Democracy Lab

Why Burma's Top General Is Playing Peacemaker

The leader of Burma's military is leveraging peace talks to position himself for next year's epochal presidential election.

It's election season in Burma. The 2015 general election, which promises to be the first more or less free vote of its type in more than half a century, is already looming large. The leader of the military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is already giving glimpses of his strategy for victory: a breakthrough in peace talks with the ethnic rebels who are still at odds with the central government.

Burma's liberalization process has generated high expectations within the international community. What outsiders often tend to miss is that the 60-year-old civil war between the central government and ethnic minorities continues today -- despite all the positive talk about peace from the country's leaders. This is the most daunting hurdle that Burma has to cross before it can establish a stable, open democracy. Min Aung Hlaing has decided to take on this challenge, and has spent the last few months making the rounds among ethnic armies. He has met with some success: In early April, he managed to bring the leaders of all major groups to the table for peace talks in Rangoon -- the largest meeting of its kind since Burma achieved independence in 1948. The talks have so far been a success: After the four-day-long peace negotiations, the attendees approved a draft of a national ceasefire agreement. Under Min Aung Hlaing's leadership, the military has put ethnic reconciliation squarely at the center of its agenda.

The reason for this is clear. Success at the peace talks could be a game-changer for Min Aung Hlaing, who is rumored to have his eye on the presidency. With presidential elections just around the corner, substantive progress in talks with the ethnic armies can bolster the commander-in-chief's chances in two key ways: First, it will help him develop a political platform and a clear image, both crucial to making the shift into electoral politics. Second, it will help him win votes in parliament. As member of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team (NCCT) commented, the army chief's priority, as he has told senior military officials, is to obtain not just an end to the fighting, but a durable peace that will last for a long time to come.

Needless to say, such a result won't come easy. Just a few days after the first meeting, in mid-April, there were signs that not everything was going well. When General Gun Maw, the leader of an ethnic army in the conflict-ridden Kachin state, visited the United States recently, he revealed that continuing fighting between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has been getting in the way of substantive dialogue, and implored the United States to take part in the talks. Gun Maw's message shows that the government has yet to earn the trust of the country's ethnic armies. And earning that trust -- a vital prerequisite for the success of the talks -- depends on Min Aung Hlaing.

For more than six decades since the last British forces pulled out, Burma has been ravaged by civil war between the central government and the ethnic armed groups. In 1947, independence hero General Aung San reached a deal, called the Panglong Agreement, that guaranteed ethnic minority groups broad rights and full administrative autonomy for frontier regions. Unfortunately, Aung San -- who is also the father of dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- was assassinated a few months later. Later governments, which were dominated by ethnic Burmans, failed to live up to the spirit of the Panglong Agreeement. That prompted many ethnic groups, including the KIA, to take up arms to push for greater autonomy and ethnic rights. (In the photo above, a KIA rebel overlooks the Mung Lai river near the militia's headquarters in Kachin state.)

The ethnic armies, then, have good reason to mistrust the government. Yet today the ethnic groups have shown that they're willing to give the peace process a try. Last year the Thein Sein government stepped up its efforts to conduct political dialogue with all ethnic rebels based on a ceasefire that was accepted by many of them.

It's important to note that the military has often used ceasefire agreements as part of a broader strategy for containing the rebellions on the country's periphery. The military concluded temporary ceasefires with certain groups while using the respites thus granted to intensify pressure on others. There were 14 ceasefire agreements between the military junta and the ethnic armed groups from 1989 to 2004 (including one with the KIA that only broke down in June 2011). This containment strategy did reduce clashes to some extent, but was unable to produce any lasting solutions because there was no genuine political dialogue between the ethnic groups and the junta. The recent draft ceasefire agreement suggests that the sides are making progress, and could indeed sign a long-term peace agreement by the declared deadline of August 1.

If Min Aung Hlaing can bring the negotiations to a successful end by the end of 2014, it would be an enormous boost to his prestige. A deal would mark a major breakthrough for the country, which has suffered from an intractable civil war for more than six decades. It's a high return wager for his potential presidential bid.

It would also offer some very practical advantages. Burma's parliament, as it presently exists, is divided up according to a quota system that gives a certain number of seats to various interest groups. Support from the ethnic groups represented in parliament could help give his candidacy a crucial boost. As it stands, the military bloc within Burma's parliament would be enough to make him one of the country's three vice presidents -- but the military holds just 25 percent of seats, not enough to make him president. A peace deal, and the ensuing support from Burma's ethnic minorities, would give him an edge on his competitors both inside parliament and in the country's ethnic regions.

So far, however, Min Aung Hlaing's peace deal efforts are far from perfect. One of the major issues is that the deal hinges on the military's list of six conditions, including the controversial demand that the groups respect the military-drafted 2008 constitution. Ethnic armed groups find half of these conditions unacceptable, stalling the talks. But as the army chief's retirement looms, the military has shown a willingness to tackle any remaining obstacles within the next few months. General Gun Maw, the Kachin leader, predicts that the military will compromise on the six points, stating that President Thein Sein and Gen Min Aung Hlaing will change policy if that was what they had to do to reach a peace agreement. If this is the case, it could mean a true conclusion of the world's longest civil war.

