Analysis: Why is Myanmar’s military so powerful?
The military has been the most powerful institution in Myanmar since the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.
In the early hours of February 1, Myanmar’s security forces detained a number of senior elected political leaders, chief ministers, and activists in the capital, Naypyidaw, and across the country.
Among those arrested were State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won a sweeping victory in national elections on November 8. The military also targeted members of the 88 Generation – a pro-democracy movement that suffered years of persecution after leading nationwide student protests in 1988 that were brutally crushed by the ruling military.
Later on Monday, military-owned Myawaddy TV announced that the armed forces had taken control of the country’s political institutions and that First Vice President U Myint Swe, now serving as interim president, had transferred full authority – executive, legislative, and judiciary – to Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing for one year. The military tried to justify its coup by alleging widespread voter fraud in the November election and claiming that it has a constitutional mandate to take over in times of emergency.
A separate statement on the military’s Facebook page said that the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known in Burmese, would hold “a free and fair general election” at the end of the year and that it would “perform real multi-party democracy … with complete balance and fairness.”
The move marked the end of Myanmar’s short-lived experience with democracy which began in 2011, when the Tatmadaw, which had been in power since 1962, implemented parliamentary elections and other reforms.
World leaders and international institutions swiftly condemned Monday’s coup, demanding that Myanmar’s military immediately free the political detainees and honour the results of the election.
The military, which views itself as the guardian of national unity, however, is not expected to heed these calls any time soon. It is used to weathering international criticism – most recently over the atrocities it committed against the Rohingya in 2017 – and believes it can rule the country as it pleases.
So what is behind the Tatmadaw’s enduring control over Myanmar’s political system?
A state ‘born as a military occupation’
The military has been the most powerful institution in Myanmar (formerly called Burma, until the military government changed the country’s name in 1989) since the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.
General Aung San, the architect of Myanmar’s independence and the father of detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, founded the Burma National Army with help from Japan in the early 1940s. General Aung San was assassinated in 1947, but his legacy lived on in the military, and the Tatmadaw continued to enjoy strong public support in the years to come as the institution that liberated the nation from colonial oppression.
The military enjoyed unchecked control over the country’s political scene from the very beginning. As renowned Burmese historian Thant Myint-U observes in his recent book, The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century, “The modern state of Burma was born as a military occupation.”
After a brief period of quasi-democracy, the military led by General Ne Win took control of Burma through a coup d’état in 1962. Following the coup, the military immediately banned all opposition parties and nationalised the country’s major industries and businesses. It also introduced the infamous “Burmese Way to Socialism” – an ideology that resulted in unprecedented economic devastation and Myanmar’s near-total isolation from the international community.
In 1988, the Burmese people, led by student activists, staged nationwide protests against economic mismanagement by the military and demanded democratic reforms. The protests were met with a brutal military crackdown, in which as many as 5,000 people were killed.
The military successfully clamped down on the protests, however, it failed to silence the growing calls for democracy and lost nearly all public support. Within the same year, Aung San Suu Kyi founded the NLD and started pressuring the military government to hold elections.
Giving in to domestic and international pressures, the military called an election, which the NLD won by a landslide. The generals, however, refused to recognise the result and instead placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.
The Tatmadaw promised to hold new elections and hand power over to a civilian government after drafting a new constitution but failed to do so for 18 years.
After ruling the country with an iron fist for almost two decades, the Tatmadaw single-handedly drafted a new constitution in 2008. It then held a controversial constitutional referendum without the participation of any opposition group, and only two days after Cyclone Nargis swept across the country. Despite the NLD denouncing the referendum as “fraudulent” and the international community raising questions about its legitimacy, the Tatmadaw announced that the draft was accepted with overwhelming public support and swiftly put it into effect.
The new constitution preserved the military’s control over the government by reserving 25 percent of all seats in national and local parliaments for serving military officials. This arrangement also gave the Tatmadaw the de facto power to veto any constitutional reforms put forward by civilian legislators.
