Rise of the military in Burma

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Burma is one country with zero democracy. In the light of the bloody crackdown against peaceful protesters there, John Smith Thang recounts the rise of the brutal military regime and how it morphed into a brutal dictatorship.

After World Wars I and II, the Burmese people realised that state security from sudden invasion by the then imperialist powers such as the Japanese and Germans was not guaranteed. At that time, the role of the military was to fight the invading enemy, to protect the people and the country. This did not mean that the military’s primary objective was to rule the state. Military rule should be the exception – only during emergency situations.

According to Alagappa, “the military’s primary role is deemed to be in [the] international arena”. The people’s voice should be supreme for nation building in this day and age.  The military’s role in the international arena only arises when world war or other global conflicts occur. This is when the country is faced with an external threat. The state’s police force is seen as sufficient for handling crime and maintaining internal security. 

Moreover, the state should be accountable for any militarised action it takes. It should be with the consent of the people or there should be provisions in the Constitution to authorise such  action.

Here ‘civilian rule’ refers to the state, political society, and civil society, especially the political, administration, and juridicial institutions. In civilian rule, the military is not involved in ruling the country. This article looks at how the military developed in Burma and finally took over the country.

Achieving a shaky independence

In Asia, many modern day sovereign nations are ex-colonies of former colonial powers. Even after gaining independence, many of them had not achieved sufficient political maturity to build the state themselves. This resulted in the potential collapse of the state as weaknesses were found in several sectors. Occasionally the military interfered in the civilian rule and politics of the state. Under military rule, however, different levels of state building and ruling systems were developed in the newly independent nations in Asia.

Military domination in North Korea, Pakistan and Burma clearly shows how the political process, national goals and agenda have been determined by the military.  The state is directly run by the military, although a different name such as council or committee may be used for the governing body.  But the military are in full control of the State in those countries.


Formation of the Burmese army

The Union of Burma had a basic civil constitution in 1947 (reflecting the Penglong Agreement), as well as its agreement with the different ethnic nationalities for the first time as a step towards nation building.  This was of common interest to all the people and an acceptable basic principle for the formation of a nation.  The Penglong Agreement also paved the way to achieving Burmese independence from the British. It was a historic event as the different ethnic nationalities united to defend Burma from the threat of a colonising invasion. It was founded on state civil-military relations from the founding moment: independence from colonial rule in 1948.

In Burma the armed forces were originally organised as a federation of ethnically constituted regiments established during the colonial period such as the Chin and Kachin regiments. It also saw the involvement of different ethnic nationalities fighting for independence from colonisation.  Apart from this, ethnic regiments significantly contributed to defending the federal union of Burma during the civil war in the early years.

But the sincere comradeship of the multi-ethnic regiments was destroyed after Independence was achieved.  The reason is that, immediately after Independence, the Burmese Independence Army (BIA) was formed by only the  prominent Burman nationalist politicians who had participated in Japan’s invasion of Burma in 1942.

Subsequently, within a few months of Independence in 1948 it was reorganised by force “with Burman (refers to ‘proper Burma’ as well as known ‘lower Burma’ mainly from the central part of the country, not Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Karen, Mon or Arakan ethnic group) officers and men dominating all units, regardless of their ethnic names” (Silverstein 1990). The ethnic regiments were excluded and placed in different units and so were fragmented. 

Hence, it was a total assault on the federal army, national freedom and independence, unity and loyalty of the ethnic groups.  The federal army was abolished. The army comprises Burman extremists who have betrayed the ethnic nationalities. 

Moreover, the new army started claiming a hold on the nation touting itself its guide. This was not at all fair as the new army only served the interests of Burman extremist leaders.  This was the beginning of how the Burmese army became the federal broker and national ethnic unity broker in contravention of the 1947 constitution.  It is clearly a military insult to the nation after the secret arrest and disappearance of the Federal Union’s constitutionally appointed former president and Chairman of the chamber of nationalities S. Shwe Thaik in 1962. (An ethnic Shan, he became the president of the Union of Burma on 4 January 1948 at its independence. He served as the head of state of Burma between 1948 and 1952. After this term as president, he was the chairman of the chamber of nationalities until 1962. In the military coup of March 1962 he was arrested by military head General Ne Win and died in prison in November 1962.) Similarly, the father of Independence, General Aung San, was assassinated in 1947 by Burman extremists.

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Since then, the armed forces have been almost permanently at war with the Karen, Shan and other ethnic minorities. The government has failed to incorporate these minorities into the national community. Ethnic rebel groups increase in numbers on the periphery of Burma.

At the height of conflict in 1949-50 the military was elevated to partnership in the government. It was called in again by the politicians to form a caretaker government and hold the country together in 1958 and subsequently took power; the constitution was allegedly terminated in the 1962 coup (Luckham). 

This coup arose in connection with civilian rule due to alleged intrigue by the Burman extremist patriotic group.  It led to a mis-driven economic budget utilisation, which failed to implement the policy reforms required that might have transformed the economy. The military coup in 1962 occurred with the cooperation of the Burman dominated army. To date, this army remains Burma’s national army, known as “Myanmar Thatmadaw”.


