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Divided nation, united military: the Burmese government as junta par excellence.

In Myanmar, the official discourse of reform and its praxis are clearly at odds. Certain observers were quick to hail the post-2011 reforms in Myanmar as "irreversible." (1) Some such as Hillary Clinton went so far as to describe the U.S. support of the reform process as "America at our best." (2) Contrary to such starry-eyed predictions of a democratic Myanmar and a permanent solution to the protracted civil war, a survey of post-2011 official nationalism tempers such optimism. Official nationalism, as Benedict Anderson observes, privileges the state's interests "first and foremost" and is the state's act of "stretching the short, tight, skin of nation over the gigantic body of the empire." (3) Taken in this vein, official nationalism refers to the Myanmar government's conservative reaction to the mass movements which have militated for regime change.

Couched in the rhetoric of reform, the authoritarian streak of the Myanmar state persists even in this age of reform. The prioritization of non-disintegration of the Union above substantive reform showcases the trajectory of authoritarian Myanmar to be largely unaltered. As it stands, the prospects for ethnic minorities and Burmans to resolve their differences remain dim. Even if a national ceasefire is secured, the Myanmar government's strategy involves the sweeping of salient political issues under the carpet in the hope that socio-economic development would eventually placate minority aspirations for autonomy. (4) Such an approach to deep-rooted socio-economic and political grievances is misguided and will not bear fruit. A nation, as Ernest Renan understood it, is comprised of individuals possessing a collective memory together with a voluntary compact to live for the present and future. (5) Only when the Myanmar government admits and atones for its dark past can the nation-building process truly begin--not just from the top-down, but also, organically, from the bottom-up.

Given the implausible nature of the reforms, it is worth considering why the regime's illiberal character has remained fundamentally unaltered. This question requires an investigation of the state in Myanmar and, more specifically, its civil-military relations. As one of the longest surviving authoritarian regimes, Myanmar remains an intriguing outlier with respect to the burgeoning research on authoritarianism. For instance, Barbara Geddes et al argue that military regimes tend to "... cling less tightly to power than do other kinds of authoritarianism and, in fact, often initiate transitions" to civilian rule. (6) Sustained military rule, according to Michael Desch, paradoxically undermines the military's institutional cohesion, therefore resulting in a return to the barracks. (7) Moreover, research on the sources of regime support in Southeast Asia suggests that the outputs of political systems are more important than receiving inputs. (8) In other words, public support for authoritarian regimes is possible as long as states continues to provide public goods. Yet, given the absence of performance legitimacy and public support, the longevity of Myanmar's military regime thus proves an analytical challenge for such broad theorizing.

So why has the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, remained so entrenched within Myanmar politics? Adopting a structural approach, this paper submits that institutions, both informal and formal, explain the durability of the regime in politics more so than an agent-based approach. More specifically, my argument is threefold. First, as Section I argues, the Tatmadaw's response to the external and internal threat environment strengthened the military as an 'institution'. Next, Section II posits that accompanying this institutional development was the expansion of the Tatmadaw's role which crowded out fledging civilian institutions and entrenched the military's position as 'government'. Section III caps off the previous two sections by contending that this dual institutionalization of the military has become path dependent, therefore explaining the protracted military rule. Accordingly, the military's dominance in politics arises from its successful institutional measures to control the masses and maintain elite unity. After which, Section IV addresses possible critiques and Section V concludes by considering the prospects of a military withdrawal from politics.

In short, this structural approach privileges the Tatmadaw's successful institutional development--in response to the threat environment--as the reason behind the military's continued dominance of politics. To utilize Samuel Huntington's definition of political institutionalization, (9) the military regime has acquired not only "value and stability", but also "adaptability, complexity, autonomy, and coherence" in what over time has become a path dependent trajectory of self-reproducing sequences. (10) Recognizing that a comprehensive exposition on the Tatmadaw's historic dominance in Myanmar politics is beyond the scope of this paper, developments from 1948 to the post-2011 reforms are specifically analyzed to demonstrate the military's institutionalization in politics. Such a lengthy timeframe is necessary since observable instances of mass repression (i.e. 1988 and 2007) while important, only highlight the military's cohesion and ability to dominate against the people's will. Like the dog that does not bark, (11) the institutional evolution of the military to dominate Myanmar politics can only be observed over the longue duree.


From the onset of Burma's independence in 1948, the external and internal threat environment, both real and perceived, (12) facilitated the institutional development of the Tatmadaw. Civil war broke out in Burma because the state's desire for a unitary state clashed with ethnic minorities' aspirations for autonomy within a federal arrangement. (13) With ethnic tensions festering and outbreaks of rebellions among certain minority groups, the threat situation was further exacerbated with Muslim insurgents and the CIA-backed Kuomintang (KMT) along the western and northern borders respectively. Burmese elites feared the significant KMT presence would result in a PRC invasion of Burma. (14) Moreover, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) shifted from paralyzing urban strikes to an armed insurrection against the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) government in 1948. (15) As a reaction to these threats, the Tatmadaw's institutionalization can be understood in three mutually reinforcing ways: professionalization, organizational consolidation in command structure and a shared identity.

