Is Myanmar’s military really loosening its grip on power?

Myanmar’s mobile artillery in action. Source: Flickr

Myanmar’s Tatmadaw or military appears to be relaxing its iron grip on the country but in many respects it still dwarfs those challenging its long history of trampling on human rights.

The armed forces have reportedly demobilised 53 underage personnel in part of a clean-up operation, according to the United Nations.

Activists have long accused the military of abuses, including child recruitment, enforced conscription and for confiscating farmland without offering compensation.

As the military performs a slow retreat from government since handing power to a semi-civilian government in 2011, albeit an administration filled with former generals, it has released some soldiers recruited while under-18.

“Today’s release is the result of continued efforts of the Government of Myanmar and the Tatmadaw to put an end to the harmful practice of recruiting and using children,” said Renata Lok-Dessallien, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar.

“I am delighted to see these children and young people returning to their homes and families. We are hopeful that institutional checks that have been put in place and continued efforts will ensure that recruitment of children will exist no more.”

The military claims to have released 146 underage troops this year and 699 since it signed a UN action plan in 2012 to end the use of child soldiers.

The UN released no estimate for the number of underage soldiers in Myanmar, which is especially complex as the nation as 22 formidable rebel armies controlling large areas of the nation.

Lok-Dessallien called on the armed ethnic groups to stop child recruitment.

Observers say the Tatmadaw is between 300,000 and 350,000 strong but the military does not release details of its size.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has named seven rebel groups as “persistent perpetrators” in the use of child soldiers.

These include the Kachin Independence Army, which holds large areas of Kachin State, and the United Wa State Army, which operating along the Chinese border.

It is regarded as the largest and best equipped of ethnic-minority groups.

The announcement comes amid ongoing battles between the military and the Restoration Council of the Shan State in the east of Shan State, as well as in Kachin.

Activists last week accused the Tatmadaw of bombing schools, civilian villages and Buddhist temples and raping women during the offensives.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says around 6,000 people have been forced to flee the fighting in Shan State and another 1,200, including 500 children, in Kachin.

The Shan Human Rights Foundation has documented eight cases of sexual violence since April, including a 32-year-old woman who was gang-raped by 10 soldiers on November 5 while her husband was tied up under their farm hut in Ke See Township.

“We are very concerned that there has been no public condemnation by the international community about these war crimes and these attacks on civilians,” human rights activist Charm Tong said.

“We welcome a beautiful election on one side but the other reality is that people are fleeing, dying, women are being raped,” Charm Tong said.

“Villagers are still not safe and are in a dangerous situation now because of the Burma army presence is increasing.”

The government has not responded to the allegations.

The latest attacks come as Shan villagers prepare to harvest their rice paddies with many risking the threat of government’s artillery shells to return home to tend to their crops.

The UN and charities are helping Shan groups to provide hygiene kits, clothing, blankets, food, medicine, shelter and water-purification tablets as temperatures drop at night.

The ongoing series of civil wars that blight lives around Myanmar’s border regions presents the first challenge to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy when it takes power early next year.

She is due to meet the most powerful government figures this week in separate talks that could set the course for her incoming government.

President Thein Sein announced on Facebook (which is fast becoming the principal means of discourse in Myanmar) that he would meet Suu Kyi on Wednesday morning at residence in the capital Naypyitaw.

Win Htein, a senior member of the NLD, confirmed the talks with the president.

The commander-in-chief of the defence forces, Senior General Min Aung Hliang, has also said he would meet Suu Kyi later that day.

The Nobel laureate has taken a stubbornly conciliatory approach following her resounding victory in the November 8 election, dampening public celebrations. Has already held convivial talks with Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, whose eagerness to work with Suu Kyi made him enemies among the military elite leading into the election.

His ties to Suu Kyi were seen as the reason behind his sudden dismissal as joint-chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party just before the general election.

Shwe Mann until that point was being tipped as a potential compromise candidate for president as the constitution specifically bars Suu Kyi from becoming head of state because her children are foreign citizens.

But he has continued to wield influence as parliamentary Speaker and could still emerge as a bridge between the NLD and the military.

President Thein Sein, despite presiding over his party’s electoral annihilation, claims credit for the success of the election, saying it was the result of his sweeping reforms since he took power in 2011.

During the election campaign, he repeatedly referred to the dangers of rapid change, pointing out that the so-called Arab Spring happened at the same time as Myanmar’s reforms. He contrasted the relatively steady progress towards November’s general election with the scenes of bloodshed from Libya and Syria on the television news.

Whatever happens with child recruitment, the country’s numerous civil wars and Suu Kyi’s government, the Tatmadaw is destined to remain powerful.

A quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for uniformed personnel and three of the most powerful government ministries: home, defence and border affairs are under its control.

Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s rebel armies will doubtless continue to tread carefully around the Tatmadaw.

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