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Why Did the Tatmadaw’s ‘War Fighters’ Seize Power?

To understand what motivated this month’s coup in Myanmar, you need to understand the army’s history and cloistered worldview.

Why Did the Tatmadaw’s ‘War Fighters’ Seize Power?

Myanmar military soldiers salute from vehicles carrying rockets during a parade to commemorate the Myanmar’s 72nd Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2017.

Credit: AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

With the coup on February 1, the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, abruptly terminated the country’s decade-long spell of semi-democratic rule. The coup has shocked the world not only for taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic but also because of the extent to which it seemed to run counter to the military’s rational interests.

Despite the political reforms and economic opening that began in earnest in 2011, the military still held a significant amount of power. As per the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, this included a full quarter of the seats in the Union Parliament and the control of the Ministry of Home Affairs, which controls all uniformed personnel, including the police, fire department and prison services. The Tatmadaw also retained a significant amount of influence in the economy through its network of affiliated economic enterprises and crony businesses, all of which had benefited from the transition to semi-democratic rule and the economic reforms that accompanied it. With the coup, the military has not only alienated the civilian population but also cut off many of the benefits that the military and its personnel had gained from Myanmar’s transition away from pariah status.

The only thing of substance that the Tatmadaw has gained from the ousting of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of the civilian leadership is its old monopoly on political power. As an organization with a highly centralized leadership, the Myanmar military is one in which personalities tend to play an outsized role. As reliable information on the Tatmadaw and the motivations of its senior commanders has always been scarce, it is difficult to truly discern their motives. However, a look at the Tatmadaw’s past, and its relationship to the broader sweep of Myanmar’s history, may provide some insight into the current situation in the country – and why the army chose to seize power at this juncture.

As Mary Callahan identified in her 2003 book “Making Enemies,” the leaders of the Burmese military differ from any of the military juntas of the world in that they are not politicians in uniforms but war fighters. As Callahan writes, “postwar Burmese regimes have been made up of war fighters who never mastered the art of politics enough to win a single election.” Instead of the armed political organizations that the world is used to seeing, such as religious extremists and Nazi-styled political groups with their paramilitary militias, the Tatmadaw has always been a military organization at heart and its martial nature comes before any ideology.

There are three major characteristics that can be identified with the Tatmadaw. The first is its legitimacy as the symbol of Burmese nationalism, which it inherited from the Burma Independence Army (BIA), an armed force that emerged as a locus of the struggle first against British rule, then against the Japanese occupation during World War Two. The second is the strong sense of corporate unity that grew from the fragmentation of the first incarnation of the Tatmadaw after independence in 1948, amid the challenges of ethnic minority separatism and ethnic Bamar communism, as well as the military threats from the Kuomintang and People’s Republic of China. The third is the general distrust of the civilian population, which the Tatmadaw has long identified as the source of these threats. All these features stem from the military’s experiences of the civil wars that erupted shortly after independence.

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The February 1 coup, and the motives that lay behind it, can be read through these characteristics.

The first is the threat to the Tatmadaw’s legitimacy. The National League of Democracy (NLD) has been the main contender against the Tatmadaw for the legitimate leadership of the ethnic Bamar population since 1988. The military had always drawn its legitimacy from a nationalist genealogy stretching back to Aung San’s BIA. That his daughter emerged at the head of an opposing faction destroyed whatever validity this once held. In many ways, Aung San Suu Kyi effectively discredited the Tatmadaw as a symbol of Burmese nationalism and tainted its most potent source of legitimacy. This offers one explanation for why the civil-military relations of the 2011-2021 period were so adversarial.

Furthermore, the Tatmadaw’s leadership reputation was shamed further by Aung San Suu Kyi’s appearance at the International Court of Justice to defend the country against accusations of genocide committed against the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar’s west. Given that the actions of the security forces fell solely under the Tatmadaw leadership’s jurisdiction under the tenets of the Constitution, this amounted to a de facto defense of the military. That Aung San Suu Kyi risked her own international reputation for the very organization that had kept her under house arrest for more than a decade and was responsible for the fragmentation of her family could have only enhanced her image among the Myanmar population and the Tatmadaw’s foot soldiers.

