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Guts, guns and military

Rahul Batra | Updated on March 01, 2021

Down, down: People of Myanmar stand opposed to military control, having witnessed its power grabs which always ended in internal strife and international isolation   -  REUTERS/ ISSEI KATO

The Tatmadaw sees itself as an embodiment of the nationalist soul of Myanmar. But their brand of nationalism has few takers today

* The Tatmadaw wants to unify the country under one single force — its own. With at least two dozen non-state armed factions still active around the country, the Tatmadaw’s core mission — central “Burmanisation” of power — remains far from finished

* What is visibly different this time, though, is the significant momentum the new generations have developed on the back of socio-economic progress with exposure to education, digital technologies, and globalisation

* Age, cast, gender, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic privilege have all been put aside since Feb 1. Therein lies hope

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“Most countries have an army; some armies have a country,” security analyst Anthony Davis said at a recent panel discussion in Bangkok. Davis, a long-time expert on Southeast Asia’s security concerns, was pointing to Thailand, Pakistan, Turkey and, of course, Myanmar.

It’s been exactly a month since the military or the Tatmadaw staged a coup in Myanmar to seize political power in the nation of over 54 million citizens. That the February 1 move was a naked power-grab is understood by the world at large. But what makes the Tatmadaw’s ruthless psyche?

Many political experts first wondered why the Tatmadaw took this extreme step when they already had key government ministerial portfolios in defence, home affairs and border affairs and two big business conglomerates worth billions of dollars. To top it, they had a 25 per cent “veto vote” control over the Constitution (after they re-worded the Constitution in 2008, any change in constitutional law needs an absolute majority of more than 75 per cent).

The commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw, 65-year-old Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, was due to retire later this year. He has already extended the retirement age for his position once with a constitutional amendment in 2014, from 60 to 65. Expecting to transition into the civilian role of a president, as the head of the Tatmadaw-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) if the party did well in the elections last November, he was likely left stranded as the National League for Democracy (NLD) swept to power and refused to accede to his presidential demands thereafter. Extending his retirement age again would not be looked at favourably within the military, and accepting a vice presidential role under an NLD-appointed president (chosen by NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi) would be a loss of face. He also faces prosecution under international law for war crimes committed in the 2017 Rohingya crisis, an ethnic cleansing which claimed the lives of 6,700 people, according to the international NGO Médecins Sans Frontières.

Legacy of internal conflict

With its formative roots in the 1941 coming together of Burmese independence activists, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San, a national hero to the Burmese, the Tatmadaw has been battle ready for over 70 years — right from its fight for independence from the British in 1948, to warring against internal ethnic armies since then, and the purges against foreign communist influence in the ’60s and ’70s.

Roughly 60 per cent of the Burmese belong to the Buddhist-Bamar ethnicity, considered the class of elites. The Tatmadaw, which consists of Bamars, therefore considers itself the “elite of the elites”. As its power grabs have alienated several ethnic minorities in non-central states since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, many of these states (Chin, Kayin, Kayah, Shan, Rakhine)formed the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) in their 70-year-old battle for self-determination. The Tatmadaw wants to unify the country under one single force — its own. With at least two dozen non-state armed factions still active around the country, the Tatmadaw’s core mission — central “Burmanisation” of power — remains far from finished. With its guts and guns approach through the decades, the Tatmadaw sees itself as an embodiment of the nationalist soul of Myanmar.

Their form of pseudo-nationalism, however, doesn’t have many takers. The public unanimously stand opposed to continued military control, given its history of brutal power grabs, ending in internal strife and international isolation each time.

Yet, long-time observers of the Tatmadaw believe that they are unlikely to back off anytime soon. In fact, many feel that being the oldest and most established institution in Myanmar, the military remains central to the country taking shape as a nation-state.

Their attempt to transition into a more acceptable operation nationally and internationally through the 2011 political liberalisation might have gone too far out of hand, with former President Thein Sein leading an unexpectedly progressive agenda. The NLD’s reign through 2015-2019 seems to have stretched their appetite for power-sharing beyond comfort, and despite their promise to hold “a democratic and diverse election” within a year of this coup, few believe it will allow the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi another comeback.

Funding military fire-power

Growing steadily at 5-7 per cent over much of the last decade, Myanmar was well on its way to going from a “low-income” frontier economy to a “middle-income” developing nation in the next decade. Especially with its flourishing natural resources, trade and garment manufacturing industries, the leaps in digitisation across information, technology, consumer, banking sectors, and its continued strategic value to both India and China.

However, besides maintaining a stranglehold on the political narrative, the Tatmadaw has also steadily subverted the economic opportunity of a nation rich in minerals, including metal ores, petroleum, and natural gas, along with significant deposits of precious and semiprecious stones over the last three decades. According to a 2017 report by Global Witness, the UK-based campaign group, “Army companies are the tip of a very large iceberg: hidden networks of firms run by families of former generals that dominate Myanmar’s most lucrative businesses, notably jade.”

According to online activism group Justice for Myanmar, a leak from the Myanmar Investment Commission's Directorate of Investment and Companies Administration database last month showed that these companies include the Myanmar Economic Corporation — an inconspicuous business group owned by the defence ministry operating in key sectors such as ports and telecommunications. Another is the Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL). Despite the fact that MEHL claims to have been set up to support social welfare for soldiers and their families, the Justice for Myanmar analysis said its 2010-11 annual report indicated that rank-and-file soldiers owned only 1.3 per cent of business. A 2020 report by Amnesty International shows that MEHL earned $18bn between 1990 and 2010 through Tatmadaw-owned businesses, and in return invested the majority of that revenue into the military’s budget.

Where does it leave Myanmar?

As in the past, within a week of mass civil protests the army has taken over the streets from the police. Civilians have been shot and killed — 18 over the weekend alone.

What is visibly different this time, though, is the significant momentum new generations have developed on the back of socio-economic progress with exposure to education, digital technologies and globalisation. Having experienced grassroots systemic changes around them in the form of public infrastructure and services, they would be hard-pressed to see the opportunities ahead of them being taken away so unreasonably. Out on the streets are older generations protesting for their grandchildren and pregnant mothers seeking to safeguard the futures of their soon-to-be-born babies. Age, cast, gender, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic privilege have all been put aside since February 1. Therein lies hope.

In the optimistic words of Thai political expert Thitinan Pongsudhirak, “Accepting the army’s hard-handedness would be an utterly immoral choice... Protestors in Myanmar should think hard and clear about coming up with alternative solutions — if not the army, then who? A coalition perhaps?”

Coalitions — perhaps with the Tatmadaw, the NLD, ethnic minorities, big business interests and the people — may come together for stability. The main public demand at this time is to have the Tatmadaw move under the civil law and governance via a permanent constitutional amendment.

The junta might have pulled the trigger too selfishly this time and could end up in a corner themselves. But it seems to be upon the other stakeholders involved to give them an exit strategy.

Rahul Batra is a former digital entrepreneur who lived and worked in Myanmar from 2013 to 2019

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Published on March 01, 2021
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