Who is chewing up Myanmar or Burma?

Who is chewing up Myanmar or Burma?

Who is chewing up Myanmar or Burma?

By Maung Zarni

Evolution of a mafia state in Myanmar

Despite being in power for over half a century, Myanmar’s military, both its despotic leadership and institutional instruments, namely the Tatmadaw, or armed forces, remains an enigma. It is the black hole of understanding in the literature, research and reporting produced about a country that suddenly finds itself in the limelight after decades of international isolation.
The world is well-acquainted with opposition leader and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi – her political beliefs, her inspiring personal tale, and her pedigree as the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, General Aung San. Even her aesthetic tastes are well-publicized, as are the abuses and acts of persecution she has endured at the hands of the military.
And yet the world knows surprisingly little about the country’s dictatorship, despite its decades of repressive military rule and the exceedingly negative impact it has had on Myanmar’s society, culture, economy, politics, and foreign relations. This is not surprising since dictatorships typically thrive on secrecy about their modus operandi and the resultant confusion among the oppressed.
Myanmar’s military dictatorship, now under the guise of President Thein Sein’s “democratic” administration, is no exception. In contrast, iconic dissidents such as Suu Kyi and opposition movements can only sustain their relevance and popular support by making their views and strategies accessible to their friends and supporters, as well as opponents and detractors. Systems of political repression strive to paralyze the domestic public and its international supporters, while liberation struggles seek to mobilize both.
Myanmar’s military rulers, despite their often-reported ignorance, are far better informed about the world than they are given credit for. Still, the West continues to deliberate about what will help to nudge them out of darkness. The military despots may feign strategic ignorance, but it would be a mistake to underestimate their knowledge of the geopolitical space their country occupies.
As a Burmese saying goes, “the ruler has 1,000 ears”. According to Kyaw Thet, former professor of international relations and history at Rangoon University, former dictator General Ne Win sent one of his personal assistants to fetch a copy of Kyaw Thet’s doctoral thesis, which examined Sino-Burmese relations. In Kyaw Thet’s words, “(of all people) the General was the only one who showed a genuine interest in my thesis.”
The current aging despot Senior General Than Shwe, a former instructor at the now defunct Central School of Political Science at Chawtwingone, leader of the previous ruling junta and current behind-the-scenes mastermind of the country’s supposed transition to democracy, is known among the staff of the Myanmar’s foreign and defense ministries to have a keen interest in strategic ideas about international relations.
Before the relocation of the old capital Yangon to the purpose-built new military capital at Naypyidaw in November 2005, Than Shwe was known to have surprised the staff at the National Defense University, the country’s highest-level staff college for upwardly mobile military officers, by attending class discussions and listening to seminars.
Over this half-century, successive military rulers have adopted a successful strategy of keeping their inner circles and the institution of military as little understood or “readable” as possible, by friends and foes alike.
Even Beijing, the regime’s most important international supporter and business partner, was left in the dark about the regime’s plan to relocate the entire administrative capital to Naypyidaw, an effective military fortress complete with North Korean-designed underground bunkers and escape tunnels. Regardless of the Chinese leadership’s reported irritation, the military typically takes enormous pride in keeping its internal affairs and modus operandi secretive, unpredictable and under-studied.
An illustrative motto “Reveal little, listen, look and gather all you can” is posted on the door of former Military Intelligence Unit Number 7 on Yangon’s Halpin Road sums up the military’s strategic stance on informational and institutional secrecy. Notably, it is considered treason for rank and file members to communicate with foreigners without prior authorization. Those who are officially assigned to liaise with foreign visitors of all national backgrounds are highly trained and unlikely to leak any meaningful revelations.
During the first military dictatorship of General Ne Win (1962-88), in the mid-1970s the regime relaxed these restrictions to a degree by allowing some of its top commanders to mingle with Western diplomats and military attaches. Declassified US embassy cables from that period by its diplomatic intelligence unit in Yangon indicate that ex-Brigadier Thaung Dan, former Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff and a graduate of the Japanese Military Academy in the 1940’s, would make personal requests to US embassy staff to get certain books, such as Dr Ba Maw’s Breakthrough in Burma, at a time they were banned by the regime.
Former Defense Minister ex-General Tin Oo (now the 82-year-old vice-chair of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party) was even allowed to play tennis with Western diplomats by the mid-1970s. Restrictions on such contacts with foreign diplomats were tightened again after the end of Ne Win’s rule. Headquartered in the remote new capital Naypyidaw, despite all the pretensions of liberalizing the country, the military is increasingly inaccessible to the West.
