• Thursday, Sep 29, 2022
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OP-ED: Who are the Myanmar military?

  • Published at 05:03 am February 28th, 2021
Yangon Myanmar Coup
A demonstrator in Yangon rallies against the military coup REUTERS

The men of the Tatmadaw are not politicians, but soldiers

On  February 1, 2021, the Tatmadaw or the Myanmar Armed Forces ended the decade-long semi-democratic rule by re-establishing full military control of the country. The coup had shocked the world not only for choosing to take such an action during a pandemic, but also because it does not appear to create any true benefit for the military, aside from gaining a shallow monopoly of political power. 

As a result, there is a great confusion on the motivations and the ultimate goal of the coup leaders.

However, before one could try to make any analysis of the Myanmar military, there are some fundamental aspects of the Tatmadaw that must be highlighted. 

From the way the international community reacted to the Myanmar military’s actions during the Rakhine crisis, it is quite clear that most do not understand Myanmar’s political situation. 

The reactions had been largely condemning the military through the International Court of Justice, and largely backing Aung San Suu Kyi and the civilian leadership into action against the military leaders, and this suggests that many people feel or see that there is some form of civilian authority in Myanmar after the reforms. 

I believe one of the reasons is, the world, whenever they look at authoritarian or totalitarian systems, they see a political group that is supported by an armed wing. It is the Nazi Party and the SS, the Communist Parties and the different variations of “People’s Army” or the various extremist organizations. These armed wings, for all their methods, have ultimately led back to their 
political aim.

Adversarial relations

In the case of the Tatmadaw, it is a military organization at its core, though one that believes it is the defender of the state. Myanmar’s civil-military relations could only be described as adversarial. Since 1962, Myanmar’s armed forces have maintained power in one form or another to “protect the integrity of the union.” After the vicious civil war of 1950s and the Kuomintang incursions, the Tatmadaw had been disillusioned with civilian leadership and overthrew the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) Party in the 1962 coup. 

While reliable information on the Tatmadaw remains scarce and unavailable, there are a few major characteristics about them.

The most obvious one could be described as its extreme nationalist ideology. Samuel E Finer stated that amongst all the various state apparatuses, the ultimate symbol of a nation state is its military. 

The origin of the Tatmadaw lies with the creation of the Burma Independent Army (BIA) by the nationalist Thakins. British Burma was one that was directly ruled through India. As a result of the fierce resistance experienced during the conquest of the old Burmese kingdom, the British did not trust the plain and urban-dwelling populations of Burma under arms, and were banned from serving in the British military. This was despite the displays of enthusiasm for military service in the creations of unarmed paramilitary “tats” by the Bamars, and the ban was only lifted in cases of emergency such as the First World War. 

As a result, colonial authority was enforced through Indian and minority “hill people,” as they were believed to be less sympathetic to the local population.

With colonial rule enforced by unrelatable troops and the memory of the pre-colonial kingdom only decades ago, the creation of a Burmese army became part of a nationalist expression and the BIA was the result of that dream.

After independence, the highly politicized BIA element of the Tatmadaw would gradually overtake the organization in the course of the civil war, where the rebels were predominantly ethnic minority or politically extreme Bamars. Because of this, the Tatmadaw that took power since 1962 saw itself as the defender of Burma, but also the physical embodiment of Burmese nationalism and one that is separate from the civilian government.

Its other characteristic is its corporate unity. 

Identity politics

The post-independence civil war was fought not just between rag-tag militia, but from mutinying elements of the newly formed Tatmadaw. Identity politics had torn the military apart with the largest mutineers being ethnic minority units and pro-communist Bamar forces. Through sheer attrition and adaptability, the loyalist elements of the Tatmadaw managed to largely re-establish government control, but proved to be hapless against the Chinese Nationalist incursions that followed up.

The way the first post-independent Tatmadaw had fallen apart in the face of domestic and foreign threats is a fear that remains even in its modern incarnation. This had since been the main motivation for the centralization of the Tatmadaw. Its leaders hold tight control of its officers and men so that the Tatmadaw would never be put in such a position again. These include the subordination of the navy and air force to the army, and relegated to a support role. Regional military command was increased from two to 14 in 1961, leaving only a few independent brigades. These changes improved the military capacity of the Tatmadaw, and most importantly, greater control of the field armies.

