Why Soldiers Don’t Rebel in Than Shwe’s Burma

Besides seeing the generals’ Burma as a world-class disaster of rights abuses and poverty, one fruitful way to understand it would be to view it as a country that is subject to a military-led process of “re-feudalization” of the soldiering class, which is reshaping the country along precolonial feudal lines with adverse domestic and regional consequences. 

Despite an outward appearance of modernity—the MiG-29s, sub-machine guns, alleged nuclear and missile programs, smart western military uniforms and the democracy double-speak—the military has, since 1962, morphed into a ruling class whose interests, concerns and values have long diverged from those of the country’s multi-ethnic peoples under its lordship. 

No doubt personal loyalty towards particular senior or junior generals has played a role in the officer corps, especially those in strategic positions, “hanging together” during crises such as the monk-led uprising, instead of shifting their allegiance back to their real masters, the country’s citizenry, as in the cases of the military in Marcos’ Philippines and Suharto’s Indonesia. But ultimately, the non-occurrence of this most crucial shift may come primarily out of their vested class interests and privileges, soaked in an evident class consciousness as the “patriotic warriors.” 

The problem, of course, is that while the ruling military is regressing, the public in Burma has moved onto a recognizably modern mental space where notions of democracy and human rights have taken root, even among the country’s “great unwashed,” and the traditions-bound Buddhist clergy. The Burmese as multi-ethnic people may not have internalized democratic values; but they have certainly embraced the most minimalist reading of a democratic process: the right to pick their own leaders and representatives. This societal development is of no small import as it has indicated a break with its feudal past. 

Also times have changed outside Burma’s national borders. Even the Association of South East Asia Nations (Asean) has manufactured the Asean Human Rights Charter, with its dominant discourse of “Made-in-Singapore” Asian values giving way to the alien lingo of a “civil society.”

Burma’s pervasive human rights and humanitarian problems however, are only symptomatic of a problem far more fundamental than various policy regimes (constructive engagement, sanctions, or a combination of both “carrot and stick” under the new label of “pragmatic engagement”) are prepared to even acknowledge, namely the re-feudalization of the warrior ruling class and its societal and regional consequences. 

If the international community is serious about helping to empower Burmese “civil society” it needs to come to grips with the fact that the liberal language of human rights and humanitarianism don’t do justice to the people’s predicament. Burma’s agrarian societies are no longer prepared to accept their own military’s class control, domination and exploitation concealed in the language of self-interested nationalistic paternalism. 

Laying the foundations for re-fuedalization

The Burmese problem is not simply the country’s successive ruling cliques of generals (since Ne Win’s era), and their cronies (since the-collapse of Ne Win’s socialist program in 1988), aggrandizing themselves at the expense of the public at large. Those of us Burmese who grew up hearing the hope-filled speculations 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.” 
Playing naïve or pragmatic in dictatorial polity is best left to opportunists. 

The old generation of nationalist-liberators-turned-nation-destroying-despots, General (later U) Ne Win and his military deputies, for example, left intact a process of distinct class formation, with recognizably feudal features (minus the old cultural and customary constraints, for instance, Indic moral guidelines over the rulers’ conduct). 

Nearly seventy 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. There exists no remedy for this class pathos. This ruling class has set the country’s political clock to the monarchical era while the basic structure of the economy under their rule is stuck in the colonial, pre-World War II days, as the Burmese economist U Myint has pointedly remarked. 

Since the collapse of Gen Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Program Party, the regime in Naypyidaw has jumped on the bandwagon of “marketization,” albeit in its own limited and warped way. 

Under the banner of privatization, public assets (land, forests, immovable infrastructure such as office buildings, power industry, and so on) are being divided among the families of senior and junior generals, as well as their cronies who, inter alia, serve as the former’s portfolio managers.

With all these signs of bountiful state-sponsored cronyism, the country’s soldiering class has taken an increasingly kleptocratic turn, which is a throw-back to the old feudal days during which the monarch and his men “ate” the kingdom in terms of land, labor, and natural resources. The Burmese have a wonderfully descriptive term of capturing this type of phenomenon: “hungry hounds stumbling on a pagoda feast.” 

Be that as it may, it is worth pointing out that Gen Ne Win and his men deliberately set in motion the revolutionary process of class formation— revolutionary in the sense that the military that was created by, of and for the sons of the people (Pyi Thuu Tatmadaw, for instance) no longer sees itself as part of the people. It is now a class of the heaven-born, entitled to rule—not govern—the country in accord with the needs, concerns and interests of the senior and junior generals and so on. 

