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Burma’s most senior military official instructed fellow officers on Tuesday to keep army interests in mind when casting their ballots next month.
In a meeting with ranking officers and servicemen at the Naypyidaw Regional Military Command, Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing urged for his men to vote for candidates that are capable of understanding and relating to the military.
Burma’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was founded by Burma’s former military junta and is led by ex-generals, including current President Thein Sein, who is party chair and Htay Oo, who is his deputy.
Detailing his lecture in a Burmese-language post to his Facebook page on Wednesday, Burma’s commander-in-chief quoted himself as telling the servicemen that it is important to not choose the wrong candidate and give their votes to:
“Those who can work in the interest of country and region; are well acquainted with politics, economics, governance and military; and are capable of upholding the three national causes. And those who are understanding and compassionate towards the Tatmadaw [the Burmese army].”
Burmese military officials and the retired generals that lead the USDP frequently invoke non-disintegration of the union, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty as three indispensible ‘national causes’. The three slogans are enshrined in Burma’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution, which posits them as Union Goals with the ultimate function of “enabling the Defence Services to be able to participate in the national political leadership role of the State.”
Min Aung Hlaing too proposed that the best candidates are those that are “capable of righteously and systematically safeguarding Burma’s national race and religion and are free from influence of foreign organisations and foreigners.”
Burma has no official race or religion, a notion not lost on U.S Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, who yesterday implored Burma’s government to uphold the nation’s constitution by ensuring the separation of religion and politics. Hardline Buddhist preachers continue to play a central role in the lead up to Burma’s historic election set for next month.
The Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, a well-organised fundamentalist organisation made up of monks and laymen, has used its sizable following to promote the ruling USDP. The group known widely by its Burmese acronym Ma-Ba-Tha is notorious for promoting anti-Muslim sentiment. Analysts have cited the Ma-Ba-Tha’s ability to play on public nervousness created by Burma’s rapid democratisation process with their brand of chauvinistic traditionalism.
Reference Min Aung Hlaing made to foreign influence is a likely allusion to Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s opposition leader who is set to scoop the lion’s share of the popular vote next month. Suu Kyi’s late husband was British, as are her two sons, a fact that sees her constitutionally blocked from claiming the presidency, no matter how many seats her National League for Democracy wins.
Without giving much away in terms of detail, Min Aung Hlaing also told servicemen on Tuesday to prepare in advance for a mandatory military service system applied to all citizens sometime in the future.
“Now people join the army on their own volition. Sometimes in the future, every citizen is to perform the defence duties for a specific time period under the law. They can continue joining military services permanently if they have the wish. For that necessary preparations need to be made,” reads an English language version of Min Aung Hlaing’s Naypyidaw address that was posted to his official Facebook page later on Wednesday.
Laws surrounding forcible conscription are murky. According to Burmese and international law, the practice comes under the banner of forced labour, which the International Labour Organisation (ILO) describes as “any work that a person is required to do against their will, under threat of any form of penalty if they do not comply or cooperate”.
Burma’s constitution says this is illegal except for “duties assigned by the Union in accord with the law in the interest of the public”.