Democracy Lab

It's Time for Burma's President to Act

The civil war in Burma goes on. But the government seems powerless to stop it.

RANGOON, Burma — Here in Rangoon, the never-ending visits of trade delegations, a flurry of bilateral meetings, and a rampant real estate boom still buoy Western optimism about the reforms undertaken by the Burmese government. Out in the countryside, though, the sense of feverish optimism has been dampened by the recent sectarian violence between Burmese Buddhists and Muslims. Elsewhere there's the simmering conflict in Kachin State, which has become a cause célèbre for the country's assertive civil society, a source of embarrassment for the reformist government, and a major question mark over the future role of Burma's powerful armed forces.

The military's commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, addressed the country at the Armed Forces Day parade in March, attended for the first time by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and declared that "the military adheres not only [to] civil and to martial laws and regulations, but also to the Geneva Convention." The problem is that the general's claim ignores the provisions of Burma's 2008 Constitution, which stipulates a leading political role for the armed forces -- not to mention decades of well-documented breaches of international humanitarian law and domestic military law committed by the Burmese military.

Fighting between the Burmese army and ethnic Kachin insurgents has raged in the north of the country since mid-2011, displacing over 100,000 civilians and reportedly generating high government and rebel casualties. Fighting intensified in December, with a rare use of air power by government forces that brought them closer to the rebel stronghold of Laiza astride the Chinese border. In recent weeks, a tenuous ceasefire was agreed though sporadic fighting continues, and there are indications that the Burmese army is using the lull to reinforce and resupply troops in the area under the cover of aid convoys.

Some Western policy analysts and several diplomats in Rangoon suggested that the central orders for the offensive did not come from the president's office, and some Western observers have told me in private conversations that a "rogue commander" was at work, out of the control of the president and commander-in-chief. Continued army operations were cast as "defensive actions," interpreted liberally from the president's orders by troops on the ground, even as the speaker of the lower house of the national parliament and former general Thura Shwe Mann and members of the Burmese parliament were calling for the fighting to be stopped. The confusion begs the question: If the president's frequent calls for a ceasefire haven't been heeded, then who really controls Burma's military?

A close reading of the 2008 constitution makes clear that the president and the parliament have only tenuous control over the military; they have, indeed, no real control at all. Claims that Thein Sein is trying to "rein in" the army or bring them under "civilian control" are disingenuous: He cannot constitutionally rein in an institution over which he has no authority. Chapter Five of the constitution vests most of the power to make national security decisions, or "appropriate military action," in the National Defense and Security Council. Little is known about the internal operations of this 11-member council. Six members are serving military officers: the commander-in-chief of the defense services General Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy, the minister of defense, the military-appointed vice-president (Burma has two vice-presidents), and ministers of border affairs and home affairs. Among the five ostensibly civilian members, there are four who are former military officers, including the president, the minister for foreign affairs, the civilian appointed vice-president, and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament, including Thura Shwe Mann, himself a prominent commander from offensives against Karen insurgents in the 1990s.

The Burmese military has further powers. The constitution gives it control over its budget, recently estimated at one-fifth of government expenditure (far more than health and education combined). It maintains immunity from the civilian justice system. And it is empowered by the vaguely worded directive that the "Defense Services shall take the lead in safeguarding the Union against all internal and external threats." The president appoints the commander-in-chief of the military, but only following the "proposal and approval" of the National Defense and Security Council.

These are extraordinary powers for any military, but hardly surprising given that the current generation of Burmese civilian leaders was instrumental in drafting the constitution precisely to preserve the influence and immunity of the Burmese military. So there is no constitutional basis for assuming that the president has any serious power to control the everyday operations of the army. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, who has received mounting criticism for her failure to speak out on abuses in the Kachin conflict, noted in January that "if the commander-in-chief did this [military offensive] on his own judgment, I must say that according to our current constitution he is entitled to do so."

Burma's parliament recently announced the formation of a constitutional review mechanism, passed unanimously by the bicameral national assembly. The increasingly influential speaker of the lower house, Thura Shwe Mann, stated, "[i]t is natural that any law, however perfect it may be, will need to be adjusted, according to changes over time, when it is found to be inappropriate for internal and international political, social and economic conditions," a decidedly brazen statement from a leading figure of the military who drafted the constitution. The issues tackled by this new review board will likely look at ethnic issues arising from the nascent ceasefire process as ethnic leaders voice objections to provisions in the charter, and restrictions that preclude Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president. The powers of the military are still largely a taboo subject in Burmese politics, and it is unlikely that parliament, at least ahead of the 2015 elections, will attempt to unravel the authoritarian threads running throughout the constitution and unsettle the military.