The Tatmadaw first became professionalized through the act of war-fighting as it engaged with existential threats from within and without. To survive in an environment where insurgency had become "a way of life", (16) the Tatmadaw ruthlessly relied on brutal coercion to preserve the Union. Though initially an incompetent, ragtag army, (17) the Tatmadaw's defeats at the hands of the better-trained KMT and ethnic rebels triggered a period of introspection and organizational development as seen in the creation of organs such as the Military Planning Staff (MPS), Defense Service Institute (DSI) and Psychological Warfare (Psywar) Directorate. These organizational reforms brought about improvements in military doctrine, training, logistics and welfare. (18) Indeed, with state resources devoted to total warfare, the Tatmadaw was granted the professional autonomy or the carte blanch to perform its duties. Mary Callahan astutely notes that the military's development as an autonomous institution through counter-insurgency operations, eventually granted it the capabilities to usurp and hold onto power. (19) Hence, this critical juncture of existential threats served to accelerate the institutionalisation of the Tatmadaw through the process of war-fighting.

Due to the growing internal threat, another crucial aspect of the Tatmadaw's institutionalization was the consolidation of its command structure. Colonial army policies had disproportionately recruited minority Karens, who remained loyal to the British even when their Burmese counterparts collaborated with the Japanese. (20) The postcolonial arrangement proved highly debilitating for the Tatmadaw's command structure since both Karens and Burmans distrusted each other. (21) This increasingly untenable situation came to its head with disenchanted Karens rebelling in 1948/9. Although the Tatmadaw was severely weakened, from an organizational standpoint, the minority purges were highly salutary for the dysfunctional organization, which then coalesced around an ethnic Bamar-core, headed by General Ne Win.

Along with this centralization of command was the crystallisation of a common identity among the ethnically homogeneous military. The successful combating of centrifugal forces which threatened to rend Burma apart further institutionalized the Tatmadaw. The firsthand experience of dealing with existential threats undoubtedly created similar "predispositions" (a 'siege' mentality) that influenced their worldviews and, by extension, decision-making. (22) This institutional coherence is exemplified by the Tatmadaw's collective sense of "historic exceptionalism" that it has always saved the Union during times of crisis. (23) Compounding this formative experience is the inherent nature of the Tatmadaw as a total institution. (24) "Few organizations," as Elizabeth Kier correctly observes, "devote as many resources to the assimilation of their members." (25) A distinct organizational culture and esprit de corps developed among service personnel who were moulded by professional training, military ceremonies, discipline and incentives. In the Defense Services Academy, military education heavily emphasized the importance of preserving the army and state at all costs. Thus, external threats essentially forged a messianic organizational identity, further institutionalizing the Tatmadaw as a military organization.


Complementing the Tatmadaw's development as an 'institution' was its role expansion and entrenchment as 'government' in response to the threat environment. In line with the Janowitzean conception, (27) Burma's military and political spheres were far from distinct. The Tatmadaw became politicized when it was used internally in repression and later maintaining stability as a caretaker government. This creeping institutionalization of the Tatmadaw into politics can be understood in terms of endogenous ('push') and exogenous ('pull') factors. The former refers to the military's disposition to intervene, whereas the latter to its opportunity. (28)

The disposition of the military, crucially influenced by the threat environment, pushed it into politics. Huntington theorizes that the military's abstinence from politics can be ensured by professional development which militarizes the military as a state instrument to be used against external enemies. (29) Objective control was however disregarded in Myanmar's case with civilian interference in military affairs. U Nu infuriated Burman commanders by arbitrarily promoting Karens to command positions in order to maintain political support. (30) Such subjective control politicized the military and made it inclined to intervene. Further, the Tatmadaw's ideological orientation disposed it to take on the role of state-building. (31) A united and disciplined military imbued with a national mission came across as a stark contrast to the corrupt and incompetent civilian government perceived as undermining national security. The development of the Tatmadaw (qua institution) thus instilled it with the "manifest destiny" to 'save' the nation from incompetent civilians by becoming the government itself. (32)