Over the past five decades, only two foreign scholars have been granted limited access to the army archives at the Ministry of Defense. They are Robert H Taylor and Mary Callahan, political scientists who respectively authored The State in Myanmar (1987) and Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma (2003).
After a serious vetting process by military intelligence and blessings from the highest level of authority, both Ne Win’s and Than Shwe’s regimes officially allowed these Americans into the country as researchers, Taylor in the early 1970s and 1980s and Callahan a decade later. Even then, no archival materials dated after March 2, 1962, the date of Ne Win’s military coup, were made accessible to either researcher.
The limited knowledge of Myanmar’s military dictatorship and the military as their institutional base of power is the intended outcome of a deliberate strategy of information and data control. The resultant ignorance about the generals and their world, and the generals’ studied display of ignorance about the outside world, has served the dictatorship well. The generals have apparently taken Sun Tsu’s advice, “confuse your enemies”, to heart as official policy.
Notional nationalism
On the eve of Myanmar’s 1988 popular uprisings, a decorated soldier with the rank of major remarked candidly to this writer that the Tatmadaw which he served had morphed from a once venerable nationalist institution into the country’s largest mafia, soaked in corruption and rotten to its core, with all the manifest characteristics of a criminal network.
Sitting in his office in a military compound and looking deeply dismayed, the officer mocked the long-cherished popular notion of “soldiers as ultimate patriots.” “We call ourselves patriots and nationalists. All we do is steal from the people and rob them of their future. This whole army stinks,” he said. “My wife has to suck up the wife of my boss. The guy below me licks my boots and I have to do the same with my superiors. If I want to climb the career ladder I have to pay my commanding officer. This chain of bribery and corruption is pervasive.”
His final solemn words of advice: “So don’t come back here [to Myanmar, then known as Burma]. Find greener pastures and settle there.”
The overwhelming majority of foreign writers, experts and diplomats usually find Myanmar’s military dictatorship morally repugnant and show varying degrees of disdain towards its ruling generals. And yet many of them would not hesitate to use the term “nationalist” to describe the motivations of military personnel. What moved a decorated soldier to speak unequivocally ill of his “surrogate parents”, the army, while many scholars and journalists who have never met a flesh-and-blood Myanmar soldier and/or set foot in a military compound refer to the very same institution as “nationalistic”?
“Soldiers’ surrogate parents” is a special term the Ministry of Defense Directorate of Psychological Warfare has coined and promulgated among the military’s rank and file. It is deployed specifically to remind them that their primary allegiance is to the armed forces, which to the Tatmadaw is coterminous with the sovereign Myanmar nation-state.
Upon hearing speculation about possible reforms that would arise from the formation of a new cabinet and new parliament in April 2010, a former junior general who was forced to retire and is now resident in Yangon remarked to a foreign visitor that the new generation of rising military officers would be more “interested in getting to the buffet table than launching genuine reforms to address the concerns of public welfare”.
That was in early 2010, two decades after my officer friend described the military, his employer, as a “national mafia”. And yet one often hears policy-makers and the popular press make reference to the country’s military rulers and the military institution as fiercely “nationalistic”, as if this presumed patriotism explains and justifies the generals’ behavior, policies and practices.
So what lies within the regime’s “nationalism” and why does it qualify as genuine? Do “national level mafias” have ideologies that can be glorified as nationalism in the most elemental sense of advancing the interests and agenda of one’s own “(presumably) mono-ethnic nation” within and without its recognized territorial confines?
Since its inception as a revolutionary armed force in 1942, Myanmar’s military has witnessed a regressive evolution. At the outset, the military was generally a popular nationalist institution, which helped restore a sense of national pride among the dominant Burmese, or Bama, majority.
Ethnic Burmese had been barred by British colonial rulers from carrying knives bigger than pencil sharpeners, while at the same time the British recruited large numbers of exclusively non-Burmese ethnic groups into its local imperial army, organizing them in ethnic-based battalions such as the Chin Rifles, Kachin Rifles, and so on.
While nationalism was used to mobilize support for the armed forces in the period immediately after independence was achieved in 1948, by 1962 the armed forces were blowing up nationalist symbols such as Rangoon University’s student union building and indiscriminately killing unarmed students on the same campus in the name of national security.
At the second party Congress in 1968, San Yu, who was second in command of Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council government, officially declared that that the newly established Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) and its nucleus of military officers considered both politically active students and Buddhist monks as “enemies of the state.”
The regime’s bloody crackdown, including raids on hundreds of monasteries and indiscriminate shooting and killing of students and monks, during the 2007 Saffron Revolt (of the saffron-color-robed monks) is only the best known and most recent event in a long-running tension between these two groups and the military-dominated state.
