Myanmar: How support for the military’s divide-and-rule game backfired

The military never intended to relinquish power to the civilian government through elections

Myanmar military - Photograph: Wikipedia

In hindsight, the military coup in Myanmar and the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and her ministers was not unexpected. 

Analysts have suggested that the coup had more to do with the military attempting to reassert its power and the personal ambition of soon-to-retire army chief Min Aung Hlaing, rather than alleged serious claims of massive voter fraud.

The constitution, written by the military in 2008, has sections (417 and 418) that provide the military the legal channel and power to impose military rule under certain conditions. 

Under the constitution, the military has also ensured that 25% of the seats in Myanmar’s parliament go to the military uncontested. This makes making any major decisions or changes to the constitution, which require over 75% of the votes, impossible without military support.

The military never intended to relinquish power to the civilian government through elections. The constitution drafted was only to appease the world and to ensure that the military’s grip on power continues.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) also won the 2015 general election, the first openly contested election since 1990.

Before that, the military junta had an iron grip on the country’s politics, to the chagrin of the people. 

The Saffron Uprising in 2007, led by the monks, was widely supported by all communities in Myanmar. The Rohingya people actually protested against the military junta alongside the Buddhists during this Saffron Uprising! There was little racial tension then between the Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya.

After the Saffron Uprising, to dilute the influence of the monks on the people, the military initiated a political alliance with the ultra-nationalist monks organisation Ma Ba Tha to divide and rule the various communities.

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Ma Ba Tha was instrumental in the successful rallying of the majority Buddhists in Myanmar against the Muslim Rohingya people, culminating in the exile of over 700,000 Rohingya people into neighbouring countries.

This unholy alliance was also extremely successful in unifying the majority Buddhist Barma people, which form 70% of the population – an unintended consequence from the military’s perspective.

There is nothing spiritual about Ma Ba Tha’s version of Buddhism, which contradicts the essence of Buddhism’s peace and compassion for all sentient beings.


In December 2019 Aung San Suu Kyi even defended the military against genocide allegations at the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ), amid accusations of mass killings, rape and expulsion of the Muslim Rohingya.

With many Rohingya now exiled in Bangladesh and the rest in camps in Rakhine state and elsewhere, the Buddhist Barma people, Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party are now being politically targeted by the military. 

The divide-and-rule strategy by colonial powers and politicians is well known. It seeks to weaken any resistance to the entity’s strong grip on power. Once a group is neutralized as in the case of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, which group(s) are next to be targeted?

To quote Martin Niemoller, a prominent Lutheran pastor during Nazi Germany:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.

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Then they came for me – and there was no one to speak for me.

What is playing out in Myanmar has an important lesson for Malaysians: Let no politicians manipulate our multicultural communities for their personal political gains by appealing to their core supporters using divide-and-rule tactics. Let no one fall for the blame game used by those politicians, blaming a community’s grievances on another race or community.

If such rhetoric is allowed to take root in any society, it will ultimately cause chaos and disunity amongst the different communities, as in Myanmar. No one gains in such a game, except self-serving politicians who seek to stay in power, regardless of others.

Ch’ng Chin Yeow has an interest in many issues and subjects, including history, mineralogy and human behaviour. Based in Penang, he truly likes to be a busybody

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loyal malaysian
loyal malaysian
19 Feb 2021 6.53am

“Let no one fall for the blame game used by those politicians, blaming a community’s grievances on another race or community.” – really Ch’ng? You are being too polite – the politicians from BN and now PN have been doing so all these years.
Perhaps, to give credit to our military, it is professional enough to stay in the barracks and not grab power like the Myanmar military!!