On the other hand, the weakness of civilian institutions in the face of internal and external threats, presented the occasion for the Tatmadaw's infiltration into politics. The limited nature of the civil war had deleterious effects on civilian institutions, creating what Miguel Centano describes as a 'limited state'. (33) A rally-around-the-flag effect is often stimulated in the event of an external threat (out-group), (34) but these threats actually had an opposite effect in exacerbating existing divisions among Burma's elites. The AFPFL government under U Nu was highly fragmented with much infighting occurring over the issue of centre-periphery relations and the ideological character of the state. (35) In a fulfilment of Harold Lasswell's prophecy of a garrison state wherein the specialists of violence dominate, (36) the cohesion of the Tatmadaw as an 'institution' during this turbulent period meant that it was given the opportunity to take over state functions as well. Areas previously under the purview of civilian officials were gradually taken over by the Tatmadaw. For instance, the DSI, which initially concerned itself with military supply and logistics, expanded to oversee the Burma Economic Development Corporation. Claude Welch points out that "the wider the sphere of responsibilities civilians and soldiers consider appropriate for the armed forces, the greater the possibility of their active involvement in politics." (37) Clearly, this role expansion entrenched the military in the national economy and set the trend for soldiers occupying managerial positions. (38) The nadir of parliamentary democracy (1948-1958) came with U Nu's invitation to Ne Win to form a caretaker government in 1958. The ascension of General Ne Win as prime minister (1958-1960) further subverted civilian institutions and the later 1962 coup firmly entrenched the military's role as 'government'.


The Tatmadaw's dominance in Myanmar politics originates from its twin development as an 'institution' and 'government'. The question of its protracted role since 1962 still remains unanswered. Evidently, all authoritarian regimes face two long term challenges: 1) maintaining control of the disenfranchised masses and 2) sharing power with the ruling elite. (39) While conflicts among the ruling coalition, leadership changes or economic crises typically bedevil and even topple authoritarian regimes, the Myanmar junta's durability arises from its institutionalized measures to these two challenges--repression and incentives. The junta's choice measures have become path dependent, further perpetuating its control.

Strict control of the masses was possible through the regime's institutionalized use of repression that squashed political dissent from the masses and eviscerated the political opposition and civil society. Years of civil war and paranoia of an external invasion institutionalized a "coercion-intensive state". (40) Along with its disdain for civilians, the Tatmadaw's harsh counter-insurgency strategy meant that its personnel also perceived citizens as "potential enemies". (41) This mentality meant that the military did not flinch during its mass crackdowns in 1988 and 2007. Even the international outrage and sanctions against the regime ironically strengthened its grip on power. (42) Beyond mass repression, the Tatmadaw's penetration of all levels of society has silenced political dissent and activism from civil society by creating a climate of fear. The Tatmadaw's reach extends from the presence of soldiers in urban centres to the use of corvee in rural areas, coupled with liberal doses of regime propaganda. (43) Political opposition, like the NLD, was severely crippled till it was "no longer a mobilizing force." (44) Its aging leadership remained so out of touch with the ground that its spokesperson initially criticized the 2007 protests.

That said, all regimes are subject to political decay whether they are authoritarian or democratic. (45) Yet, the institutional adaptability of the military regime has kept it in power. "Elections," as Jason Brownlee quips, "are the autocrat's latest fashion." (46) The reforms of late illustrate its adaptability, deftly addressing the challenge of popular legitimacy in another way. By 'liberalizing' from a position of strength, (47) the Tatmadaw remains a key veto player. The 2008 Constitution, for instance, enshrines the military's role in politics by creating a National Defense and Security Council with emergency powers, while also reserving a quarter of Parliament seats for serving officers. (48) Positions in the executive and judicial bodies remain largely in the hands of the military too. (49) These nominally democratic concessions arguably mollify, circumscribe and co-opt the political opposition. (50) Thence, the military's dominant role in politics still persists under this new institutional arrangement.

Finally, while betrayal and violence are hallmarks of authoritarian regimes, the Myanmar regime's durability arises from institutionalized norms of powersharing among the ruling elite. In the absence of formal monitoring mechanisms, the informal power-sharing institutions, such as non-interference in a fellow elite's turf, reduced the likelihood of elite infighting spiralling out of hand. The 2004 purge of General Khin Nyunt's is an example of the junta enforcing its prohibition against disruptive actions and excess personal ambition. (51) For the lower ranking personnel, the military's hierarchical structure also allows for the distribution of patronage from business licenses to subsidized housing. Although the Tatmadaw is indeed the only means of upward mobility for most Burmese, (52) the established procedures for professional advancement mean it is also a viable avenue. (53) In all, these institutionalized measures of power-sharing and patronage have preserved Tatmadaw solidarity, thereby firmly entrenching it in politics.


