The armed forces of Myanmar, also known as Tatmadaw, originated when former Burma was at war with Great Britain. The story goes that at a ceremony in Bangkok in 1941 a so-called group of "Thirty Comrades" decided to establish an army to liberate Burma from the British, giving life to the armed resistance that ultimately led the country to independence in 1948. A historical moment that has been memorialized in the Military Museum of Nay Pyi Taw, the capital of Myanmar, where there are stories and testimonies of the event. Since then, apart from a short period (between 1948 and 1962), the military has always played a crucial role in Myanmar’s government.
Tatmadaw: a nationalist symbol
In 1962, General Ne Win came to power through a coup, which inaugurated the Burmese path to socialism. A leading exponent of the "Thirty Comrades", Ne Win is one of the founders of the army, which has a strong nationalist significance, riding on the fact that General Aung San is also among the other founders. Killed in 1947 by ultranationalists, Aung San has always been considered the father of the homeland. He was attributed a fundamental role in the birth of independent Burma. He is also the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, an icon and the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party that won the elections in 1990, in 2015 and finally in 2020, when the military – refusing the result – regained absolute power with the coup d'état last February 1st.
Clinging to the values of nationalism and social redemption in an anti-colonial English and Japanese note (Japan briefly occupied former Burma during the Second World War), Ne Win ruled the country with an iron fist for 26 long years, inaugurating the history of the Burmese dictatorship by generals.
The guardian of the nation
The idea of the army as the backbone of the country was born in those years: its men belong to the Bamar ethnic group — the predominant one in Myanmar — they are Buddhists and consider themselves the guardians of the homeland. Myanmar is made up of 135 ethnic groups and has always struggled to find unity. In fact, over the past seventy years armed clashes have never ceased and separatist pressures have never fully subsided. Subsequentially, the Tatmadaw imposes a vision of itself as the glue of the country, as a necessary force to guarantee security and stability.
According to Thant Myint U, the most famous contemporary Burmese historian, “Military rhetoric, linked to nationalism and the Buddhist religion, has strengthened in recent years. Westerners often confuse Burmese Buddhism with that of the Dalai Lama and a pacifist view of the world. In reality, Buddhism in Myanmar is a mixture of religion, astrology and tradition, with a strong conservative connotation derived from the current Theravada Buddhist. In the past, Burmese kings also professed to be Buddhists, but this did not stop them from killing thousands of people. Referring to the same principles, in more recent history the Burmese generals have felt invested with the role of protectors, even when this involved the use of violence. General Than Shwe, who led Myanmar from 1992 to 2011, was certainly very conditioned by a superstitious vision of the world linked to astrology and numerology. General Min Aung Hlaing, the current head of the Burmese junta, is also very religious in the traditional Burmese sense. "
However, if religion remains the country’s strongest glue, the idea of the army as the guardian of the nation’s security wore out during the long dictatorship years, when a wall of fear and mistrust was first raised between the Burmese people and the military. A circumspection destined to increase after the opening of Myanmar in 2011, which led to the elections of 2015 and the overwhelming victory of the NLD.
During this period, the country acquired a democratic appearance, so much so that the United States and the European Union lifted economic sanctions. In a very short time, Myanmar changed its appearances. The internet and mobile phones arrived, which became popular not only in cities but in the countryside and the most remote areas, too.
The confrontation with the outside world stimulated a certain appetite for freedom among the younger generations, while the Burmese army’s gap with the nationalist ideology and the hunger for power became unbridgeable.
The illusion of a democratic and peaceful transition
In August 2017, the military attacked thousands of Rohingya Muslims in the state of Rakhine, alongside the border with Bangladesh. They burned entire villages, sowing death, physical and moral violence, and forcing 800,000 people to flee their homes. So much so that the United Nations spoke about potential genocide.
An episode that does not surprise those who know the country well and its long history of intolerance and usurpations the Muslim minority has been subject to for years.
