Myanmar President Win Myint on Thursday warned the country’s powerful military to limit its involvement in politics, citing a mandate issued decades ago by independence hero General Aung San, during a ceremony inaugurating a new statue of the general and father of leader Ang San Suu Kyi in the capital Naypyidaw.
Touching on a sensitive fault line in Myanmar politics as the country prepares for year-end elections, Win Myint said that Aung San issued a directive that members of the armed forces should refrain from participation in government administration, politics, and political party activities.
“I have read that he issued guidelines for the Burmese revolutionary military that they were not to interfere in the administration or in politics, while the military officers and soldiers were not to interfere in political parties and administrative activities,” he said in a speech marking what would have been Aung San’s 105th birthday.
“They are to work on the unity of the state,” Win Myint added.
Myanmar’s military known as the Tatmadaw, ran the country for five decades after a 1962 coup. Its political power is enshrined in the 2008 constitution drafted by the then ruling military junta, and efforts to amend the charter remain an uphill battle.
Military lawmakers who are appointed, not elected, control a quarter of the seats in parliament and retain a critical veto over proposed constitutional amendments. The military also controls three security and defense ministries.
Win Myint also said he is unhappy that promises made in the 1947 Panglong Agreement between Aung San and ethnic leaders have not materialized, though the current government is trying hard to make them happen.
Aung San arranged the Panglong Conference 73 years ago to grant autonomy to the Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic minorities before Myanmar gained its independence from colonial rule by Britain in 1948.
But his assassination in July 1947 prevented the agreements made during the conference from reaching fruition, and many ethnic groups then took up arms against the central government in wars that have continued for decades.
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has resurrected the historic peace summit by holding the 21st-Century Panglong Conference, a series of peace talks between government officials, military officers, and leaders of ethnic armies and political groups, in an effort to forge peace in the country.
Military to ‘fade out’ involvement
In response to Win Myint’s remarks, Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said that the military’s involvement in politics is conditional and will cease once the country realizes internal peace.
Government forces are fighting some of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups in far-flung border regions where the rebel armies seek greater autonomy. The ongoing hostilities have prevented the government from advancing the peace process to end the wars and create a federal democratic union.
“Military leaders frequently say that the military’s involvement in politics is determined by the requirements of the time and of the situation,” Zaw Min Tun said. “The current involvement will only be for a certain period of time. When there is peace and stability in the country, the military will fade out its involvement in politics.”
Rakhine lawmaker Oo Hla Saw, who represents Mrauk-U township in Myanmar’s lower house of parliament and is a member of the Arakan National Party, dismissed the spokesman’s comments.
“They always say that,” he said. “They are telling the same old story. We are not taking them seriously.”
Myanmar forces have intensified their fighting with the state’s rebel Arakan Army (AA) for more than a year, with hostilities leaving dozens of civilians dead and displacing more than 100,000 others, according to a Rakhine relief group.
Khu Kyu Phae Kay, a member of the Karenni Youth Union, chastised leaders from the ruling civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government for wasting time creating statues of Aung San rather than taking measures to realize the terms of the original Panglong Agreement.
“The ruling government said it is implementing the promises of the Panglong Agreement signed between General Aung San and the ethnic leaders, but where has equality been for minorities up to today?” he asked.
“The ruling government hasn’t implemented the demands of the ethnic groups, and instead they are wasting time on other issues such as erecting and inaugurating giant statues,” he added.
“They say these statues are signs of unity. It’s such a joke. In fact, they are trying to accumulate political power through idolatry,” Khu Kyu Phae Kay said.
Many ethnic minorities oppose the erection of Aung San statues in their states because the general came from the ethnic Bamar (Burman) majority that dominates the country, and because they believe that the current government should focus on achieving equal rights for them.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.