Making Sense of Military Violence in Myanmar

In this piece, drawing on five decades as a Myanmar scholar, Mikael Gravers, sheds light on the historical roots and rationale of the Myanmar military making the contemporary challenges faced by the resistance abundantly clear.

Photocredit: Benjamin Small

Mikael Gravers

Associate Professor Emeritus, Anthropology, Aarhus University, Denmark. Author of Nationalism as Political Paranoia 1999.

States possess militaries – in Myanmar the military (known as the Tatmadaw) believe they own the state. They claim that the defence services are the only guardians of national sovereignty. Their nationalist ideology and totalitarian tactics constitute the fulcrum of the current atrocities against the civilians whom they label ‘rioters’, ‘enemies’ and ‘terrorists’.

The Tatmadaw’s role and national ideology called ‘Our Three Main National Causes’ are inscribed in the constitution: ‘Non-disintegration of the Union; non-disintegration of national solidarity’; and ‘the perpetuation of national sovereignty’. Moreover, the constitution also prescribes for a ‘disciplined flourishing multi-party democracy and the enabling of the Tatmadaw to participate in national political leadership of the state’.

‘Disciplined democracy’ is military Orwellian newspeak for military rule and law and order.  The Tatmadaw use the term ‘national politics’ to mean politics above chaotic and divisive party politics. They are not talking about the contestation inherent in participatory democracy as understood in the West. The term amyothayay, meaning ‘national causes’, is often used and signifies a devotion above politics.

The Tatmadaw has developed its national causes since the first coup in 1962 when they took power out of fear of secession by Myanmar’s major (non-Bamar) ethnic groups.

These ideological notions imply that civilians and non-Burman groups are destabilising the nation and the union state, assisted – in the Tatmadaw’s often paranoid imagination – by ‘foreign colonialists’. According to the Tatmadaw’s reasoning, this means that the military must identify and destroy the enemies who destabilise the union.

The Tatmadaw numbers about 350,000 troops and controls the police force of 80,000. The army has been increasingly modernised with Russian aircraft and combat helicopters. Soldiers and officers live with families in gated camps and have their own schools and hospitals. The Tatmadaw control major parts of the economy via two large holding companies and officers have for decades grabbed land and resources. The wealthy generals control a huge patron-client network including cronies, local militias and nationalist monks. There is a flow of money that includes bribes upwards in the system while patronage flows down through the ranks. In all, it is a closed, privileged, and tightly controlled nation-wide armed patron-client system. However, rank and file soldiers are poor and under harsh command. They have to ‘live off the land’ and provide ‘gifts’ and services to officers in order to survive. Loyalty, brutal training, and the ideology of the national causes are turned against ‘enemies’ in the civil society that soldiers are isolated from.

Nationalist monks have supported the Tatmadaw’s expulsion of 7-800,000 Rohingya Muslims, pejoratively termed Bengalis, and referred to as a ‘non-indigenous race’. Their sermons have created a profound and widespread fear of what is termed ‘a Muslim invasion and conquest’ endangering Buddhism. Nationalist monks’ Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha) includes thousands of laypersons nationwide. Ma Ba Tha has received substantial donations from officers who consider protection of race, nation and Buddhism as part of the ‘main national causes’.

In Karen State, the local committee of monks was proud of having donated a substantial amount of money to fund a fence built by the Tatmadaw along the Bangladesh border. The local leading Ma Ba Tha monk praised US President at the time, Donald Trump, and urged Buddhists not to marry or trade with Muslims. The most influential monk, Sitagu Sayadaw, consoled soldiers in a sermon that killing non-Buddhists is not negative karma if the intention (cedana) is acting on orders to defend the nation and Buddhism against Kalar, a derogatory term for Muslims. The Sitagu monk now acts as the Main Guru of the Nation (a royal tradition) for Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. They have been photographed hand in hand and the monk provides moral and spiritual support. While some monks have participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and shown support for the resistance movement the most senior monastic orders seem to support the coup, or passively accept it, proposing negotiations as a means to solve the crisis rather than questioning the legitimacy of the coup or protesting the ensuing violence. Their attitude has not surprisingly angered the civilian movement.