The same military regime, fronted by President Thein Sein, internally discriminates against military officers of Christian faith, denies Muslim Rohingyas the right to nationality resulting in systematic abuse and exploitation, loots local ethnic Karen villages, scavenges from rural populations, and condones the rape of ethnic minority women and girls by military personnel in the country’s eastern war zones.
The Tatmadaw also jails and tortures the political opposition, auctions off without accountability irreplaceable natural assets such as rivers, forests, minerals, and natural gas, confiscates thousands of acres of virgin lands from minorities for the development of mono-crop agro-business with no compensation to the latter, forcibly relocates hundreds of villages in conflict zones, and uses innocent villagers and prison convicts alike as “human mine-sweepers” and porters during military operations.
As recently as March 2010, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, Tomas Quintana, repeated his official calls to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to establish a UN-led Commission of Inquiry to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the military-ruled country, a call that has been backed by several previous Special Rapporteurs and Harvard University Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.
The historic lack of accountability in the armed forces has fostered Myanmar’s contemporary mafia state. During his address at the annual conference of the Commanding Officers of the Defense Services on September 9, 1957, U Nu, Myanmar’s first prime minister (and the last democratically elected one before the coup of 1962), spoke these prophetic words:
There are generally two different types of armies: a truly national people’s army, and a pocket army for the powers that be … The primary task of a truly national people’s army is to protect the lives and property of the people,” said U Nu. “Thus in countries which have truly national people’s armies, the people do not go about in fear of the army. A pocket army’s primary task is to protect the lives, property, status and vested interests of the party or the individuals who are exploiting the pocket army. (As such), the people have no regard or respect for the army, but only a great loathing and fear. Whatever the nomenclature, “a national mafia” or “pocket army”, today’s Tatmadaw is without doubt as widely feared as it is loathed among Myanmar’s people. The military’s regressive evolution in terms of its institutional ethos, culture, and practices have created its current mafia-like nature. A mafia mindset has infected the beliefs and attitudes of those who lead, manage and man this omnipresent organization, the self-proclaimed guardian of the national interest in Myanmar’s supposed new democracy.
Fascist roots, rewritten histories
One of the best known historical facts about Myanmar’s armed forces is that it was originally the product of fascist Japan’s military strategy to recruit, train and arm local nationalist elements in Asia against British and Allied forces during World War II.
Subbas Chandra Bose of the Congress Party and Aung San of the Burma Freedom Bloc, the respective founders of the Indian Independence Army (IIA) and the Burma Independence Army (BIA), both rose to prominence under Japan’s strategic patronage. While Tokyo’s efforts at using the IIA as its local proxy to repel the British out of the Indian sub-continent ultimately failed, Japan’s sway over the nationalists they trained and armed to become the nucleus of the BIA was successful but short-lived in the country then known as Burma.
It was only three years, from 1942-45, before the Burmese turned against the Japanese. Upon entering and replacing British colonial rule with its own military occupation, Tokyo reneged on its promise to grant independence in exchange for local assistance to its war effort under the fascist banner of “Asia for Asians”.
The original Burmese admiration for Japan as the most dominant non-European global power was based primarily on its military victory in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. But 40 years after its victory over Tsarist Russia, Japan had not only lost its political and military independence to the United States but also its standing in the eyes of the Burmese.
Despite the special psychological ties with its former Burmese military proxies, which some Japanese veterans maintained decades after World War II ended, Japan’s influence over the Myanmar military was minimal after the humiliation of its “total surrender” to the United States and Allied Forces in August 1945.
Even if Japanese veterans aspired to revive old military ties, it would have been inconceivable under Japan’s US-imposed constitution, which barred Tokyo from maintaining its own national armed forces. Instead, Burmese nationalists, both civilians and their military comrades, looked to the new victors, namely the US, as a source of support and new great power inspiration.
The Cold War indelibly shaped Myanmar’s military as a standing armed organization, as did developments outside the military’s institutional boundaries. These included relations and competition with other constitutive elements of the new modern state, including political parties, business and commercial elites, autonomy or independence-minded ethnic minority groups, and an armed communist resistance movement.
While the civilian democratic government of U Nu was a prominent player in the then newly hatched Non-Aligned Movement, military leaders such as Brigadier Maung Maung, a personal staff officer assigned to Aung San during the Japanese occupation period, were developing ties with and seeking support from the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK. They sought outside assistance specifically for the military’s expansion, qualitative upgrades of its weaponry, and the build-up of a human resource base of cadets and officers.
As powerful head of the Directorate of Military Training (DMT), Maung Maung was hugely influential in shaping a new generation of military officers as he presided over the founding of both the military’s most prestigious Defense Services Academy (DSA) and most advanced staff college, the National Defense College (NDC), in the mid-1950s. Many members of the faculty in these institutions were drawn from Burmese graduates of Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and the US’s Staff and Command Colleges.