There is also little basis to conclude that local commanders, enraged by high casualties to their own forces (possibly in the thousands), somehow acted on their own initiative and undertook a major offensive against the Kachin insurgents -- an argument that seems designed to shield the president from the mounting opprobrium from ongoing hostilities and abuses. The use of airstrikes, including by Russian manufactured Mi-24 attack helicopters and Chinese-supplied light aircraft, has been rare in Burma's civil wars. And the last offensive deployment of forces this size -- an estimated 1,500 heavy mortar rounds were fired one day in January -- took place during the battle for Sleeping Dog Mountain in Karen State in 1992. Sustained use of air power, based in central Burma, and the rotation of division-size infantry units from throughout the country, simply cannot be ordered by a local commander. The escalation of fighting over the past three months could only have occurred with the approval, if not on the orders, of the central War Office in Naypyidaw, the capital.

By claiming that the Burmese leadership is not responsible for the major military operations in Kachin State, some military analysts and academics have sought to deflect blame from senior commanders for ongoing laws-of-war violations. But abusive behavior by the Burmese military in counter-insurgency operations -- characterized by attacks on civilians, murder, torture, forced labor, use of child soldiers, and destruction of civilian property -- has been well-documented for decades. International law holds commanders responsible for the actions of their troops when they knew or should have known of war crimes and take no action to prevent or punish those committing them.

Constitutional issues aside, no one should be surprised that the government's recent reform efforts have barely touched the army. It will probably be very hard to find former senior military officers in the government with clean hands after decades of dirty civil wars and the repression of popular uprisings. President Thein Sein was himself a regional commander in northeastern Burma from 1999 to 2002, where he commanded large-scale operations against ethnic Shan rebels. They are the product of a system that has changed little in an era of reform.

There are growing calls for engagement with Burma's military, particularly by Australia, which recently announced a resumption of limited military engagement, and increasingly the United States. Such contacts are likely, however, to be confined to discussions on rules of engagement, compliance with international humanitarian law, and basic logistics to reduce the military's reliance on forced labor. The International Labor Organization (ILO) reached an important joint strategy plan with the Burmese army in July 2012, in which it promised to eradicate forced labor and associated abuses, such as use of child soldiers and the widespread practice of "self-sufficiency" -- essentially a license to plunder, tax, appropriate land and livestock and use civilians as a financial resource. Any engagement with the army could well use the ILO's efforts as a starting point for principled and productive engagement.

But the central challenge to Burma's reform is to bring the country's military under genuine central government control. Amending the constitution so that the army is obligated to do what the government tells it to do is a crucial step. Only then will there be hope that future elected leaders will have the authority and power to ensure civilian control over national defense -- and ultimately democracy in Burma. 

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Israel’s Three Gambles

Can Israel get away with its attacks on the Syrian regime?

Israel's recent attacks against Syria are the latest, dramatic development in a conflict that is already spiraling out of control. In the past few days, Israeli aircraft reportedly targeted Iranian surface-to-surface missiles headed for Hezbollah, as well as Syrian missiles in a military base in the outskirts of Damascus. Israel's strikes show, once again, its intelligence services' ability to penetrate the Iran's arms shipment route to Lebanon and its military's skill in striking adversaries with seeming impunity. But Israel is also risking retaliation and further destabilization of its own neighborhood -- in ways that may come back to haunt it.

With much of Syria outside the control of Bashar al-Assad's forces, Israel is particularly wary of chemical weapons or advanced conventional weaponry falling into the wrong hands, whether it's extremist Sunni opposition groups like Jabhat al-Nusra or, more immediately, Assad's and Iran's Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. The missiles Israel sought to hit in the first attack on Friday have a significantly larger payload, greater accuracy, and longer range than the bulk of the Lebanese Shiite group's current arsenal. Contrary to the allegations of the Assad regime that claims Israel's strikes prove it is backing the opposition, Israel is not throwing its weight against Assad. Indeed, Israel's latest strikes represent the latest in a long-standing policy of denying the transfer of arms that could alter the balance of power between Israel and Hezbollah -- weapons systems such as advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles; the Iranian-made Fateh 110 surface-to-surface missiles (reportedly targeted this weekend) that would significantly increase Hezbollah's threat to northern Israeli cities; or additional surface-to-sea weaponry, such as the kind successfully used against an Israeli ship in July 2006.

More broadly, the Israeli strike is meant to disrupt the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah nexus. Iran has long provided Hezbollah with hundreds of millions of dollars (the exact amount is unknown and probably fluctuates considerably) and a wide range of weaponry, including anti-tank missiles and long-range rockets. Since Hezbollah's birth in the early 1980s, Syria has served as intermediary, allowing Iranian forces to deploy within Lebanon and serving as a transit point for Iranian weapons -- something Hezbollah's Lebanese opponents have complained about, as well as Israel.

The strikes are a gamble, however, for three main reasons. The first bet is that Syria will not respond. Israel has long been a whipping boy for Arab regimes short on domestic credibility: it's not hard in this part of the world to paint any opponents as Zionist stooges. Bashar, like his father Hafez before him, backed Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist groups in the name of the "resistance," hoping to win points at home and throughout the Arab world -- while distracting attention from his tyranny and economic failures. Indeed, early in the Syrian uprising, the Assad regime tried to create a crisis by pushing Palestinian refugees living in Syria to return to Israel  to divert attention from the crackdown. This failed, but the Israeli strike offers a chance to try again.