What lay behind these developments? In 2020, Min Aung Hlaing realised that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party had gained too much control over state administration, elections, and civil society. Moreover, she had not obeyed his order to convene the military dominated National Defence & Security Council during the so-called Rohingya crisis or at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although she had denied the genocide of the Rohingya, she admitted that war crimes may have been committed. After elections, she further angered the General by refused to investigate alleged election fraud.

The Tatmadaw was evidently losing power and the dialogue halted. In the Tatmadaw’s view, Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) broke the uneasy entente, failing to acknowledge the Tatmadaw’s leadership in ‘national politics’.  However, the coup failed to deliver the political stability and military-led order the General might have anticipated.  The Civil Disobedience Movement has paralysed education, health system and banks, while some of the youthful Generation Z have taken up arms in the form of Peoples Defence Forces (PDFs) supported by the already existing Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs). Hundreds of police and army officers, have since deserted, making the General look like a failing dictator (see here). Citizens affixed his image to the soles of their feet and within their clothes in a sign of desecration and a challenge to the military’s sense of patriarchal entitlement (see here). Nevertheless, the Tatmadaw’s totalitarian tactics, used in the 1988 student movement and in 2007 during the young monks’ Saffron Revolution’, have continued with full force.

The violence against demonstrators is a calculated method to inculcate fear and ‘discipline’. Soldiers have been ordered ‘to annihilate the rioters’. Soldiers destroy property and loot private homes. During the night, thugs formerly known as Swan-Arr-Shin (‘Masters of Force’) have been deployed. It is rumoured that many of them are drug addicts just released from jail and driven into major urban areas by the police. They have attacked protesters with rods and knives, poisoning water tanks and using arson to scare people. In the countryside, houses have been torched after looting. Arrestees are severely beaten in public, tortured and denied access to lawyers.  Sexual violence is prevalent, and officers use rape as a weapon, as they have done for decades in ethnic areas.  Several politicians, journalists, and activists have died in detention while the military lies about the causes of death. The military demands bribes from families of the detained for allowing them to send food or for their release. Payments have even been demanded for the release of dead bodies.

The use of police informers and the control of visitors to private homes has returned. The military intelligence system is believed to have acquired surveillance technology to identify ‘enemies’ on electronic media. 

The criminal laws on unrest and sedition derive from colonial times. After the coup, sentences provided for in law were doubled or tripled. Fabricated charges have been made, as in the case of Aung San Suu Kyi accused of receiving illegal foreign funding for her party. The Tatmadaw then confiscated the money from her charitable foundation and began prosecuting her for breaking the (colonial) Official Secret Act.

Deployment of full military combat forces, including aircraft and helicopters, against civilians risks affecting the morale and discipline of soldiers and their families who are now treated as pariahs by civilians. Generals visit camps in order to maintain the discipline and loyalty after substantial casualties and desertions. Meanwhile, their patron-client system is troubled by the dramatic economic decline due to strikes and international sanctions.

The Tatmadaw understand civil society as chaotic and democracy as a destablising force. Thus, they resort to rule by escalating violence because they lost political power in their own constitutional system created during the previous dictatorship. The Tatmadaw has built a violent and xenophobic fulcrum around Myanmar’s main institutions: a predatory economy, draconian laws, martial law, surveillance of civil society, as well as of military and police personnel, control of media, use of misinformation, death threats on Tik Tok, and rumour-mongering. They also try to control education, NGOs, and religious congregations.

As Hannah Arendt famously described in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1968), rule by totalitarian tactics and sheer violence occurs when power is lost. Military self-identification as the guardians of the nation aims to secure their monopoly on power at all costs. If the generals’ ideology of patriotic rule in the name of national causes had some support previously, it is now utterly rejected. If they organise ‘fair multi party elections’ as proclaimed, they will make sure to win after the NLD is decimated or banned. Only time will show whether the resistance can challenge the Tatmadaw and provoke an internal military rebellion where senior generals turn against the coup leaders – or if it will develop into an unending full-scale country-wide civil war.

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