Why can’t Burma’s president control his military?
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Why can’t Burma’s president control his military?

President Thein Sein on Monday called for the cessation of armed conflict in Burma, yet huge doubts still exists over whether he is in a position to make this happen. As head of state, his influence over state institutions should be strong, yet twice in the past year he has called on troops to end attacks on ethnic Kachin in the north, and to no avail.

During Burma’s half century of military rule, the army was the government; Thein Sein, as general-cum-prime minister, attempted to be the politically acceptable face of the junta, but he was in a position of subordination to the military. His rise to civilian president should have corrected that, but he has struggled to elevate the civilian branch of government above that of the military, which remains the most powerful institution: the 25 percent of parliamentary seats held by uniformed military, in addition to the many military-backed MPs with the Union Solidarity and Development Party, allow them overarching powers, particularly with regards to amendments to the constitution, which require 75 percent parliamentary approval.

His inability to rein the military in became clear after he twice called for the army “not to start any fighting with the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) in Kachin State, except for self defence” – first in December 2011, then again in January this year. Indeed the Kachin Women Association Thailand (KWAT) believes the army “intensified the fighting after these orders were sent”.

Why is this the case? Writing in Democratic Voice of Burma this week, Pangmu Shayi, from Kachinland News, said: “The army has its own agenda for continuing this war, foremost being maintaining its grip on this resource-rich area where personal and institutional fortunes are so intricately intertwined.”

There is a strong and crucial link between the military and economy, given the nature of the country’s recent history where the lines between business tycoon and military general were heavily blurred. The military elites will certainly not want any part of the reforms cutting into their economic interests (note, for instance, how close the army and the gas sector is), which is likely why they are the one institution not touched by Thein Sein’s reforms.

Moreover, the approaches made by Thein Sein’s cabinet to ethnic armies is producing mixed results. While highly tenuous ceasefires have been signed with Shan and Karen groups, the Kachin have refused to lay down arms before a political solution to the roots of the conflict are found (see here for why a mere ceasefire will not work in Kachin state).  Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner said following a visit to Kachin state recently that Aung Min, the government’s chief political negotiator, in fact “has no mandate to negotiate political issues” with the Kachin.

Lintner’s observations were that the conflict is very much in full swing, one year on from Thein Sein’s calls for its cessation.

“Helicopter gunships hover in the sky above a battlefield,” he writes in Asia Times Online. “The constant sound of explosions and gunfire pierce the night for an estimated 100,000 refugees and internally displaced people. Military hospitals are full of wounded government soldiers, while bridges, communication lines and other crucial infrastructure lie in war-torn ruins.”

It was Lintner who discovered a cache of Swedish-made weapons captured by the Kachin from Burmese troops. They were sold to Burma by India on the proviso that they would only be used against insurgent groups along the India border, but their final destination in Kachin state again shows weak commanding power by the government, who would have overseen the contract, over the military.