The fact that the military, then under the leadership of commanders and directors who received their training from the Japanese, made a conscious decision to model the military’s command structures, its human resource development and intelligence training on the United States’ military discounts explanations of the institution’s current unseemly conduct on its original links to fascist Japan.
For its part, the US more or less embraced mildly socialist, nationalist civilian politicians such as U Nu, Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein – all of whom were staunchly anti-Communist and lead efforts to squash underground and above-ground communist movements. Even if senior military leaders such as Ne Win felt the need to strike a balance in its external relations by maintaining cordial ties with both eastern and western bloc countries and their militaries, the rank and file officers of the military have long been pro-US.
According to a Voice of America interview in April 2011 with former General Tin Oo, defense minister under Ne Win in the mid-1970’s and later co-founder of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, many officers were unhappy with Ne Win’s decision to reject out of political concerns the US’s offer of sophisticated fighter-bombers stored at US Air Force bases in Thailand for a mere US$1 million per plane after the US ended its military involvement in Vietnam.
Forgotten legacy
In addition to this near complete break from its Japanese fascist roots, the military also moved away from the fragile legacy of its founder and national independence hero, Aung San. In particular, the military totally abandoned Aung San’s commitment to keep the military under the control of civilian politicians and political revolutionary leadership.
As evidenced by the re-naming of the national holiday “Resistance Day”, in reference to resistance against Japan’s fascist military occupation from 1942-45, to “Armed Forces Day”, the military has over the past 50 years made concerted efforts to rewrite its own institutional history, as well as that of the country’s nationalist movement.
It continues to portray itself incorrectly as the sole vanguard of the country’s liberation struggle against first British imperialism and later Japanese fascist military rule. The revolutionary leadership which led the well-timed armed resistance against Japan’s military occupation in the hot season of 1945 arose from Burmese Communists such as Thakhin Soe and Thakhin Than Tun, as well as from the then head of the Burma Defense Army, Aung San.
Aung San himself cut his political teeth as a Marxist-influenced student agitator at Rangoon University and was one of the five founding members of colonial Burma’s first communist cell. Under these men’s leadership, local resistance commands were formed along the communist resistance model, according to which military commanders were answerable to the political commissars attached to their commands.
Shortly after the end of World War II, Lord Louis Mountbatten invited Aung San and a group of nationalist leaders including prominent communist leaders such as Than Tun and Thein Pe to Kandy, Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was previously known), where Mountbatten was headquartered as the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Southeast Asia. They met to discuss inter alia the future of the Japanese-trained army under Aung San’s military leadership.
As the British had restored colonial rule over Burma post-World War II, Aung San was presented with a choice between staying on as the uniformed head of the soon-to-be-downsized Burmese nationalist army, or relinquishing his military post and becoming a national, civilian politician.
Under the British proposal, only a certain number of qualified Burmese officers would be given “direct commission” in a significantly downsized military, with their old ranks transferred automatically into the newly restructured military along the British model of a professional armed forces.
Aung San’s communist rivals pressured him to stay on as head of the new Burma Army so that political leadership of the post-World War II popular nationalist movement – and conceivably the power to shape the future course of post-colonial Burma – would no longer be in his hands. Against their advice, Aung San chose the civilian politician role, giving up official military titles and ties with the newly restructured Burma Army.
Instead, he handed over command of the military to Colonel Letyar, his close comrade and long-time friend from his Rangoon University student agitator days. Following this arrangement, Aung San was no longer officially the “General”, but the Burmese public continued to address and refer to him as “Bogyoke”, or Commander in Chief, until his assassination on July 19, 1947.
Despite the official uses of hagiographic tales of Aung San by his close personal aides and comrades-in-arms, there have been no known attempts to restore his legacy of keeping the military as a professional organization accountable to a civilian democratic leadership during the past half-century of authoritarian and unaccountable military rule.
Aung San’s British-involved assassination was tragic not only for the country’s ethnic relations but also because early attempts by this remarkable nationalist revolutionary to professionalize the military in the soon-to-be independent British colony were buried with his remains in 1945.
At the time, his daughter Suu Kyi was barely two years old. Relying on her secondary knowledge of her father’s political legacy, including his short-lived and little known efforts to keep the military a professional force under civilian control, she is now advocating from her weak position in the political opposition for the reform of the military along more professional and honorable lines. It is a reform call that has fallen on deaf ears for the past 22 years since she first asked the question “Whose military is the Tatmadaw?”, whereby she stated specifically that the army of her father should be the people’s national army.