Having advanced a path-dependent structural explanation for the Tatmadaw's dominance in Myanmar politics, this section addresses three possible criticisms of it. Ostensibly, the agency approach which accentuate the role of rational actors might explain the military's dominance. Robert Taylor, for example, posits that the Tatmadaw's role in Myanmar politics "has been shaped to a large extent by the influence of one man ... Ne Win." (54) Echoing Taylor, Kyaw Yin Hlaing points out that Ne Win, as 'Big-Number-One', wielded immense power. (55) Granted, actors like Ne Win were crucial to the institutionalization of the military's role in politics. Still, an emphasis on agents only explains critical junctures of military intervention, but not the persistence of military rule. Simply put, Ne Win stepped down eventually, but his institutional legacy continued. A better way to conceptualize this dichotomy is to recognize agents and structures as mutually constitutive of each other. (56) An agency approach overlooks the fact that structures, apart from restraining, are also "generating state agents themselves". (57) Thus, a structural explanation more accurately reflects the realities that continue to constrain and enable actors beyond the first generation.

Second, a culturalist approach could possibly be advanced to explain the regime's durability. Theorists like Kier argue that culture "... has independent explanatory power" and is essential to understanding an actor's preferences. (58) In Myanmar's case, Lucian Pye argues from a primordialist position that Burmese child-rearing practices gave rise to a political culture conducive to authoritarianism. (59) Though a culturalist approach has its usefulness, it is still hamstrung in explaining the resilience of the regime. First, cultural norms are still shaped and derived from structures. (60) Furthermore, Pye's argument from political culture is reductionist and its determinism renders it unable to explain the evolution of the Burmese junta, particularly the 2011 reforms undertaken by Thein Sein. Third, basing one's approach on Burmese political culture runs the risk of tautology (i.e. Burmese politics is authoritarian because their culture is inherently authoritarian).

Given the existence of dissent within the regime, critics might take issue with the structural approach's portrayal of the military as a preponderant leviathan. This critique reasonably points to intra-military divisions such as the tensions between the junta and the regional commanders and the generational gap between senior and junior officer cohorts. (61) True, the regime is far from omnipotent and divisions within the ruling elite do exist. That said, these divisions beset all political regimes in one way or another. Tellingly, the continued dominance of the military regime in spite of these cracks underscores the importance of institutions and the resulting path dependency. More importantly, the Tatmadaw's dominance in politics makes sense in light of selectorate theory. (62) The regime's durability arises from the fact it only needs to remain in power by maintaining the loyalty of its small winning coalition through private goods, (63) as seen in the case of 2008 Nargis cyclone in which international relief was sold by Than Shwe's cronies on the black market. (64) Even though there may be disgruntled members who defect from the winning coalition, the regime can easily draw from its large selectorate. Since the costs of exclusion are high in an authoritarian context, the loyalty of the regime's supporters remains strong and unwavering as a whole.


"May we be spared the misfortune arising from a change of kings." (65) In a twisted fulfilment of this traditional Burmese lament, the Tatmadaw remains firmly entrenched in Myanmar politics since 1958. Indeed, Samuel Finer wisely reminds us that "[i]nstead of asking why the military engages in politics, we ought surely to ask why they ever do otherwise." (66) Epitomising Finer's dystopian observation, the Tatmadaw looms large over Myanmar's politics. The Burmese military, as an institution, possesses a monopoly on violence (in most parts of the country), save ethnic minority areas. Yet, this picture of the military's domination is only complete insofar as its control of the political, economic and societal sectors are considered as well. The Tatmadaw's vice-like grip over the country effectively fuses Alfred Stepan's typologies of the 'military as institution' and the 'military as government'. (67)

The threat environment was the critical juncture which set into motion the waning of civilian institutions and the waxing of the Tatmadaw (qua 'institution' and 'government'). The Tatmadaw persists in politics because its institutionalization has became path dependent. The choice of reverting back to civilian control is clearly constrained by the use of repression of the political opposition and private incentives for the ruling elite who generally adhere to power-sharing norms. Along with these constraints, formal and informal institutions condition the preferences and identities of its elite stakeholders, creating self-reproducing sequences, which in turn locks-in military rule.

Ultimately, the post-2011 reforms are anything but a return to the barracks as the military regime wraps itself in the garb of competitive elections while maintaining crucial leverage over the political process and even of late scaling back on press freedoms. Retrogression in the ceasefires process also remains a distinct possibility as grievances and demands of ethnic minorities remain unaddressed at the ground level. (68) Democratic reforms run the risk of further institutionalizing Burman/Buddhist majoritarianism at the expense of Myanmar's minorities. In all this, Huntington's warning that the "... equality of political participation is growing much more rapidly than 'the art of associating together'" is particularly salient for Myanmar's case. Unless national unity is achieved and civilian institutions strengthened, the united Tatmadaw looks set to stay in national politics.



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About the Author: Matthew Koo is a student in the Joint Degree Program between UNC Chapel Hill and the National University of Singapore. He studies American foreign policy and international relations in the Asia-Pacific.
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