Thursday, July 16, 2009

Constitutional Crisis over the Border Guard Force

The Irrawaddy News

After the Burmese regime ordered the ethnic ceasefire groups to serve as border guard forces in recent months, the tension between the junta and its ceasefire militia groups has been growing.

Many interpreted the ethnic ceasefire groups’ refusal to accept the proposal as a rejection of the debatable constitution that was approved in the so-called referendum held a few days after Cyclone Nargis struck Burma in May 2008.

Kachin officers listen to a lecture on military and cultural affairs. (Photo: Ryan Libre)

Clause 338 in chapter VII, “Defence Services,” of the new constitution states that all the armed forces in the union shall be under the command of the defense services. It also states that the defense services, known as "Tatmadaw" in Burmese, is the main armed force for the defense of the union.

The junta’s recent move to transform the troops of ceasefire groups into border guard forces before the upcoming 2010 election is believed to be in accordance with the constitutional provision that armed forces must be under the command of the Tatmadaw.

Most ceasefire groups have disagreed with the order, preferring to maintain their current military status.

The border guard force plan calls for each battalion of the border guard force to consist of 326 soldiers including 18 officers. Thirty Burmese staff officers with significant roles in the command structure will be posted to each battalion.

Each battalion will have three major-ranked commanders. Of the three majors per battalion, the major in charge of administration will be drawn from the Burmese armed forces.

Each battalion would also have one general staff officer and one quartermaster, both drawn from the Burmese army with the rank of captain. Twenty-seven soldiers in the ranks, such as company sergeant majors, sergeant clerks and nurses, would be drawn from Tatmadaw forces.

Burmese observers said that this would allow the Burmese regime to monopolize the military wings of the ethnic ceasefire groups, giving them greater control in managing border security after the general election in 2010.

So far only the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army has accepted and signed the agreement with the Burmese regime to serve as a border guard force.

Seventeen insurgent groups have signed ceasefire agreements with the ruling generals since 1989, according to official Burmese reports.

The most powerful ceasefire group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), totally rejected the order, while other ceasefire groups such as the Kachin Independence Army, and the Mon New State Party, also disagreed.

They fear that they will fall under control of the Burmese army if they transfer their troops into units of the border guard force.

In May, the leaders of the UWSA—which has some 20,000 troops—replied personally to Burmese Military Affairs Security Chief Lt-Gen Ye Myint, saying that they could not accept the order and that the UWSA would maintain its current ceasefire status.

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)—which controls about 4,000 troops—also disagreed with the order to form a border guard force under joint-command with the Burmese army.

Speaking with The Irrawaddy in June, Lahkyen La Ja, the general-secretary of the KIO said its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), would only take up a border guard role when there was political change in Burma.

The KIO told the Burmese government that the KIA would prefer to form a state security force in Kachin State, northern Burma, instead.

Due to the disagreement, the Burmese regime is likely looking for alternative options in their attempts to persuade the ceasefire groups to accept the new constitution and subsequent 2010 elections.

After rejecting the order, the New Mon State Party leaders were asked by Maj-Gen Thet Naing Win, the Southeast Regional Commander in Moulmein, on June 7 to consider serving as a paramilitary group instead of being border guards.

The Burmese regime has been asserting more pressure on the ceasefire groups to transfer their troops to border guard force battalions, sending Burmese officials to ceasefire groups to persuade them to join the campaign. They have been unsuccessful so far.

Some analysts say the regime may have no option but to launch military action against ceasefire groups that refuse to reassign their troops to border guard force battalions. Others, however, are doubtful.

Htay Aung, a Burmese military analyst in exile, said, "The patience of Burmese military commanders is wearing thin because of the stand taken by ceasefire groups."

Meanwhile Rangoon-based ethnic leaders and Burmese politicians said the draft constitution is biased, as it was written by delegations hand-picked by the junta, and it lacked the participation of the ethnic leaders and the parliamentary representatives elected in 1990.

Thawng Kho Thang, a senior member of the Rangoon-based United Nationalities League for Democracy, said that the Burmese regime needed more time for the Burmese citizens to learn about the 194-page constitution. Numerous citizens are still unclear whether to support the constitution or oppose it.

Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese analyst on the Sino-Burmese border, said the Burmese military regime is unwilling to amend its constitution. However, it is also not prepared to launch military activities against the ceasefire groups that have disagreed with the order, he said

“This crisis regarding the constitution is not a minor one, especially as without NLD involvement in the process, it will become more serious,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw.

He also said that the Burmese junta might compromise with the ethnic ceasefire groups over the border guard force order, as the ceasefire groups also want to maintain their current ceasefire status.

If the Burmese regime compromises with the ceasefire groups over the border guard force order, would this lead to a review of the constitution?

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