The generals were not the only ones who felt the need to keep the military at a healthy distance from the country’s necessarily messy democratic politics during the decade that immediately followed independence in 1948. Armed rebellions by both Burmese communist parties and non-Burmese ethno-nationalist organizations such as the Karen National Defense Organization inadvertently ensured that the military’s political influence, including over civilian leadership selections, remained vital throughout the parliamentary period spanning January 1948 to March 1962.
As the Cold War raged on, the intellectual and ideological climate in the US and Western Bloc was such that academics and policy-makers portrayed anti-communist soldiers in the newly independent countries of the “Third World” as “bureaucratic modernizers” and “efficient nation-builders” vis-a-vis “incompetent” “quarrelsome” and “argumentative” civilian politicians within their necessarily messy parliamentary and political contexts.
In Burma, the West was known to be concerned about the ability of prime minister U Nu to keep the country safe from insurgent communists at a time when Washington’s main preoccupation was to prevent communist “dominos” from tumbling across Southeast Asia.
Thus when the Burmese military sought active US support for its institution-building efforts, including the training of military personnel in various areas including intelligence gathering operations, Washington was a willing partner. The US Central Intelligence Agency and other allied agencies in Taiwan and Israel helped to train officials in the dark arts of espionage and domestic surveillance.
The US Pentagon, meanwhile, brought Burmese officers to US command and staff colleges for further training under the US International Military Exchange Program during the Cold War. During the administration of Jimmy Carter, arguably the most pro-human rights of all US presidents, Washington provided the Burmese military with civilian dual-use aircraft, including Bell helicopters, ostensibly to combat opium production. The craft were promptly refitted upon delivery with weapons systems that were duly used against communist and ethnic armed resistance groups.
When Ne Win ended Burma’s 12-year-old experiment in parliamentary democracy in a March 1962 coup, the event was not deemed headline news by the Western media. Four years later – after Ne Win locked up over 100 democrats, judges, journalists and other prominent Burmese deemed a threat to military rule, US president Lyndon Johnson hosted an official welcome dinner to the visiting Ne Win and Madam Ne Win at the White House.
Towards the later phase of Ne Win’s military rule, British banks, insurance companies and other commercial interests maintained their Burma-based businesses as usual. At Buckingham Palace, the Burmese general was even a welcome guest of Queen Elizabeth, who sipped tea with him and even thought the general to be a “nice chap”, according to Derek Tonkin, former Burma desk officer at Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and retired British ambassador to Thailand.
The West’s pursuit of strategic symbiosis with Ne Win’s coup-installed regime was then viewed as a useful bulwark against the spread of communism. But Western support abetted the militarization of Burmese society, a legacy of military rule that survived subsequent Western-led sanctions and will inevitably be strengthened by the West’s latest round of unconditional diplomatic and strategic engagement initiatives.
A class above, the heaven-born
Military-controlled regimes in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, have gone through various incarnations since General Ne Win’s initial military takeover of 1962. With a favorable ideological climate, intellectual and academic justification, political and diplomatic recognition, and strong Western material support, the stage was set for Ne Win’s military, the Tatmadaw, to tread its chosen path without accountability – a course it has maintained to the present.
With ties to and assistance from the US military and West Germany’s state-owned arms manufacturer Fritz Werner, for decades the military has engaged in what might be termed “selective professionalization”. The Tatmadaw upgraded its organizational and technical capacities, but when it came to professionalizing its relations with civilian institutions vital to forging a modern political state out of a myriad of multi-ethnic communities, it shunned democratic civilian leadership.
Some 60 years ago generals, brigadiers, colonels, and commanding officers felt disdainful towards “inefficient” and “talkative” democratic politicians. During the country’s parliamentary democracy period immediately following independence (1948-58), a young captain would typically assume “attention” position upon entering the office of a civilian township administrative officer. If a military officer violated the general civil law of the land, he would be liable for prosecution at a court of law in the politically independent judiciary.
Today, Myanmar’s military class feels that they are a cut above the rest of society, the Burmese equivalent of the “heaven-born”. The military now plays judge, jury and prosecutor within the legal system which it doesn’t observe itself. Constitutionally, the military is governed by its own set of laws, norms and regulations. These take precedent over any other legal frameworks and no military personnel, past and present, may be prosecuted for deeds which they have engaged in while discharging their duties.
In short, civil laws do not apply to military personnel. For its part, the Burmese public has come to despise the once honorable military, both its leadership and institutional power base. The public knows that the military as an institution has become a class in and of itself. From their formative years as cadets in the country’s defense academies, two successive generations of officer corps, numbering in the thousands, have been subject to an intense and sustained indoctrination process designed to make them think, feel and act as a distinct nationalist class. It thinks and acts as if it were the natural ruler of the people.