Nation’s guardian or oppressor?

Now the role of the army is more than guardian of the nation; it is a full participant in government. The army has paved the way to dictatorship instead of maintaining and rebuilding the nation. Its failure to maintain parallel economies and political institutions – have reinforced the stagnation of the economy and the repressiveness of the military regime (Luckham).

The Burmese military government attempted to outflank the left by establishing its own Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP); the new military order was an autarkic and non-aligned socialist state.  The reason for becoming Socialist was to create a political ideological balance between the neighboring countries. Burma was treated as a strategic buffer between the democratic Indian and the communist Chinese regimes on its borders (Luckham).

For various reasons, the Burmese army took power not only to solve the crisis but also to form its own party, the BSPP. Army chief, General Ne Win, became Burma’s Socialist Party president. The prolonged and continuing domination by the military clearly seems to be aimed at perpetuating military rule through the creation of a single-party structure.  Since then, Burma’s democracy has been totally confiscated and the country has never returned to civilian rule.

The Burmese Army started the repression of the students’ and workers’ demonstrations in the 1960s and 1970s; these were brutally crushed. It even resorted to torture, and the economy steadily deteriorated. By mid-1988, rice shortages and popular discontent reached crisis proportions. The police slaying of a student sparked demonstrations.

Coinciding with the fall of the communist strong hold of Soviet Russia, which was also Burma’s ally, General Ne Win, Burma’s socialist dictator, in fear of mass demonstrations, resigned as head of the government in July 1988.  Sein Lwin, his own armyman, replaced him as the new president.  But the strongman Sein Lwin was forced by public fury to quit on 12 Aug after only 18 days in power. There was a nation wide strike and thousands were killed by the army.

The main thing that the people demanded was a change in political structure. The people did not demand a mere change of BSPP leadership.  But the military group didn’t want to end the BSPP, and kept on changing the leadership of the party making General Maung Maung the next leader. Later, by the continuous demand of the people, and failed repressive measures to crush it, the BSPP’s hold on power was finally ended.

Then, in September 1988, through reassertion of their power in the country, the army formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC); senior general Saw Maung became chairman of SLORC. On 18 September 1988, the military took power again with the new name (SLORC) after killing a sufficient number of people.  At the same time, the military made a verbal promise for “democracy” just to pacify the people.

However, the SLORC military government again abolished the second constitution of 1974; even though that 1974 constitution was not democratic, the new SLORC issued martial law decrees that forbade any public criticism of the military and prohibited public gatherings of more than five people. On the same date SLORC took power, the military regime announced that they would implement a multi-party democratic system in Burma.

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It looked like the army had finally responded to calls for democracy by announcing a coup by SLORC. But this announcement turned out to be merely idealistic rhetoric, as people later realised, because SLORC did not transfer power to the elected party.

In June 1989, SLORC changed the name of the country to Myanmar; in 1992, senior general Saw Maung, who took control of the state by force in 1988, retired. Another general, Than Shwe, then became the chairperson of SLORC and has ruled till today. Than Shwe renamed the party the State Peace and Development Council in November 1997.

Recent massacre

The current Burmese public demonstration that began in September is not just an ethnic confrontation with the military government; but the majority of Burman people also participated in the demonstration.  They realised it was not only about ethnic conflicts but also an issue for the whole nation, and that the military caused misunderstanding amongst ethnic communities of different religions.  That is why a big internal revolution was raised recently in Burma mainly led by the monks. 

The monks, particularly, feel a huge burden because of military misuse of Buddhism against other ethnic minority religions. On 24 September 2007 alone, over a million people took to the streets in 26 cities and towns, including all the ethnic states across  Burma, marching for freedom and human rights (Asia Pacific People’s Partnership on Burma (APPPB) Maroon Revolution in Numbers).

However, as was characteristic of the military junta, despite claiming to be Buddhists and Burman nationalists, they brutally killed the monks in the recent September massacre.  The army didn’t even respect the Buddhist ‘god’ by not taking off their shoes in the temple and pagoda, against their own Buddhist tradition, and went in to kill Buddhist monks.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), at least 4,000 people including more than 1,000 monks were arrested. At least two national United Nations staff have been arrested and detained. Around 300 people were killed including one Japanese journalist and possibly thousands of people as well. Not less than 1,000 people have disappeared in this Revolution. Possibly ten thousand people were arrested. Even before 21 August 2007, there were 1,158 political prisoners already in prisons. Three thousand students were shot in 1988 and numbers of people massacred in 2003 at Depayin.

Moreover the public feared further prolonging of military power in Burma as the newly drafted constitution stipulates “25 per cent directly reserve seats for military in parliament”. This is dangerous for all Burmese people. Public participation was very limited in drafting the constitution, and there were no fundamental rights of freedom of expression and the right to assembly.  It can lead to wrong nation building that could have adverse implications for Burma’s future. 