Under the new constitution, which is still in force today, the military also maintained its control over the country’s mining, oil and gas industries, thus ensuring a continuous flow of resources. This arrangement gave the Tatmadaw complete financial independence and allowed it to easily resist any international and domestic calls for reform for years. A report by Amnesty International in 2020 revealed that Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) had netted $18bn between 1990 and 2010 through military-controlled businesses, which invested the majority of revenue back into the military’s budget.
The military’s sustained repression of ethnic minority groups fighting for basic citizenship rights and tendency to imprison any activist, journalist or politician resisting its authority led to it losing significant public support over the years.
Nevertheless, the Tatmadaw still enjoys some appeal in Myanmar as “the defender of national sovereignty” against perceived external and domestic threats.
Most recently, the claims that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an armed group fighting for Rohingya rights, is staging “terrorist” attacks with the help of foreign fighters in the western Rakhine State, increased popular support for the military.
The Tatmadaw’s consequent “clearance operations” targeting Rohingya civilians in 2016-17 was supported by the majority of the Burmese public, despite the attacks being defined as “massacres” and even as “a genocide” by many in the international community.
The defenders of the military in Myanmar overwhelmingly hail from the ethnic Bamar majority, who view themselves as the rightful heirs to Burma’s past kingdoms. The army also “buys” popular support by making lavish donations to the Buddhist sangha, or community, and funding the construction of monastic schools.
Relying on China in the international arena
While the military retains a modicum of legitimacy in Myanmar, it has been condemned internationally for crimes against humanity committed against the Rohingya and other ethnic minority groups.
In light of Myanmar’s near pariah status in the international arena in the wake of the Rakhine State crisis, Aung San Suu Kyi increasingly relied on Beijing for diplomatic support in the United Nations. Her government also relied on Chinese investment to complete major infrastructure projects in the country.
The Tatmadaw, however, has long been suspicious of China’s intentions in Myanmar, mainly due to its influence over ethnic armed groups in the country’s north as well as the geostrategic implications of Chinese port projects for Myanmar’s sovereignty. Therefore it is not clear whether or not it will move closer to Beijing after Monday’s coup.
But after terminating Myanmar’s short-lived experience with democracy, the military will undoubtedly need a degree of international support to retain power and there are signs that China may be willing to assume the role of the Tatmadaw’s protector.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar just weeks before the coup and held a meeting with Senior General Min Hlaing while he was in the country. This led many to wonder whether Beijing was given advanced notice of the Tatmadaw’s plan to seize power.
In a statement following the meeting, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that: “China will continue to back Myanmar in safeguarding its sovereignty, national dignity and legitimate rights and interests.” This could be read as a vague nod of approval for the military to pursue a coup.
While we may never know whether or not China was aware of the military’s machinations leading up to Monday’s coup, Beijing has already signalled it will not condemn the Tatmadaw’s actions, calling the takeover “a major cabinet reshuffle” and referring to Myanmar as a “friendly neighbour”. Indeed, the generals in Naypyidaw are likely assuming that Beijing will continue to support Myanmar regardless of who is in power and that they can count on Chinese economic and diplomatic support going forward.
Meanwhile, the Biden Administration in Washington declined to refer to Monday’s events in Myanmar as “a coup” in its official statement, likely due to its fear of losing influence with Naypyidaw, which it wants to cultivate in its own geopolitical competition with Beijing. This led many to believe that the US and the rest of the international community may once again fail to hold the Tatmadaw to account for its undemocratic actions.
However, the White House threatened to take “appropriate action,” saying that “the military’s reversal of [Myanmar’s democratic] progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities.” The Biden administration is likely considering widening US sanctions against high-ranking members of the military, their immediate family, and military-owned business entities such as MEHL. It could, however, aim to use these threats as leverage in any negotiations that occur with Myanmar’s military leaders.
A return to democracy?
For now, all signs indicate that the Tatmadaw is unlikely to allow a return to democracy in Myanmar any time soon. It has pledged to hold new elections within a year and said it will respect the results of that election and transfer power to the winner. But this one-year timeline appears arbitrary and leaves open the possibility that the military will delay the election once again and hold on to power for a longer term.
With China’s continued support and only limited pushback from the US and other leading members of the international community, the Tatmadaw has little reason to back down and transfer power to a civilian government that would undoubtedly work to limit its powers.