The most important of all officers’ training schools is the Defense Services Academy (DSA) at Pyin Oo Lwin (formerly May Myo, British colonial era summer station) whose alumni now occupy virtually all important positions in the military, including the most powerful Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces as well as other civilian organs of the state, such as the cabinet and the various line ministries which it runs.
Since the DSA’s inception at the then newly built Bahtoo military town in Shan State in 1955, it has undergone significant changes, both quantitatively and qualitatively. It has been massively expanded in terms of the number of graduates it produces in a single batch. Its original motto for the officer-cadets was circumspect, professional and modest: “Future Victorious Warriors for the Country”. Today the DSA instills in thousands of young cadets between the ages of 16 and 21 a new ethos, with a stated aim of training “The Future Ruling Elites of the Nation”.
In the early years, the academic curriculum was developed and managed by civilian academics in various arts and science fields, with the aim of instilling due respect for the civilian public, modesty, love of truth, fairness, honor, and national duty in graduating soldiers. The military curriculum was developed by Burmese graduates of Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and US staff and command colleges.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were no more than 50 officer cadets graduating annually from the DSA. Upon graduation they would be assigned to three different branches of the Armed Forces (Infantry, Navy and Air Force). Towards the end of the first military dictatorship of General Ne Win in 1988, about 120 officer cadets graduated in a single in-take. The military was 125,000-strong in 1988, while the country’s population was estimated to be about 26 million.
By 2011, its graduating class was somewhere between 2,000 – 3,000. In 2010, the country’s military was estimated to be nearly half-a-million strong, making it Southeast Asia’s largest military after Vietnam. The total population of the country doubled in the two decades since the collapse of Ne Win’s rule in 1988 (and that of the Beijing-backed insurgent Burmese Communist Party a year later), while the country’s armed forces grew 400%.
In 2011, 24% of the country’s national budget was reportedly earmarked for the military, compared with 4% for education and 1.3% for health services. In addition, bypassing its own military-controlled Parliament, the military leadership declared the establishment of the extra-legal, supra-Constitutional National Defense Fund (NDF). An unspecified amount of state funds is stored at the NDF, which authorizes the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces as the only state official with access to its resources. It is effectively unanswerable to any organization or individual.
Cost of the coffin
The Burmese problem is not simply the country’s successive ruling cliques of generals aggrandizing themselves at the expense of the public. Those Burmese who grew up hearing the hope-filled speculation that things would get better once Ne Win’s reign was over are no longer fooled by this once-the-old-guards-are-gone buzz. As the Burmese saying goes, “Once you have been dead you know the cost of the coffin.”
The old generation of nationalist soldiers, including Ne Win, left intact a process of distinct class formation with recognizably feudal features – minus the old cultural and customary constraints of the Indic moral guidelines for conduct of rulers. Nearly 70 years since its founding by Aung San, the Tatmadaw officer corps, and the soldiering class as a whole, have come to view themselves as a cut above the predominantly agrarian masses. This ruling military class has effectively set the political clock back to the country’s feudal past.
Naypyidaw has belatedly jumped on the global bandwagon of free marketization and privatization, though with distinct Burmese characteristics. Under the banner of privatization, public assets (land, forests, immovable infrastructure such as office buildings, power industries) are being divided among the families of senior and junior generals, as well as their cronies who, inter alia, serve as the generals’ portfolio managers.
With all these signs of bountiful state-sponsored cronyism, the country’s soldiering class has taken an increasingly kleptocratic turn, a throw-back to the old feudal days in which the monarch and his men “ate” the kingdom in terms of land, labor, and natural resources. The Burmese have a wonderfully descriptive term for this type of phenomenon: “Hungry hounds stumbling on a pagoda feast.”
Ne Win and his men deliberately set in motion the revolutionary process of class formation, revolutionary in the sense that the military that was originally created by, of, and for the people no longer sees itself as part of the people. It is now a class of the “heaven-born”, entitled to rule, not simply govern, the country in accord with the needs, concerns and interests of senior and junior generals.
All these men began their military careers as cadets or other ranks pledging before every meal the mantra, “We pledge our allegiance to the country that feeds us.” As a class, they have failed to uphold this cardinal pledge, acting instead with blind obedience to frequent and indiscriminate “shoot to kill” orders against various segments of society – monks or Muslims, Bama or Karen, farmers or laborers, young or old.
The military has drifted away from a sense of gratitude to the country and honor to serve the people towards institutional/class allegiance and personal loyalty towards the chief. It is telling that when some ex-military officers who publish their biographies (ex-Brigadier General Tin Swe and ex-Lieutenant General Gen Tun Kyi, for instance) describe not the people but the armed forces as their “surrogate parents”.
