The Myanmar situation is grim (I will be using the terms Myanmar and Burma interchangeably to refer to the country depending on the period of the events described). Other than the destruction of the fledgling 10-year-old democracy in the country, the February 1 military coup, and the determined resistance by an overwhelming section of the population, has brought all public services to a grinding halt, and is now threatening to bring about a complete collapse of the country’s economy. Already, there have been over 700 protestors killed in military crackdowns, and many analysts are predicting a humanitarian tragedy of a proportion unprecedented in the country’s history, that is if a miracle does not happen fast to reverse all that has happened since that fateful day in February. That miracle, it now seems, can only be in the shape of a massive intervention by the international community, and hardly likely to be earned by the people of the country on their own, given the overwhelmingly entrenched presence of the military, or Tatmadaw, in the very superstructure that define this beleaguered nation.
There have also been much talks of a military struggle against the Tatmadaw by a combine of the country’s many ethnic insurgent armies in partnership with the disenchanted section of the majority Buddhist Bamar population. Informed observers however are doubtful this will meet with any great success. For one, this unity amongst the many communities who have always been mutually suspicious of each other will not be easy or enduring. Two, the combined military strength of such an alliance, estimated to be at the most about 30,000 strong fighters, will not be able to match the 3.5 lakh soldiers strong and much better armed Tatmadaw. The situation is grim indeed, and for the people of Myanmar opposed to military rule, and for all others around the world who value democracy, despairing as well.
Even as this tragedy unfolds, it must be said there is a somewhat false assessment of the Myanmar’s military. The tendency has been to equate it with the conventional understanding of the armed forces of a modern state, and that its current monstrous visage is solely on account of the power hunger of its top brass. While to some extent this may be true, it cannot be so to all extent. In fact, the Tatmadaw is unique in many ways, and this should be taken note of seriously to understand its peculiar character and behaviours which appear confounding to most of the world, therefore given standard and rather simplistic reasons why the military has this recurrent inclination to play political custodian. If the Myanmar army’s peculiar history were to taken into account, this should seem more comprehensible. It essentially is an army which has its genesis as a militia at about the time of the World War II under the leadership of Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi. It first called itself the Burma Defence Army which later became Burma National Army. The BNA initially fought against the British alongside the Japanese and Indian National Army, but towards the end of the war, following a secret pact, switched sides to ally with the British. Field Marshal, (Viscount) Sir William Slim, considered the architect of the Allied army snatching victory from the jaws of defeat from the Japanese in this theatre, in his war diary which became a valuable book on military history, Defeat Into Victory has a very interesting account of how this change of heart on the part of Aung San took place and how he was the chief negotiator in enlisting the loyalty of the BNA to his own army.
But to understand better why Myanmar army came to be established as late at the mid-20th Century, although in the pre-colonial days, the then Ava kingdom as Burma was then known as, possessed an army dreaded for the execution of the imperial ambition of its kings, in particular the eleven kings of the Kobaung Dynasty. Hence, looking back a little further into the country’s history will be helpful in deciphering its present enigmatic situation.
The British conquered and annexed Myanmar into British India after the Third Anglo-Burmese War, 1885. Quite expectedly, as any conqueror would, the British were suspicious of nationalism among its conquered subjects, and nationalism obviouslywas a trait of those communities were state formation had taken roots. The Ava kingdom was certainly one of these, and as a pattern, the new British administration were keen to dismantle all institutions that represented these pre-colonial states, as well disarm its population etc. They also always end up remapping the land and population to best suit their interest. Hence, land generally came to be classed either as revenue or non-revenue lands, and this we saw in the Northeast too as in the history of the Inner Line Permit System introduced by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873, and the classification of “Excluded”, “Partially-Excluded” lands etc. Likewise, the state bearing populations, the British would either defeat and subdue or negotiate alliance with. As for the non-state bearing populations who as James Scott summarised were averse to the idea of the state and evaded them, the British policy was either to leave them alone unless they caused trouble, or else enlist and used them as porters or else as soldiers as it suited them.
