Author: Nyi Nyi Kyaw, Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities
Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, is often considered the strongest institution in the country. This is true in terms of force. But the armed institution is now more vulnerable than ever to threats from within and without.
The Myanmar Spring revolution has rebelled against the Tatmadaw’s despotism for over eight months in reaction to the February coup. In addition to armed self-defence, the revolution undermines the Tatmadaw’s internal unity, which is founded on three linkages between command and rank and file.
The first linkage is ideological. The Tatmadaw is, in its own narrative, Myanmar’s saviour — first from British and Japanese colonisers and then from communist and ethnic armed insurgencies. Tatmadaw leaders also see themselves as responsible for Myanmar politics, as demonstrated by coups in 1958, 1962 and 2021 due to alleged chaos and civilian political corruption.
Research on the Tatmadaw is often focussed on its ideology. Studies highlight the decades spent fighting insurgents and building itself as a state since 1962, and conclude that it has become a united and durable force along the way.
Whether and how much the rank-and-file soldiers believe in their commanders’ ideological narration is a crucial question. Nobody has satisfactorily answered this due to the difficulties of directly engaging with Tatmadaw soldiers — an impossible task even before the most recent coup.
The second linkage results from the advantages that the Tatmadaw has accrued through its dictatorial rule over Myanmar for six decades. One investigation spotlighted the enormous wealth of Tatmadaw generals from graft. The Tatmadaw also accumulates ‘khaki capital’ through military owned or linked conglomerates and distributes dividends to its rank and file. For the soldiers, this monetary dimension is perhaps more important than ideological narration. In an egregious manifestation of this linkage, Tatmadaw Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has allowed soldiers and police to ransack and rob with total impunity while crushing dissent after the February coup.
With envy, ambitious soldiers wait for their turn to become Tatmadaw leaders and live lavishly. But many will not reach these ranks. Most will end up in the lower or middle level, or die in battle. This means wealth distribution alone may not always inspire loyalty.
A key challenge facing the Tatmadaw is the Myanmar economy, which is in a non-stop freefall. The kyat lost 60 per cent of its value in September 2021 alone. Fuel and food prices are skyrocketing while a persistent electricity bill boycott has deprived the ruling generals of US$1 billion in revenue. This means that the generals are not in a position to simply buy loyalty from the rank and file as they were in the 1990s and 2000s.
The third and perhaps least well known linkage of the Tatmadaw is its ‘bunker’ relations between the command and the rank and file. In building the Tatmadaw in the 1990s and 2000s, military strongman Than Shwe created a sheltered Tatmadaw family. Living side by side in cantonments, soldiers train and farm. Their wives go to meetings with fellow military wives, and their children go to military-run public schools or attend schools outside in Tatmadaw trucks. Commanders control not just the lives, but the finances of soldiers whose salaries are deposited into the Tatmadaw-owned Myawaddy Bank.
The seemingly well-knit and insulated Tatmadaw family, dominated by the Bamar ethnic majority, now finds itself bombarded with naming and shaming from its fellow Myanmar people — most of whom are also Bamar. The Myanmar Facebook sphere overflows with messages that condemn soldiers and their families or invite them to join the people’s side. Defections are increasing. By early September 2021, at least 1500 soldiers and 1000 police had switched sides.
Defection may not increase exponentially, but substantial desertion is possible. Armed conflict and bombings across Myanmar resulted in the deaths of over 1100 Tatmadaw troops in June and July 2021. From February until mid-October 2021, the number of deaths is estimated to have reached several thousand as the armed revolution has become more widespread since early September. High casualties may lead to more unity among troops who may view protesters as criminals and armed revolutionaries as terrorists. But their individual safety might prove to be more important.
On Facebook and Telegram, the defectors run a program called Pyithu Yinkhwin or People’s Embrace, in cooperation with the parallel National Unity Government, to exert peer pressure on their ex-comrades and promise safety. From 7 September to 7 October, 429 soldiers and 334 police defected in response to the call.
Defectors like ex-captain Nyi Thuta have been instrumental in formulating and running a ‘people’s soldiers’ movement, and defectors’ wives also run a parallel program that targets military wives who have been trained and armed. Once safe havens, cantonments have become ‘hostage camps’ with tight security for soldiers and families who are potential recruits of the campaigns for defection.
Defectors and their contacts within the Tatmadaw provide otherwise unavailable information about the three linkages and allege that they are growing weaker. They also report damaged morale and insubordination.
This ideology of people’s soldiers counters the generals’ ideology of the Tatmadaw as the people’s saviour and guardian. The early defector Captain Tun Myat Aung asserted that ‘if you are choosing between the country and the Tatmadaw, please choose the country’. In a symbolic attack, the People’s Soldiers campaign dismissed Min Aung Hlaing and his deputies on 13 October for treason.
The Tatmadaw is unlikely to disintegrate anytime soon, but threats to its strength and unity are growing and look likely to continue to intensify.
Nyi Nyi Kyaw is Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut), Essen, Germany.