This is a fundamental regression with dire national consequences, as the military as an institution and the soldiering class no longer serves or defends the people from any enemy, including unscrupulous military leaders. In the process, the Tatmadaw has established its own economic base and interests, fostered a distinct class consciousness informed by their own sense of superiority vis-a-vis the rest of society, and wrote its own radical revisionist history where the military is the sole national liberator and guardian of the nation.
Military re-feudalization
Since 1988, a re-feudalization of the country’s military class and political culture distinguishes the present phase of class formation from Ne Win’s previous socialist revolutionary military rule. The process has paradoxically removed any cultural or traditional constraints on governmental conduct, including the once conditioned belief in honor as a warrior, as well as the Indic code and notions of the “righteous ruler”, who is said to possess, among other things, compassion, wisdom, integrity, sacrifice, and fairness.
It has led to the creation of a crony capitalist economy via a pool of its own economic agents, better known as “cronies”; class consolidation and reproduction through a combined policy of setting aside a high percentage of admission slots in military academies exclusively for the army-bred, and of careful screening of family backgrounds of officers and their spouses, especially for influential posts within the military; and, last but not least, the widespread practice of active participation of the wives of military officers in intra-military and political affairs, including the hiring and firing of deputies for their husbands and managing the flow of bribes and business deals.
Some of the more superficial acts of re-feudalization of the military and the state include former junta leader Senior General Than Shwe’s and his family’s well-known royal pretensions, whereby family members are known to address one another using the arcane language of the long-gone feudal courts and which today is spoken only in the Burmese theatre.
Than Shwe built a brand new capital, Naypyidaw, and named it and all its residential quarters and streets auspicious-sounding old royal names selected from Buddhist Jartaka tales. At Naypyidaw, Than Shwe required comically obsequious gestures and demeanors from all subordinate members of the bureaucracy, military and society. For instance, subordinates, their spouses and families are required to get down on their knees, even in informal gatherings, and abide by the royal protocol of subordinates speaking only when spoken to in the presence of their military superiors.
During the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster, victims were instructed by military officials to greet Than Shwe and other generals during their propaganda journeys to the storm-ravaged Irrawaddy Delta, as if they were Boddhiisattva, or would-be-Buddhas. Military-led re-feudalization has gone to comic extremes, as the scenes of Burmese citizens kowtowing to these military men of vainglory becomes more and more commonplace.
To paraphrase the late Ernest Gellner, a Cambridge anthropologist and noted author of “Nationalism”, in feudal societies it is power that generates wealth, not the other way round. Economically, Than Shwe whetted, and subsequently unleashed, the economic appetites of other senior and junior officers.
As a point of departure from Ne Win’s military regime, which pushed out a large number of alien commercial and technical elements from the economy (for instance, 300,000 Indians) with its catastrophic economic nationalization scheme, Than Shwe and his deputies have strategically chosen to build and expand the military’s economic and commercial base. In so doing, they have resorted to nepotistic practices which involve patronizing only the army-bred, ex-military officers and business-minded civilians who have unquestioningly embraced the primacy of the military class.
The best known case is Tay Za, Myanmar’s wealthiest and most influential tycoon with close personal ties to Than Shwe’s family, who also serves as the military’s principal arms-dealer. A son of a former deputy of Brigadier Maung Maung, who was the chief architect of the military’s institutional developments including the establishment of military and defense academies in the immediate post-independence years, Tay Za was himself a cadet at the DSA in the early 1980s.
He was expelled from the academy for violating the then strict code of conduct for cadets. Aung Thet Mann and Toe Nay Mann, the two sons of Thura Shwe Mann, until recently the regime’s third-ranking general and now Speaker of the military’s newly established parliament, have also joined the country’s top 10 most influential and richest “businessmen”.
The famous tycoon Zaygaba Khin Shwe, a close friend of former prime minister General Khin Nyunt, who headed the powerful military intelligence until his demise in a 2004 purge, also served with the Army Engineering Corps during Ne Win’s rule. Khin Shwe is now a member of the military-controlled parliament representing the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, while his daughter is married to one of Shwe Mann’s sons.
President Thein Sein, for his part, is known to hold major shares in Skynet, the country’s most popular TV network. The company is fronted by ethnic Kokant businessman Shwe Than Lwin Kyaw Win, a nephew of the late drug lord Lo Sing Han. Than Shwe’s family owns Myawaddy TV, the sole TV network established exclusively for the armed forces personnel and their families.