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, rather acting trigger-happy, “shooting to kill” indiscriminately any segment of society—monks or muslims, Bama or Karen, farmers or laborers, young or old. And evidently somewhere along their career path, the military has drifted away from their sense of gratitude to the country and honor to serve the people, towards an institutional/class allegiance and personal loyalty towards the chief. It is rather telling when some ex-military officers who publish their biographies (ex-Brig Gen Tin Swe and ex-Lt Gen Tun Kyi, for instance) and the in-service soldiers describe not the people but the armed forces “as the mother and the father.” This represents a fundamental regression with dire national consequences, for the military as an institution and the soldiering class no longer serves or defends the people from any enemy, including unscrupulous military leaders. 

Furthermore, the Tatmadaw set up its own economic base and interests, fostered a distinct class consciousness (informed by their own sense of superiority vis-à-vis the rest of the society), wrote its own radical revisionist Burmese history where the military was the sole national liberator and the sole guardian of the nation. Indeed the military’s propagandists and in-house historians have attempted to erase from public consciousness the historical fact that virtually every segment of Burmese society, both the ethnic majority and minorities, all gave their share of contributions to the emergence and subsequent maintenance of sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

'Refeudalization' post-1988

Since 1988, four significant features and/or developments distinguish the present phase of this class formation from the previous socialist revolutionary phase of military rule: refeudalization of the country’s military class and political culture; (paradoxically) removal of any cultural/traditional constraints on governmental conduct (for instance, the conditioned belief in one’s own honor as a warrior or the Indic code and notions of “righteous ruler” who is said to posses, among other things, compassion, wisdom, integrity, sacrifice, fairness and so on); 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 very 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 the intra-military and political affairs (for instance, hiring and firing of deputies for their husbands) or managing the flow of bribes and business deals.

Perhaps most important, the military-led class formation has turned decidedly feudal. Some of the more superficial acts of refeudalization of the military and the State include Snr-Gen Than Shwe's and his family’s well-known royal pretensions, with family members addressing one another using the arcane language of the long-gone feudal courts which today is spoken only in the Burmese theater, building a brand new capital and naming it and all its residential quarters and streets auspicious-sounding old royal names selected from Buddhist Jartaka tales, or requiring comically obsequious gestures and demeanors from all subordinate members of Burma’s bureaucracy, military and society (for instance, subordinates, their spouses and families being pressured to get down on their knees even in informal gatherings, activating the royal protocol of subordinates speaking only when spoken to, in the presence of their military superiors, or the Cyclone Nargis victims being instructed to greet Than Shwe and other generals during their propaganda journeys to the Irrawaddy Delta as if they were Boddhiisattva or would-be-Buddhas). In Burma’s post-feudal society the military-led refeudalization has gone to comical extremes as the scenes of Burmese citizens kowtowing to these military men of vainglory become too much to stomach. 

Beyond psychological and behavioral dimensions, the deeper and more institutional acts include, in effect, reinstituting the old feudal practice of sanctioning and encouraging regional commanders and other military officials to extract revenues and labor from local communities under their direct military and administrative control, giving rise to competition among military commanders in collecting the greatest quantity of funds and other resources from respective local populations. 

Paving the way for cronyism

To paraphrase the late Ernest Gellner (“Nationalism,” 1997), probably the most brilliant student of nations and nationalisms, in feudal society it is power that generates wealth, not the other way round. Economically, Than Shwe whetted, and subsequently unleashed, the economic appetite of other senior and junior warriors. As a point of departure from Ne Win’s regime, which pushed out a large number of alien commercial and technical elements from the economy—in the case of 300,000 Indians, out of the country altogether—with its catastrophic 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 in Burmese society. 

Here the best known case is Tay Za, one of Burma's wealthiest tycoons, army-bred, who got expelled from the once prestigious Defense Services Academy for violating the Academy’s then strict code of conduct for cadets. The sons of Thura Shwe Mann, until recently the regime’s third-ranking general, have also joined the country’s top 10 influential and richest “businessmen” while the famous tycoon Zaygaba Khin Shwe, a close friend of former Brig-Gen Tint Swe and his personal staff officer, Capt (and later Gen) Khin Nyunt, was a civilian staff and “socialist workers’ representative” of the Army Engineering Corps during the socialist period. Khin Shwe is contesting in the November ‘election’ as a candidate for the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (junta-backed USDP Campaigning through Nargis Projects, Irrawaddy, 30 Sept athttp://www2.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=19596), while his daughter is married to one of Shwe Mann’s sons. 

There are lesser known cronies, who are army-bred and thus army-backed, (for instance, Hla Maung Shwe of Myanmar Egress, a regime’s proxy “civil society” organization). It is, without a doubt, to the military rule and the generals that these men, and many others like them, owe their personal fortunes. 