Israeli leaders, however, believe that this playbook is dated. When Israel hit the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, Assad and his cronies remained mum and did not retaliate. Today, Israeli strategists are gambling that Assad is too embattled to risk escalation. His military forces are weak and overstretched already, facing fierce domestic opposition with no effective airpower. Further losses to Israel and its air force would deprive the regime of desperately needed elite forces. Indeed, Israel seems rather sure of itself: as the smoke was still clearing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu projected business as usual, departing on a state visit to China.

Perhaps even more important, if Assad tries to use Israel as a foil he risks further losses, which would be politically humiliating and potentially extremely damaging for a regime that is already on a knife's edge. The Israeli strikes show that it can violate Syrian sovereignty with impunity, and the Syrian opposition is now charging that Assad has repeatedly failed to protect Syrian soil from Israel. The Syrian Opposition Council, a leading opposition political grouping, is trying to play the Israel card itself, noting that it "holds the Assad regime fully responsible for weakening the Syrian army by exhausting its forces in a losing battle against the Syrian people." Meanwhile, the remaining nationalists in the Syrian military resent this embarrassment, risking Assad further defections and desertions.

The Syrian president's calculations may change, however, if his regime's grip on power slips further. As Middle East expert Kenneth Pollack argues, Assad still thinks he can win this thing; but if he becomes desperate, he will be far more willing to lash out, using everything in his arsenal to prevent defeat. Attacking Israel would be a desperate move -- but Assad is becoming a desperate man.

Israel's second gamble is that Hezbollah will not retaliate. Since the bloody 2006 war, Israel's border with Lebanon has largely been quiet -- indeed, the quietest it has been for generations. After that destructive and indecisive conflict, Hezbollah silenced its guns, fearing that provoking Israel would lead to another bloody clash for which it would take the blame. Now, however, the Lebanese militant group is in a box. With Hezbollah forces fighting side-by-side with Assad, they have lost popularity in Lebanon and throughout the Arab world. Once lauded as heroes for standing up to Israel, now they are scorned for siding with a butcher against his own people.

Meanwhile, within Lebanon, the Syrian war is stoking sectarian tension, leading militant Sunnis to condemn Hezbollah and Shias in general, and diminishing Hezbollah's claim that it is a champion of all Lebanese, not just Shias. But with Israel striking at Hezbollah's crown jewels, its weapons supplies, a non-response damages its credibility. The temptation to restore its reputation -- and create a distraction that turns Israel's attentions from Damascus -- may prove too great.

Israel's third gamble is one shared by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and perhaps the United States -- that increased meddling by neighbors will lead to the collapse of Syria. In Israeli eyes, the only thing worse than Assad's regime in Syria would be chaos in Syria, with either Hezbollah gaining access to Syria's arsenals or jihadist groups allied with al Qaeda (like Jabhat al-Nusra) assuming control of swathes of Syrian territory. In this scenario, Syria would then become an incubator of jihad on Israel's border, much as Israel fears that Sinai, to its south, has already become. Hezbollah, at least, can be deterred, but the roving al Qaeda groups have no fixed address and care little about protecting ordinary Syrians from Israeli retaliation, making them far harder to deter. Jihadists might use Syria's ballistic missile and chemical weapons arsenals against Israel, forcing an invasion in response, or at least repeated attacks. Israel's Syrian border, so peaceful -- through deterrence -- for so long, would again be a war zone.

Israel is preparing for all of these possibilities by increasing its intelligence gathering operations (evidenced by the successful attacks this weekend) and bolstering its border defenses. Old guard posts on the Golan have been re-staffed and the Israeli northern command has recently drilled a whole reserve division in a mock-emergency call-up exercise. Israel also deployed Iron Dome anti-missile batteries and temporarily closed the civilian airspace in the north of the country. Such preparation may decrease the carnage any Syrian or Hezbollah response causes and give Israeli leaders some political breathing space -- but they won't solve the fundamental tensions caused by the chaos and uncertainty in Syria and Lebanon.

Perhaps the best Israel -- or any of America's regional allies -- can do now is to try to protect its interests in Syria, while managing the unrest and violence that spills out of the country. Yet here the United States has an important role to play. In different ways, key U.S. allies -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, and now Israel -- are intervening in Syria. Ideally, the United States would make its own objectives and strategy clear to its allies and convince them to bolster America's own policy. But for now the Obama administration does not seek overtly to lead the international response to the Syria crisis. That's not quite good enough. At the very least, Washington needs to coordinate allied interventions so together they make it more likely that Bashar's regime will fall and Syria will return to stability. At the very least, the administration must make sure they are not working at cross purposes and that the actions of one power do not harm the interests of another.