With a ceasefire in hand, there would be enough room for Min Aung Hlaing to maneuver for the presidency to outstrip his potential rivalries: Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still barred from running under an obscure article in the 2008 constitution, and the leaders of the ruling party, who have little or no public support. Meanwhile, escalating social unrest caused by the heated sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims, continuing conflicts over land ownership, and a general lack of rule of law continue to destabilize domestic politics. Ultimately, the military chief's success will depend on how shrewdly he manages the peace agreement and whether he can present himself as a strong, effective leader in the country's fragile transition.

A genuinely peaceful and federal Burma remains an ambitious and elusive goal. If Min Aung Hlaing can show decisive progress toward that end, he'll have a realistic chance of winning the presidency. But as things stand now the senior general still has a lot of work ahead of him.

Patrick BODENHAM/AFP/GettyImages


Putin and His Judo Cronies

Why the Russian president is turning to his fellow martial artists to staff an efficient and loyal security force.

Vladimir Putin, perhaps the world's most famous judo black belt, is passionate about his sport -- and not just in the dojo, but in the Kremlin. Welcome to the age of the "judocracy" in Russia, where the thinking seems to be: Those who spar together, stay together.

The most recent example of this played out on May 12, when Putin appointed Col. Gen. Viktor Zolotov to be the first deputy interior minister and commander of the Internal Troops. A close associate of the president's, Zolotov was the head of his personal security detail for 13 years -- and, of course, he was one of Putin's sparring partners. (So too was Igor Sidorkevich, once president of the St. Petersburg Judo Federation and now head of the military police.) With Zolotov's promotion, Putin brings in the security forces even closer to him, and he is making sure that they are led by a man with the focus and determination he believes judo inspires.

To a judoka, as Putin said in 2012, "success depends on mastering what is within." And that could almost be the motto of Putin's Internal Troops. It is a distinctively Russian force, a parallel army trained and equipped specifically for security operations at home. Its 180,000 troops range from ill-disciplined local reserves that secure nuclear power stations and police soccer matches, to the Independent Special Designation Brigades that bore much of the brunt of the fighting in Chechnya. The Internal Troops's First Independent Special Designation Division is based in Moscow as an elite force for the security of the Kremlin.

While Putin's approval ratings have hit 80 percent, he appears to understand that this support is potentially brittle. And while he has moved to transform himself into an avatar of aggressive and imperialist Russian nationalism, he also wants to make sure that the internal security apparatus will be both efficient and loyal if push comes to shove. And what better way than by tapping the judo fraternity?

As the Internal Troops would be the front line against any serious public unrest, it is no wonder why Putin wants a loyal and tough man in charge, and Zolotov seems the perfect praetorian-in-chief. The 60-year-old is a career "Chekist" -- member of the security forces -- who joined the KGB after his military service, then transferred to its post-Soviet successors. In the early 1990s, Zolotov was assigned as the bodyguard for the then-unknown deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, one Vladimir Putin. This relationship proved a lasting one.

Although Zolotov later spent a short time in private security, he packed his bags for Moscow in 1999 to work for Putin again. In 2000, he became head of the Presidential Security Service (SBP), and he held that position until last year, when he was transferred to the Interior Ministry, leaving one of his protégés, Oleg Klimentev, in charge of the service.

Zolotov not only exudes self-confidence, but also "resoluteness, purposefulness, patience, respect for elders, for comrades in the team." Those are the traits that one learns through judo -- at least that's what Putin said in the DVD, Let's Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin. Not bad characteristics for a sparring partner -- and certainly not bad ones for political or business comrades.

Billionaires Arkady and Boris Rotenberg learned judo alongside Putin as a teenager, and much of their business empire has been built on lucrative government contracts. Gennadi Timchenko, sanctioned billionaire former head of commodity trading firm Gunvor -- and, it is widely rumored, the "banker" of the Russian deep state -- was another old sparring partner and is still honorary chair of St. Petersburg's Yavara-Neva judo club. Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev co-founded the Russian Union of Martial Arts with Russian Atomic Agency head Sergei Kirienko, a fellow aficionado.

The rise of the martial artists speaks volumes about the way power in modern Russia is essentially determined by the favor of the autocrat. Factions in Tsar Vladimir's court crystallize around institutional interests, charismatic individuals, common ideas, or shared self-interest -- and even around sports.

Many of these factions overlap, but what is interesting is that the martial artists tend to stand apart from such existing groups as the "Ozero Dacha Collective," a clique of shareholders in an exclusive lakeside residential complex (including Putin), and the "Orthodox Chekists," who combine experience within the security agencies with a strong commitment to the Russian Orthodox faith. The martial artists rose not because of their wealth or their mutual assistance, but because Putin reached down and raised them up, seeing in them something valuable, something special.

After all, Putin, taciturn on so many issues, waxes lyrical on the virtues of judo. In his words, it teaches "self-control, the ability to feel the moment, to see the opponent's strengths and weaknesses." No wonder these are his go-to guys in increasingly tense and challenging times. At a time when Putin appears concerned about the true loyalties of his elite, especially as targeted economic sanctions begin to force them to choose between the country and their global business interests, politics is, if anything, becoming even more intensely personal. In his writings on the martial art, Putin repeatedly returns to the theme that it not only "puts near total emphasis on the development of character" but that sparring gives him the opportunity to understand people's inner qualities and learn on whom he can rely.

The president is narrowing his circle of confidants and allies, and making sure people he trusts are in charge of the key institutions of security and power. And there seems no better way to becoming one of those trusted praetorians than by letting Putin practice his trademark harai goshi sweeping hip throw on you.