Finally, the Myanmar Armed Forces remain highly distrustful of its civilian population. The failure of the civilian AFPFL leadership to manage the conflicts of the 1950s had disillusioned the military. To the military, the political division of the democratically elected AFPFL party, Communist uprisings, and ethnic separatism showed that the source of the national instability is the population itself. This is because the rebel groups all draw their legitimacy and resources from the masses.

The civilian control of the military, according to Michael Desch, is the weakest when there are high internal threats but low external threats, and this was the environment in which the Tatmdaw had assumed control. 

The military leaders remain convinced that they alone can lead and guide the country, and that relying on these unpredictable and impressionable civilians would tear the state apart. 

Competing ideologies

Ethnic minorities and Bamars of different competing ideologies became potential sources of enemies to the state. The development of the Four Cuts Strategy is a clear indication of the military’s concern being the population. 

Against ethnic Bamar rebels, the Tatmadaw relies on its psychological warfare department and nationalist propaganda to woo them back to the fold. To pacify potential enemies and turn them into loyal defenders. Mary Callahan describes this in Making Enemies. Against minorities, however, this becomes an issue, as minority rebels tend to be in areas the military has little control over, and are unable to tell the difference between civilian and insurgent. Together with racial bias created from the colonial era and the civil war, the military is generally more ruthless against them. 

It is not to say they would not use the same harsh methods on ethnic Bamars. The communists were widely demonized, and the battles against the Communist Party of Burma had been bloody, but the Bamar-dominant Tatmadaw always saw that as the premier nationalist organization, the population would have no choice but to return to them.

This is why Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League of Democracy is such a nightmare for them. The Tatmadaw has always drawn its legitimacy from Aung San’s legacy. That his daughter leads the opposition against them and using non-violent methods that appealed to the mostly Buddhist population meant that she had effectively provided the Bamar population an alternative choice from the Tatmadaw.

In other words, Aung San Suu Kyi had effectively discredited the Tatmadaw as a symbol of Burmese nationalism, and destroyed its only source of legitimacy.

As a result of this, the Tatmadaw has become quite obsessed with attempting to find legitimacy in the eyes of the Bamar population and this is summarized in the slogan “Only the army is mother, only the army is father, don’t believe what the surroundings say, whoever tries to split us, we shall never split. We shall unite forever.”


The slogan appeals to the two major parts of the psyche in the Bamar culture: Parenthood and the fears of a national fragmentation. Parents hold a special position along with teachers as the most sacred figures in an average Bamar Buddhist. The Tatmadaw sought to present itself as the irreplaceable caretaker of the people. The second part of the slogan refers to the obsession with unity in the Myanmar psyche as a result of post-independence civil war. The Tatmadaw is aware that it was this sort of environment that allowed it to enter politics and it needed to create a relevant reason for them to maintain their position.

The obsession with national unity meant that the Tatmadaw is difficult to negotiate with regarding the topic of federalism and democracy, believing that they would be tools exploited for personal gain and domestic instability.

Ironically, the highly centralized leadership and the monopoly of political power would bring about the very corruption and abuse they fear.

After 1988, the Tatmadaw had numerous economic enterprises through affiliated businessmen and ex-military individuals that hold a lion’s share of the national economy. The income gap between senior military officers and the lower ranks have widened ever since. However, despite this potential resentment by the lower ranks, it is unlikely they would conduct any potential revolt against their leaders.

As Desch argued, internal threats to the military institution would end up unifying it, and would give the military more motivation to interfere in politics, if nothing else then to protect itself. In Myanmar, particularly with the 2021 coup, the military is opposed by every faction in the country.

It is difficult to say what the Tatmadaw would do in response to the opposition. What is clear is that these men are not politicians, but soldiers. Whatever they do, the Tatmadaw will act like war

Thiha Thura is a researcher specializing in military strategy and history, and a citizen of Myanmar.

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