanmar’s chairmanship of the association in 2013-14. Another 22 pictures of ASEAN-related activities are carried in this chapter.

Strangely enough, the paper’s “conclusion” is included as a small part of Chapter 7, and is merely a summary of the paper in four short paragraphs. The key messages in this respect are the Tatmadaw’s aim to continue development in order to emerge as a strong, competent and “modern patriotic force,” and “to safeguard the Union against all internal and external dangers.”

It is striking here how the paper makes no reference to the concept of building the Tatmadaw as a “standard army” as frequently advocated by the commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The emphasis, again, is on the “patriotic” aspect of the Myanmar’s military tradition.

Key messages

Ultimately, the white paper contains several key messages. First, it aims to shows the breadth of the Tatmadaw’s perceptions and priorities for security, in both conventional and non-traditional fields. Second, it suggests that the military’s force structure and modernization is more about further developing and upgrading the role of the armed forces than on streamlining them. Third, it is a strong reminder that the Tatmadaw remains an active player in Myanmar’s foreign relations through its defense diplomacy. Despite some weak points, as the first attempt by the Tatmadaw to publicize its defense policy, missions and duties, the White Paper (2015) is clearly an important milestone in Myanmar’s commitment to regional peace and stability.

At the same time, the paper is also clearly meant for domestic public consumption at a time of extraordinary political transition in Myanmar. Its timely release could be a signal to the incoming NLD-led government that the Tatmadaw intends to remain at the heart of the country’s political and security life — and that it is willing and capable to play a leading role in governing the country. Not only that, the paper sends a strong message that it is the Tatmadaw that defines the security of and defends the nation.

Maung Aung Myoe, an expert on Myanmar military issues and author of “Building the Tatmadaw” (ISEAS 2009), is a professor of international relations at International University of Japan.

About Author

Min Zin

Min Zin is a founding member and the executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy (Myanmar), which is an independent, non-partisan, and nongovernmental think tank, which promotes democratic leadership and strengthen civic participation in Myanmar. He is a PhD candidate in Travers Department of Political Science at University of California, Berkeley. Min Zin is a comparative political scientist who studies civil-military relations, democratization, contentious politics, ethnic conflicts and civil war with a focus on Myanmar and Southeast Asian countries. Min Zin’s writings appear in Journal of Democracy, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, Social Research: An International Quarterly, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Georgetown Journal of International Affair and many edited books. He serves as country analyst of Myanmar for several research foundations including Freedom House, and he is also a fellow of Legatum Institute. Min Zin took part in Burma’s democracy movement in 1988 as a high school student activist, and went into hiding in 1989 to avoid arrest by the junta. His underground activist-cum-writer life lasted for nine years until he fled to the Thai-Myanmar border in August 1997. Min Zin writes for The Foreign Policy Magazine, The New York Times, and other media outlets.

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