There are lesser known cronies who are army-bred and thus army-backed, (for instance, Hla Maung Shwe of the Myanmar Peace Center and Myanmar Egress, a local nongovernmental organization which the regime has used as its “civil society” proxy. It is, without a doubt that these men, and many others like them, owe their personal fortunes to military rule and the generals .
Hijacked nation
In exchange for their entrepreneurial services to this growing military class, of which they have long been an integral part, the ruling junta has allowed the nouveau riche to exploit the country and its resources. Recently, Yuzana Htay Myint, another in-house businessman, has been permitted to take over 100,000 acres in the ancestral land of the Kachin minority in the northern most part of Myanmar. It was originally designated by the regime as a national wildlife sanctuary.
In his otherwise insightful analysis titled “The Future of Tatmadaw’s Political Role in Myanmar: Prospects and Problems,” Maung Aung Myo, an army-bred former lecturer at Myanmar’s National Defence College, observed that the Tatmadaw has been “hijacked by a small group of generals” for their own personal aggrandizement. Upon closer examination, it is really a case of intra-class symbiosis where juniors and seniors divide their ill-gotten gains at the expense of the citizenry. If anything has been hijacked, it is the country and its future that has been stolen away by its own soldiers.
In feudal systems of the country’s bygone eras, all the king’s men served at the monarch’s pleasure, and they rose and fell, lived and died, precariously. This scenario has been re-enacted in Than Shwe’s Myanmar and in Ne Win’s Burma, as the country was then known. Whimsically, these despots carried out large scale purges, for instance, the purge of military intelligence under the directorship of Brigadier Tin Oo in 1983 and the ousting of Khin Nyunt and the dissolution of the entire Directorate of the Defense Services Intelligence in 2004.
Consequently, military officers, as well as other ranks, have opted to optimize their administrative and political authorities by translating them quickly into riches through bribery, big and small, while in office. To get rich quick was indeed glorious for Deng’s China post-Chairman Mao Zedong. But in Than Shwe’s Myanmar, “eating” as much of the country as fast as possible may not be glorious, not at least in the eyes of the traditional pious Buddhist population, but it has become the wisest and most strategic course of action for virtually all military officers who are clever enough to recognize that theirs is a class kleptocracy. Only the naive remain moral in this new thoroughly feudalized military class.
Since the early 1990s, the Ministry of Defense has taken over state-owned enterprises and re-established them as “private” businesses owned solely by the Tatmadaw. The military now has its hand in virtually every economic pie, ranging from poultry farms, small factories, real estate, tourism, transportation, construction, rental of regimental facilities, shipping, power, banking, export and import, agriculture, energy and mining. Virtually no business entity of commercial significance can operate without being linked to the military, institutionally or to individual commanders, thereby bringing the entire economy under the Tatmadaw’s effective control.
Unlike Ne Win’s socialist military government, the current regime does not alienate commercial elites. Instead, the generals have made local entrepreneurs work for military rule through an evolving economic and political symbiosis. In this new arrangement, which harks back to the old monarchical days of commercial and trade monopolies, the military has learned to patronize the economic class for its own benefit.
Than Shwe has effectively leveraged the twin pervasive elements of greed and anxiety about the soldiering class’s future, encompassing both the officer corps and emerging crony capitalists. Internationally, Than Shwe knows well how to dangle the possibility of economic liberalization before foreign investors and venture capitalists who view Myanmar primarily as “the world’s last economic frontier”. Western governments and corporations have tripped over themselves in recent bidding for telecommunications and other infrastructure and resource-related concessions.
Only time will tell whether the forces of the free market will overpower Myanmar’s ruling soldiering class. Unlike the military in Indonesia, the Philippines and Turkey, Myanmar’s military is marching backward along feudal lines. The Tatmadaw is consolidating its class hold on society, economy and polity, while at the same time trumpeting “democracy and free market”, which they know resonates well in Western ears.
During the formative years of post-independence, the pro-capitalist West had looked at Myanmar’s regressive evolution only through the self-serving lens of the Cold War and thus hailed soldiers as “modernizers”. Western concerns then were the containment of anti-market Maoist and Soviet influences. Sixty three years later, post-Cold War Western governments and their affiliated interests are now bent on overlooking not only the military’s war crimes against ethnic minorities, but also the general’s attempts to build a military apartheid, wherein the military and its commercial, technocratic and ethnic proxies rule over the bulk of the population as a class above, as the heaven-born.
Maung Zarni (www.maungzarni.net) is a Visiting Fellow at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics. A former admit to Myanmar’s Military Officers’ Training Corp (1980), he hails from an extended military family. He has worked with three separate heads of the military’s intelligence service from 2004-8 as an initiator of Track II negotiations.

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