Some of these men no doubt hold good intentions for the country. And many show concern for the troubled state of the affairs on the ground. But they have little or no choice other than to act loyally toward the military regime and follow the generals’ “advice” in times of the military’s needs. In exchange for their entrepreneurial services to this growing military class, of which they have long been an integral part—for some, since birth—the ruling junta has allowed Burma’s 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 Kachin’s ancestral land, originally designated as a national tiger reserve. 

In his otherwise insightful analysis titled “The Future of Tatmadaw’s Political Role in Myanmar: Prospects and Problems,” even Maung Aung Myo, a former lecturer at Burma’s National Defence College, observed that the Tatmadaw has been “hijacked by a small group of generals” for their own personal aggrandizement. But it is, upon closer examination, a case of intra-class symbiosis where juniors and seniors divided their ill-gotten gains at the expense of the citizenry. If anything is being hijacked it is the country and its future—hijacked by its own soldiers. 

In feudal systems of Burma’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—as it was in Ne Win’s Burma. Whimsically, these despots carried out large scale purges (for instance, the purge of Military Intelligence under the directorship of Brig Tin Oo in 1983 and the ouster of Gen Khin Nyunt and 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 into riches through bribery, big and small, while in office. To get rich quick was indeed glorious for Deng’s China post-Mao. But in Than Shwe’s Myanmar, “eating” as much of the country as fast as you can may not be glorious, not at least in the eyes of the traditionally pious Buddhist population; but it has become the wisest and most strategic course of action for virtually all Burmese military officers who are clever enough to recognize that theirs is a class kleptocracy. only the morons remain moral in this new thoroughly feudalized military class.

No wonder that Burma consistently ranks at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Index.

Patronizing and 'incentivizing' the commercial classes

Institutionally, since the early 1990s, the Ministry of Defense has taken over State enterprises and re-established them as the Tatmadaw’s solely owned businesses. Now the military has its hand in virtually every economic pie, from poultry farms, small factories, real estate, tourism, transportation, construction, rental business of regimental facilities to 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 commercial elements in society under the Tatmadaw’s effective control. 

Unlike Ne Win’s socialist military government, the regime in 2010 doesn’t alienate the commercial elites. Instead, the generals have made local entrepreneurs work for military rule through an evolving economic and political symbiosis. The military, in this new arrangement which harks back to the old monarchical days of commercial and trade monopolies, has learned to patronize the economic class for its own benefit.

In fact, Than Shwe has effectively used the twin elements of greed and pervasive anxieties and uncertainties about the soldiering class’s future, encompassing both the officer corps and the emerging crony capitalists. 
Internationally, Than Shwe knows only too well how to dangle this possibility of Burma’s economic liberalization post-election. It doesn’t take much brilliance or a doctorate in international affairs or economics to figure out the fact that the business of the post-Cold War world is business.

With the generals’ election approaching, and the regime-released buzz about freeing the world’s most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, a long list of western governments and their development agencies, as well as western commercial interests—especially agri-businesses, energy or resource extractors from Norway and Sweden to Germany, Britain and the US—can barely conceal their enthusiasm to march to South East Asia’s last remaining commercial frontiers. 

While talking up, and priming, Burma’s “civil society” along free market lines, and repeating the meaningless mantra of a “free, fair and inclusive” election in Burma, the United Nations (for instance, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific) as well as certain European governments are in effect cheer-leading what they anticipate as the imminent marketization of one of the world’s last remaining “virgin economies.” If Than Shwe’s in-house feudal hounds are feasting on the ground, foreign vultures are swirling around in the Burmese sky, only waiting for the right moment (say “post-election”) to move in and devour what’s left of Burma after the fast-eating Thais, Chinese, Indians, Singaporeans, Koreans and Malaysians. 

Power and wealth have always ganged up against the rest in all societies, as Adam Smith perceptively noted in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)”. Two centuries on, today’s governments (and now multilateral agencies as well) universally perform institutional foreplay before the domestic commercial classes and corporate paymasters penetrate these virgin or not-so-virgin markets in hitherto closed societies. And we, the poor, are supposed to feel grateful for this gang rape. 

Only time will tell whether the forces of the “free market” will overpower Burma’s soldiering class, unlike the military in Indonesia, Philippines or Turkey, marching backward along feudal lines and attempting to consolidate its class hold on Burmese society, economy and polity while at the same time strategically parroting “democracy and market.” 

Small wonder that soldiers don’t rebel in Than Shwe’s Burma. 

Dr Zarni (m.zarni@lse.ac.uk) is research fellow on Burma at the LSE Global Governance, the London School of Economics and visiting senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University.


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