Burma has a serious ruling structure problem. The military government is a cruel illegal ruler , which is still trying to hold on to power.

This is how the Burmese military junta, which was supposed to be the nation’s guidance in early times, later turned into a dictatorship, killing its own people till today. Moreover, the Burmese military has a deep-rooted tradition of dictatorship; it cannot commit to genuinely building a democratic nation as long as  power is in the hands of the army.

 

Democracy versus military rule      

The possibility exists for the military to take temporary control when a civilian government strays from its ‘national ideal’ or obligation.  In Burma’s case, if the military was the genuine guardian it should have solved the civilian conflict among the various ethnic nationalities. For example, there was a democracy dilemma in civilian rule in early 1950 to 1960: civilian rulers from the Burman extremists group tried to dominate the country by secret Buddishtisation and Burmanisation over other ethnic nationalities (Horton, Guy 2005). The Prime Minister U Nu himself was presumably involved in these efforts.  (U Nu also attempted to legalize Buddhism as the state religion in 1961.) This is the consequence of extremist Burmanisation and a weak democracy. 

It certainly violates the nation’s constitution as well as the fundamental Penglong Agreement, by discrimination and restriction of freedom. Society’s support of this fundamentalist and pro-domination trend is always a problem for nation building.  It apparently led to the failure of civilian rule.  In such an event, the intervention of the military is appropriate to prevent extremists taking power. But here the military also became the partner of extremist Burmans.  We later realised they were linked with each other.

Slowly, we discovered that the military initially, immediately reorganised the army and later held a coup to form the Socialist party, with the purpose of monopolising military power and controlling the country. Looking back, the behaviour of the Burmese military was not about creating a resolution for democracy, but rather about having lasting political power and control of the country.

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When conflicts between the Burman dominant group and other ethnic groups arise, within the system of civilian rule, the army should protect and be responsible for their reunification instead of aiding the ethnic-cleansing of the other ethnic groups. The army should play an impartial role. 

According to Enloe (1981), a second society-based explanation of military politicisation and intervention is that the military intervenes to protect and advance the interests of a specific class or ethnic/religious group  (Alagappa 48). But in the case of Burma the military is systematically maintaining power itself to control the civilian population. This is one of the reasons the BIA (military name of early time) allegedly removed from the federal army ethnic regiments like the Chin and Kachin Regiments.  The military was also hand-in-hand with the Burman extremists helping to exploit and collapse other ethnic societies. This is another regrettable mistake in the Burmese Army’s history. 

The military seemed to try to re-assume democracy in the 27 May 1990 election.  But out of 485 parliamentary seats contested; the NLD won 392 (over 80%; 82%). Ethnic minority parties won 65 more seats. The army-front NUP won only 10 constituencies; it was clear that people did not approve of the army being in power.  The result was not the one expected by the military.  

However, the urgent question is whether the military will hand over power to a civilian government or whether the Burmese military junta will retain power forever.  The military has tasted power for a long period; so until there is serious or any damaging opposition armed attack, their attitude is unlikely to change. 

In our latest experience, a non-violent method is totally opposed to the Burma military.  The military has cheated the public.  This is a trap for the Burmese people as the military always blocks efforts to obtain civilian rule. The Burmese people have lost the opportunity of having a civilian administration and their liberty, for more than half a century. 

In a democracy, a civilian government should control the army.  But it appears that the Burmese army never wants to be under civilian control. Civilian supremacy is “government control of the military,” and the criterion for civilian control is “the extent to which military leadership groups, and through them the armed forces as a whole, respond to the direction of the civilian leaders of the government” (Alagappa).

Furthermore, in a democratic system, the concern is to ensure a professional and political military that acknowledges civilian authority and executes the orders of a democratically elected government.

 

Conclusion

After various studies of the military, it is not possible for a military that was always linked to dictatorship or quasi dictatorship to produce democracy. Therefore, the military should totally relinquish power and transfer it to a civilian government. Today, the Burman and other ethnic groups are mature enough to build the nation.  

However, Burma is one of the countries in Asia dominated by a very hard-line military. The military has become the supreme power overriding civilian supremacy.  Indeed, it clearly expresses its intention not to develop democracy.  It is right to say that the present Burmese military government is an illegal government.   

Since 1988, the caretaker military administration remains in place, rules by martial law, has imprisoned politicians, and refuses to hand over power to an elected government (Luckham 32).  Furthermore, the newly drafted constitution has allegedly betrayed the public by giving weight to military power and again the holding of elections remains uncertain.

The reason for the existence of a military government in Burma is neither an emergency nor for a temporary term. They intend to prolong their rule permanently.  So their action is not limited to a nationalistic ideal or security matter.  Moreover, there is no threat of any external invasion in Burma.  Rather, the Burmese military has become a threat to neighbouring countries through unnecessarily increasing its troop numbers to 400,000, with an additional, 200,000 auxiliary soldiers.

John Smith Thang is a Burmese MA human rights student. 

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