Many observers of Myanmar's political transition agree that the success of President Thein Sein's democratic reforms and national reconciliation initiatives hinges on his quasi-civilian government's ability and willingness to accommodate the political demands and desires of various ethnic groups.
Chief among those demands are greater political, economic and cultural autonomy in the form of federalism and control over the exploitation of natural resources in their geographic regions. But as political maneuvers and negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire agreement continue, armed ethnic groups led by the umbrella United Nationalities Federal Council have raised another condition for a final deal: the formation of a federal army combining the Myanmar Armed Forces, or Tatmadaw, with ethnic armies.
Military commander-in-chief General Min Aung Hlaing predictably rejected the idea out of hand. The top brass leader instead authorized the release and publication of a past secret memo where he squarely blamed ethnic groups for the country's political woes and made uncompromising militaristic remarks that "the army is afraid of no one".
Ethnic armed group leaders expressed their dismay and warned the remarks could undermine reconciliation and further negotiations. While the demand for a federal army at this stage of negotiations may be impractical, the commander-in-chief's strong objection has signaled a more hard-line position on the government's side.
In both theory and practice, many political analysts agree that the creation of a federal army in Myanmar is for now unrealistic. Across the world, no sovereign democratic country has more than one national army. Even in federal countries like Canada, India and the United States there is no federal army, although some have federal police forces.
There are various reasons why Myanmar's ethnic armed groups are demanding the formation of a federal army, many of them deeply rooted in political, psychological, and security concerns. During the six decades of the country's debilitating civil wars, various ethnic groups formed their own security forces or liberation armies to protect their people and territories from attacks and destruction by government troops.
Militarily and psychologically, ethnic rebel armies serve as the pride and protectors of their people. Although Myanmar's ethnic armies do not always live up to expectation, they are important institutions and symbols of resistance that many ethnic minority civilians often look to for moral support, guidance and protection from the ethnic Burman-led state.
Unlike their political leaders, ethnic armies command near universal respect from their people because of their sacrifice and perceived heroic roles in armed struggle. In the six decades of conflicts, tens of thousands of ethnic "revolutionary" soldiers have lost their lives and died in the name of freedom and autonomy for their people, just as the Tatmadaw has claimed to be the guardian and protector of the entire country.
In Myanmar's political history, General Aung San and his colleagues in the so-called "Thirty Comrades" are highly revered and regarded by the majority Burmans as national heroes and fathers of independence from colonial rule. But most ethnic people view them primarily as Burman nationalists who had little genuine interest in the affairs and well-being of ethnic minority groups.
Ask any ethnic Kachin, Karen, Shan, Mon or other ethnic person to name a national hero or days of national importance, very few would mention such prominent names as Aung San, the Thirty Comrades or days important to many Burmans such as Independence Day, Tatmadaw Day or Martyr Day . Instead, each ethnic group celebrates their own revolutionary heroes, political leaders and holidays that are mostly unknown to the majority of Burmans.
In other words, Myanmar's ethnic minority groups see themselves as distinct sovereign entities with their own sovereign armies. Therefore, the idea of dismantling or subordinating them to the Tatmadaw is unthinkable and politically unacceptable to many of them. Any central government attempt to take away such symbols of pride, power and prestige at the negotiation table or through force will continue to be strongly resisted.
Fear, loathing and mistrust
Deep-seated fear, loathing, and mistrust of the Tatmadaw means most ethnic armed groups will remain reluctant to put down their arms or place their armies under government control. For over half a century, government soldiers have systemically perpetuated gross human-rights abuses against ethnic people through arbitrary killings and wholesale destruction of their communities. Their actions have forced tens of thousands to flee their lands and become either internally displaced or stateless refugees in neighboring countries.
Any move in the name of a national ceasefire to put their security completely in the hands of the Tatmadaw is unimaginable to most ethnic communities. Although Thein Sein's government has currently declared ceasefires with the majority of ethnic armies, tens of thousands of government troops still occupy ethnic territories and continue to commit human-rights abuses in ethnic communities.
Discrimination and racism against ethnic minorities has long been state policy and is a major issue discouraging ethnic armed groups from integrating their armies with the Tatmadaw, as the government attempted in 2010 through the creation of so-called Border Guard Forces.
Prior to achieving independence many people of ethnic background held important and powerful positions in both the government and military. After independence, the country's three most powerful posts in the military were held by ethnic Karen. But ever since General Ne Win took power in 1962, very few people of ethnic background in the Tatmadaw have been promoted beyond the rank of colonel.
In today's 500,000-strong Myanmar Army, for instance, no ethnic minorities hold a position equivalent to the rank of a brigadier general. The Defense Service Academy - the country's most prestigious and powerful officer training school - is virtually off-limits to ethnic minority candidates. The majority of ethnic people who join the Tatmadaw today are largely relegated to the role of foot soldiers and junior officers.
Ethnic group demands for a federal army may be viewed as unrealistic, but it does not mean that both sides cannot work towards a compromise. One possible way ahead would be for the government to integrate all ethnic armies into the Tatmadaw while allowing military leaders of individual ethnic groups to serve as commanders of their respective brigades or battalions.
This arrangement would enable ethnic armies to be part of the national army but also allow them to maintain their distinct identity and feel secure within their own ethnic-based units. It's not an unprecedented formation: during colonial period and immediately following independence, the national armed forces were still organized largely along ethnic lines. For example, there were the Burma Riffles, Karen Riffles, Chin Riffles, and Kachin Riffles, all of which were part of the Union Armed Forces but led by their respective ethnic commanders.
These ethnic armies were effective and instrumental in the U Nu government's war with communist insurgents. General Smith Don, an ethnic Karen and the first post-independence army chief, was loyal to the Union government until he was forced to resign due to an escalating armed conflict between Karen insurgents and the central government. Had other ethnic armies such as the Kachin Riffles or Chin Riffles revolted and abandoned U Nu's government, the country could have collapsed or been taken over by communist forces.
Now, if any national ceasefire is too hold, the government will need to quickly demilitarize ethnic regions and drastically reduce the number of troops now stationed in border areas. Most ethnic communities still view government foot soldiers in their regions as foreign invaders with the intention of taking their lands and exploiting their resources. As long as large numbers of government troops are kept in ethnic areas, fear and insecurity will undermine prospects for national reconciliation via ceasefire.
As part of a confidence building process to restore trust between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups, the government could begin to address issues of inequality and policies that discriminate against ethnic minorities. Measures could be enacted to ensure promotions and rewards in the military are based on merit and service instead of family connections and race. While ethnic groups will continue to advocate for a federal army in exchange for a peace deal, a more inclusive Tatmadaw would be a step forward towards forging national unity.
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Saw Greh Moo is an analyst and program officer at the Salween Institute. Courtesy Joyo News