The Tatmadaw leadership has relied heavily on the demonization of Aung San Suu Kyi to maintain its power. Her role as Aung San’s daughter, and the fact that many founders of the NLD were decorated ex-Tatmadaw officers, was already a potent challenge to the military’s legitimacy. That her popularity in Myanmar remained sky high, despite having “fallen from grace” in the eyes of the international community and failing to achieve many of her own political goals, must have been particularly frustrating for the top brass. As such, it is possible that the coup was motivated by fear that Aung San Suu Kyi’s influence would begin to penetrate into the military’s own ranks.

This leads to the second possibility: internal dissent. The Tatmadaw is obsessed with corporate unity. This is due to both its historical experience and its deep distrust of the civilian population. The Tatmadaw has used election fraud as the primary pretext for the coup. As voters cast their ballots anonymously, it is widely believed that these fraud claims were based on members of the Tatmadaw who voted not for their Tatmadaw’s civilian proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but instead for the NLD. Even the potential for the existence of such dissent in the military is considered highly alarming to such a tight-knit and suspicious organization.

Historically, as Mary Callahan writes in “Making Enemies” and Robert Taylor argues in “The State of Burma,” ethnicity, religion, and ideology have inspired more loyalty than the Tatmadaw, and the civil war that erupted in 1948 led to more than 10,000 men deserting to various factions. Furthermore, Callahan highlights the tension between field commanders and staff officers throughout the Tatmadaw’s history. These issues led to the centralization of the Tatmadaw after the 1962 coup, with the drastic increase of regional military commands throughout the country from two to 14. Among other things, the Air Force and Navy also became subordinate to the much larger Army.

With a deep distrust for the civilian population, the Tatmadaw had always attempted to present a strong unified front in order to deter any opposition. It greatly fears that potential internal divisions could be exploited by opposing groups. This fear is not entirely unfounded. Since the February 1 coup, videos have emerged online showing the defections of police and soldiers to the protesters, with one video showing riot police breaking ranks and shielding the protesters from water cannons. Furthermore, a large number of youths belonging to Tatmadaw families or those affiliated with them have been openly vocal against the coup and have taken to the streets. Many people suspect that the military’s relatively light response to the ongoing protests so far is due at least in part to this.

As a result, since the coup provides the Tatmadaw very little benefit aside from direct uncontested control of the country, it is possible that the takeover is part of an attempt to deal with its internal affairs without the scrutiny and distraction of civilian opposition. Between 1962 and 1988, the Tatmadaw waged war on its opponents in a context in which the lack of communication and internal prejudice kept the military’s two fronts – against the majority of Bamar dissenters and the ethnic minorities – largely separate. The rise of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD as well as modern technologies such as the internet since 1988 had led to a more unified front against the Tatmadaw.

Being the group that enjoys a monopoly of arms in the ethnic Bamar heartlands, and with most insurgents operating along the country’s periphery, the greatest threat to the Tatmadaw leadership could well come from within. The generals require the military to stand firm together, especially when faced with so many perceived enemies. If word of dissension within its ranks should emerge, it would break apart the military’s tightly controlled system. This could begin with reliable information on the organization itself coming to light. The Tatmadaw has always guarded information about itself fiercely. Controlling the dissension under the semi-civilian government would present opportunities for its actions to come out and those disenfranchised members of the Tatmadaw may seek out the civilian leadership for aid. As such, the coup could have been done so that the military was able to deal with the dissension fully and without public and civilian knowledge and interference.

While it is possible that the coup may have been a personal decision from Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to maintain the authority and privileges of the military elite, it seems unlikely these groups would risk alienating Myanmar from the rest of the world economy for relatively marginal gain. The reason for this is that they have more to benefit from being connected with the world market than from ushering in a new era of isolation. Furthermore, the loss of the USDP in the 2020 election did not threaten the constitution that the Tatmadaw itself crafted carefully in order to preserve its own prerogatives.

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Measuring the costs and benefits of conducting the coup would seem to indicate that it is possibly a mix of these two factors. Losing its legitimacy to Aung San Suu Kyi and the civilian government, together with potential internal struggles, potentially threatened the generals’ privileges, as the former could bring to light the details of corruption and other abuses. The coup was likely launched so that the military could resolve its own internal issues without interference.

Ultimately, it is still difficult to say for sure. The Tatmadaw has always remained an enigma by choice. Knowledge is power and the generals are fully aware of it.

Arthur Swan Ye Tun is a Master’s graduate in Strategic Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He specializes in military history and strategy.