from Asia Unbound

The Myanmar Massacre and Insight Into the Myanmar Military

Demonstrators hide behind a barricade during protests against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 28, 2021, in this screen grab taken from a social media video obtained by Reuters.
Demonstrators hide behind a barricade during protests against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 28, 2021, in this screen grab taken from a social media video obtained by Reuters. Reuters

March 29, 2021
3:12 pm (EST)

Demonstrators hide behind a barricade during protests against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 28, 2021, in this screen grab taken from a social media video obtained by Reuters.
Demonstrators hide behind a barricade during protests against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 28, 2021, in this screen grab taken from a social media video obtained by Reuters. Reuters
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The past weekend was extremely bloody in Myanmar, where the Civil Disobedience Movement faces off against the military, and has so, for roughly two months now. On Armed Forces day last Saturday, military forces killed over one hundred people, including children, bringing the total death toll to over four hundred. Meanwhile, conflict seems to be ramping up in some ethnic minority areas, like the Kachin and Karen regions, where some of the ethnic armed organizations also have vowed to take on the junta—and this presages a potentially broader conflict in the country. The growing chaos also could spread the coronavirus, since there is massive movement of people, large street protests, and the country’s health infrastructure is mostly shut down.

The violence occurred while junta leader Min Aung Hlaing hosted massive military parades in Naypyidaw, and a smattering of foreign dignitaries willing to meet with and essentially condone the regime—most notably, Russia, which sent a fairly high-ranking defense official to the Armed Forces Day gathering in Naypyidaw. Other countries including Bangladesh, China, India, Laos, Pakistan, and Thailand also sent representatives to the Armed Forces Day event in Naypyidaw, but these countries sent low-level people and have not recognized the junta government. The Russian representative met with Min Aung Hlaing and professed Russia’s close relations with Naypyidaw.

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As the Myanmar conflict has gained global attention from news outlets and policymakers, some policymakers have wondered why the demonstrations, and the failure of the armed forces to quickly consolidate the coup, have not led to splits in the Myanmar military. Such splits—think of the splits in the Philippine military in the 1980s that helped usher dictator Ferdinand Marcos out the door, or even splits that happened regularly in the past within the Thai military, sometimes leading coups to fail—are often the way that coup attempts falter and authoritarian regimes crumble. The New York Times and the Washington Post recently had two excellent articles showing, in part, why such a split in the is unlikely within the Myanmar military—a point understood by many Myanmar experts, but now being revealed to the world.

Both the pieces show how the Myanmar military operates as a state within a state, with its own network of schools, housing, medical care and other types of social welfare, and other institutions. In addition, they show how the military inculcates officers and enlisted men with an intense amount of propaganda and almost brain-washing, while cutting them off from the rest of the country and from many sources of information. The New York Times article notes:

From the moment they enter boot camp, Tatmadaw troops are taught that they are guardians of a country—and a religion—that will crumble without them … They occupy a privileged state within a state, in which soldiers live, work and socialize apart from the rest of society, imbibing an ideology that puts them far above the civilian population. The officers described being constantly monitored by their superiors, in barracks and on Facebook. A steady diet of propaganda feeds them notions of enemies at every corner, even on city streets.

This approach serves to convince even rank-and-file soldiers, who still live in spartan conditions, that the military is the central institution in the country and of Buddhism in Myanmar, and one worth defending at any cost, even if that means murdering Myanmar civilians. This indoctrination—and the parallel social welfare net—also may cushion the sting of the fact that Myanmar soldiers are often treated poorly by superiors, live in the field in rudimentary conditions, and currently are often going unpaid. And at higher levels, top officers and top commanders are able to live lavishly, because the military has plundered the country to create a web of businesses in nearly every industry in Myanmar. To give in to the protestors, these top officers and commanders would risk not only punishment for their brutality but also probably would have to give up assets and these parallel business relationships. This combination of paranoid indoctrination and a web of business interests at the top of the Myanmar military suggests that it may be nearly impossible for a major split in the armed forces to occur.

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