Despite its democratic appearances, thanks to the 2008 constitution, the Tatmadaw is not subject to any civil authority and controls the army, police and border guards. It unilaterally appoints a quarter of the parliament and holds power in three key ministries: Defense, Borders, and Interior.
Over the years, the junta led to two important — and bloody — revolts. The first was in 1988, when in the midst of a very serious economic crisis, the army fired on the crowd that took to the streets for the first time to openly express their dissent. Thousands of students were arrested and just as many were brutally killed.
In 2007, the army put down the so-called saffron revolution led byBuddhist monks, who filled the streets of the country's economic capital, Yangon, with the saffron color of their tunics.
"The military has always used the same strategy, which is to arrest and then kill demonstrators," says Van Tran, a Cornell University researcher who studied the 1988 and 2007 riots in Myanmar. "As in the past, these are large-scale operations with the intention of stopping the riots as soon as possible, with the clear intention of diminishing their scope. If on the one hand they have no qualms about killing those who protest, on the other they make the bodies of the murdered people disappear. A less simple operation than in the past, because today there are phones, photos and videos, which despite the censorship, testify to what is happening ... "
To put on paper the brutality of the Burmese regime’s repression, in addition to the hundreds of testimonies via social media, the Associated Press conducted a research with the University of Berkeley. It analyses how the military carries out bona fide campaigns of terror, exposing the bodies of corpses and wounded in the streets, spreading photos of prisoners before and after beatings and torture. All with the clear intention of creating a climate of anxiety, uncertainty, and fear.
According to AAPP, an NGO that works to assist prisoners, over 6,000 people have been arrested since the start of the coup, while about 900 have died. Tragic numbers, though they unfortunately amount to an underestimate as plenty of missing people are not accounted for. These people often end up being murdered, their bodies hidden by the military, with the twofold aim of keeping the death toll lower and increasing the well-established strategy of tension.
A state within the state
After more than 50 years of dictatorship, the military has become a state within a state, with its own institutions: schools, hospitals, and universities. Many recruits are often children from Buddhist monasteries, where thousands of orphaned minors — or from destitute families — are raised according to religious dictates. Enlistment in the army ranks takes place around the age of 10, and from then on ties with the outside world are reduced to a minimum.
The military lives far from the people, locked up in compounds. They have their own rules and a system that allows career-makers to enjoy enormous economic privileges, as explained by Oliver Slow of the NGO Asian Parliamentarians for Human Rights.
The "Tatmadaw is the largest economic player in Myanmar, with commercial interests in every sector economic of the country: mining, oil and gas, beer, telecommunications, but also the entire sector of public construction and tourism. The military mainly operates through two economic conglomerates, the MEHL and the MEC. Given the notoriously reserved nature of the Tatmadaw, it is difficult to establish what the economic value of the two groups is, but it is a considerable amount, largely destined to finance the campaigns of violence and terror that are currently underway against the Burmese people.
Information confirmed in the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar (FFMM) report, which investigated the economic interests of the Tatmadaw after the 2017 Rohingya massacre.
According to the OHCHR that drafted the dossier, within MEHL and MEC there are 106 companies, plus 27 external ones which, however, are directly linked to the two groups. Both conglomerates are tax-exempt and have never made their accounts public. The only economic metric provided by the dossier dates back to a 2017 statement by then-Deputy Defense Minister Myint Nwe that the MEHL was worth $119.4 million.
The most recent figure comes from the trade of jade, of which Myanmar holds 70% of global production. According to the “Insider” investigation, the industry alone is worth $31 billion and iscompletely in the hands of the military. The figure is even more significant if compared to Myanmar's GDP of $76 billion (source World Bank).
But this is, after all, data that the generals keep very secretively. Lately Mratt Kyaw Thu, a Burmese journalist disliked by the regime, had posted a dossier on General Min Aung Hlaing and on the companies directly linked to him, a tweet promptly removed by the regime's censorship.
