Written by Min Htee
Seven months after the military coup in Myanmar, the conflict between the public and the junta, or “caretaker government,” has escalated. After months of armed clashes between the military and “people’s defense forces” that were formed post-coup, as well as some ethnic armed groups, Myanmar’s conflict environment entered a new and more dangerous phase on September 7 when the National Unity Government (NUG) declared a “people’s defensive war” against the military regime. Just as armed uprising in Myanmar accompanied independence, it is safe to say that the world’s longest-running civil war will continue to grow.
Before the military seized power, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing told the media that in the 2020 general election he had “voted for the party that protects the race and religion of the country.” Some raised questions along the lines of, “How important is the race and religion of a country for its national security, development, and stability?”
And what does “nationalism”, which is currently a popular word in Myanmar, even mean? There has never been a clear definition of “nationalism” in Myanmar. In the aftermath of the 2012 conflict in Arakan State, nationalist groups emerged in Myanmar, and the term nationalism was based on ethnicity and religion. Nationalism has been defined in terms of ethnicity and religious identity, such as Bamar, Kachin, Arakanese, Chin; Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and so on.
This raises the question of whether national security is real. Cold War-era theories of nation-building posit different types of nations based on one nation and religion, known as the “nation-state.” The idea originated in France, and our neighbour in Asia Japan also practices this ideology. The other type is built in countries where there is more than one ethnic group in the area under the sovereignty of the country. It is said that these nation-states are built in the form of a State Nation, and that it is a state-based ideology. For example, a country like the United States is based on citizenship rather than race.
Every country has a national security concept. The concept of “national security” has been interpreted by many scholars in many ways, and national security is still defined today. The concept of nationalism in part means the perception of national security. I don’t know exactly how to translate the English word “Nation” into the Myanmar language.
Scholars have defined national security from different perspectives. Barry Buzan, a national security expert, has said: “The term ‘national security’ is ambiguous in terms of definition and is not ideologically sound, but politically strong and influential.” Arnold Wolfers once remarked, “The term ‘national security’ is misleading and does not have a specific meaning.”
Needless to say, the term “national security” is a very powerful term in politics. My main topic of discussion here is the definition of political conflict in Myanmar and the definition of national security. For more than 70 years, the ethnic groups living together in Myanmar have chosen an armed path to address their political rights and grievances.
Over more than 70 years, the former Burma Independence Army, which fought against the British for independence, has been transformed into the Myanmar military, aka Tatmadaw, branding ethnic armed groups “insurgents” under the pretext of “national security”. To this day, revolutionary groups and the Myanmar military both remain strong. How have national governments, whether democratically elected or dictatorships, defined national security?
The Tatmadaw drafted the 2008 Constitution and defined the state. The 2008 Constitution completely restricts the right of ethnic peoples to self-determination within a federal state, which ethnic groups want and need. The military has a constitutionally guaranteed 25% of the legislature and some ministries without the need for a permanent majority. It is a combination of semi-democracy and authoritarianism that does not lead to true democracy, as the past seven months have made clear.
The country’s most popular leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, does not seem to accept the federal democracy that ethnic nationalities want for peaceful coexistence, along with power-sharing between the states and the union. The main problem of this country is the elusive establishment of a genuine federal union based on the right to share power. This is about the political security of all the people in the country. In other words, it is national security.
Before the military coup, the Arakan Army (AA) and the Myanmar military fought fiercely in Arakan State under the so-called civilian government formed by the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Some of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters said Arakanese people should be eliminated because they attempted to oppose the government. Some of these same politicians and activists are taking up arms against the junta today. I find that Burmese politicians and activists have changed the definition of “national security” based on ethnicity.
What is Myanmar? There are many questions about race, ethnicity, the military, elected governments, regions, states, and religion. Many of these questions do not exist in every country. This is due to the military’s strong political structure and strong attachment to power.
The political conflict in Myanmar has now reached the stage of armed conflict between the people and the state. The conflict between the will of the people and the military’s desire for state power threatens national security. Despite the military council’s desire to defend the Constitution, the reality is that the military’s safety is not military security. The military’s national preeminence is in the interests of a relatively small group of people and is completely detached from national security.
There are five main components to the concept of national security, which were defined by the national security expert Buzan. The five components are (1) political security, (2) military security, (3) economic security, (4) community security, and (5) environmental security. The concept of “human security” was officially introduced in a 1994 UNDP report.
There are seven major areas of human security. These include economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, private security, community security, and political security.
I think the current conflict in Myanmar is more complicated than just building a federal state. Conflicts between the people and the military on the mainland have supplemented long-running conflicts between ethnic groups and the state. The more complicated the conflict, the more national security will be violated. National security is the security of all human beings. There is no true human security in the midst of conflict. This is a violation of national security.
I think now is the time to build a nation-state based on equality and a new national identity, in order to end the conflict in Myanmar. The NUG’s declaration of war means an end to conflict in Myanmar will not come anytime soon. If Myanmar’s “national security” is not coupled with nation-building, the country will face further national insecurity.
Instead of using the old-fashioned definition of national security, we should seek an end to the conflict that rebuilds the country in a new way, with national security focused on human security. Therefore, I see the only way to achieve “national security” is to create a Myanmar that guarantees the political freedoms of all peoples.