Part 1: Evolution of a mafia state in Myanmar

By Maung Zarni

This is the first article in a three-part series. 

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. 

Maung Zarni ( 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.

This article was originally published here.


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