According to Thant Myint U, the army can count on about 300,000-350,000 men, of which only half have real combat capabilities. To these, about 80 thousand policemen must be added. Above all, light infantry units such as the 33rd and 99th are feared, the same ones that have committed crimes against humanity in Rakhine, and that have been sent in the fieriest moments of the protest in Yangon and recently in the ethnic areas.
"It is not the numbers of the army that must worry the Burmese resistance," continues Thant Myint U. "Over the past decade, Burmese militias have developed strong capabilities in the use of advanced artillery and aviation assets. For example, in Kachin, the military have deployed artillery of Soviet origin and have Russian and Chinese aircraft. I think it is difficult for the Burmese resistance to be able to overcome this type of attacks, which are at the same time by land and air”.
Despite being one of the poorest countries in Asia, Myanmar spends as much on its army as for education and health. According to the Global Firepower, a site specialized on the effectiveness and power of armies in the world, the army of the former Burma, in 2021, ranks 38th out of the 140 examined.
Nonetheless, if there are few doubts about the power and determination of the Burmese army leaders, there are, instead, some doubts about the unity of its troops. According to media reconstructions, between 800 and 1000 soldiers have deserted. Their stories show a strong discomfort for the violence of the clashes, and for the order to shoot against their compatriots. Simple soldiers, unlike the upper ranks of the army, have a very modest salary, around 200 euros per month.
Reports describe a very controlled life, based on a nearly feudal hierarchy. The army dictates what soldiers are allowed to say or believe, to the point of telling them what to wear or how to decorate their homes. All soldiers are forced to live in army bases and can only leave if authorized by their superiors, through a long and obstacle-full process that lasts about 10 years. If simple soldiers or graduates entered on a collision course with power, wife and children would be used as a deterrent, establishing de facto blackmail strategies.
Resistance is organized in collapsing Myanmar
This explains why the battalions that defected did so only once they reached the ethnic regions of the country, where the armed resistance offered them protection. Even though it is a complex situation — and yet to be defined —some ethnic minorities’ armed groups have joined the PDF (People Defense Forces) — a large, national, federal army — in various regions.
It is a program conceived and supported by the NUG, the Government of National Unity, formed by democratically elected parliamentarians in November 2020 within the NLD. A sort of shadow government, which in addition to seeking international legitimacy, is working on a federal army with the aim of bringing together the groups that up until now had fought the central government of Nay Pyi Taw. An ambitious project which, as envisioned by the NUG, should reach 2,300 units. It is precisely because of the dream of a large, new, federal army that many young activists have left the cities and the most central areas of the country to join the local armies such as in Kachin or Karen, where they participate in real military training courses.
It is an enticing yet very fragile project: the numbers of this hypothetical army are still to be verified, as well as the actual ability of the various groups to find agreements and overcome old clashes regarding the sharing of positions of power and coordination, but also concrete interests, such as those related to opium cultivation in the Shan region.
Meanwhile, the country is in collapse, paralyzed by fear and hunger. Following the coup, a very serious food crisis has been ravaging through rural areas, according to UNHCR, while the bombings have forced around 500,000 people to leave their homes and fields and take refuge in the woods and forests.
For the UNDP (United Nations Development Program), Myanmar is fast approaching economic collapse, poverty, banks’ closures and rising unemployment rates. The pandemic is also out of control. According to data from the past few days, there are four thousand Covid-19 cases a day, with very limited controls, a collapsing healthcare system, and an endemic lack of oxygen.
Thus, more and more observers refer to the risks of a failed state and the need for international actors to mobilize for a solution. A mobilization that, however, seems increasingly unlikely, just like a rapid solution to the crisis does not seem plausible. Hence, some look to a potential split in the army as the only possible solution. Although the history of the Tatmadaw has never produced anything like this, it is certainly true that the army has never been subjected to such strong internal and external pressure. So much so that during of General Min Aung Hlaing’s recent visit to Russia, the rumor of a possible new coup by the second in command of the army, General Soe Win, had spread. It was clearly a false alarm, but the credibility that many have given to a simple rumor suggests that a split in the army, albeit remote, is by no means unthinkable.