The Burmese situation under this outlook of the British is quite well described by historian Thant Myint-U in his book The River of the Lost Footsteps as well as in Amitav Ghosh’s historical novel The Glass Palace. Hence, even as the old Ava state and its institution were being thus systematically subdued, disarmed and humiliated, the British also came to patronise many of the hill populations, who also were more receptive to the parallel Christian missionary proselytization projects. Many of them came to be classified as martial races and recruited into the Burma Rifles of the British Indian Army. Expectedly, when the winds of anti-colonial nationalist movement began building up in Burma echoing the past glory and associated symbolisms of the Ava “Paddy State” in this Zomian theatre, it understandably remained largely confined to the Bamar population. Most of the ethnic states, then already proselytized, remained largely alien to this new wave of nationalism and continued to place their loyalty with the British. It should also be noted that as a pattern this proselytization seldom worked within the core domains of the “Paddy States” but always managed to win over what were then non-state bearing populations in the hills. This as we have seen is true elsewhere as well, including in Assam, Tripura and Manipur. The age-old divisions between the emerging labour and resource hungry “Paddy States” and the non-state bearing, state evading populations in the peripheral mountains that that Scott so well characterised, was being given a different transformation and reinterpretation in modern socio-economic idioms and practice. This division came to a flashpoint during the World War II which left much of the hill populations and the Bamar nationalists on opposite sides of the conflict fence.
The leader of the Burmese nationalist movement at the time, Aung San, as an undergraduate student in the Rangoon University, became involved in radical politics. In 1939, he served a 17-day prison term for his political activities as secretary of the radical Nationalist Minority Group. According to British military intelligence cited by Slim, it was at this time the Japanese made contact with Aung San and his party. In 1940 when his organisation was banned by the British adminsitration, a group of 30 comrades of the party, led by Aung San escaped to Japan, to be trained to fight the British to liberate Burma. According to Slim, Aung San and his colleagues were used by the Japanese to collect a Burmese irregular force in Burma to be used as a fifth column against the British. Slim dismisses this force, Burma Defence Army later Burma National Army, as unworthy of serious military concern, referring to it as the Burma Traitor Army, just as he uses the term Jiffs (Japanese Inspired Freedom Fighters) to refer to the Indian National Army, INA.
The uneasy reality was, while Aung San’s army was fighting alongside the Japanese and the INA against the British, the ethnic populations like the Karens and Kachins were fighting for the British. Slim says they received intelligence of the rifts between the BNA leadership and the Japanese as early as 1943. According to this intelligence, Aung San and his comrades soon realised that winning freedom from the British with the help of the Japanese would only have meant coming to be surrogates of the Japanese. This became clear when the Japanese wanted Aung San only as commander-in-chief of BNA but not the political leader of the Burmese government in exile, for which post they preferred the more plaint Ba Maw.
This rift became pronounced towards the end of 1944 when the Japanese were on the retreat after their comprehensive defeat at Imphal and Kohima, and by 1945 there were open mutiny by BNA soldiers. When overtures came from the Burmese resistance leaders conveying their intent for switching alliance, there were discussion in the British military camp. Many were of the opinion that there would be little to be gain from such an alliance, for the BNA then was disintegrating and descending into total chaos, with its soldiers turning into bands of robbers, living off what they rob from their own people. Some were also of the opinion that Burmese nationalism which fired this group would be more of a problem for the British for whom at that moment, victory seemed imminent. Slim however was of a different opinion. He too agreed that the BNA soldiers would not be able to confront the Japanese head on, but they can continue to harangue the latter by ambushing stragglers and even this was in the interest of the British war effort. Admiral Mountbatten, the Allied Supreme Commander in this theatre of the war, inclined towards Slim’s view and it was agreed to take in the BNA.
Slim describes his two meetings with Aung San at the British HQ at Meiktila in May 1945 after they had successfully pushed back the Japanese across the Irrawaddy. At the first meeting on May 15, Slim said he was impressed by Aung San’s commitment, honesty and intelligence, but also realised how broken the BNA was at the time. He was told the resistance movement was then functioning under a provisional government formed by the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, AFPFL, a political party the movement leaders constituted. Aung San in the initial meeting wanted this provisional government be taken in as an ally, with himself as an Allied Commander. Slim refused and made it clear that if the BNA wanted to side with the British, it will have to come under British command. He did not even agree to have the BNA as a separate unit, but only to have the BNA soldiers absorbed in the Burma Army of the British. In the second and final meeting on May 30, Aung San conceded to Slim’s term but insisted on two of his important conditions – his troops must be paid and rationed by the British, and that if major orders were to be given to the BNA soldiers, the resistance leaders be first consulted. Slim agreed to concede to these.
At the time of Burmese independence in 1948, it was Aung San’s provisional government which inherited the British administration. Quite understandably, such a government would carry plenty the DNA of its past avatar as a resistance movement under the AFPFL with no clear separation between the military and political responsibility. Writer and Burma watcher, Bertil Lintner in a recent article likens this to “the dwifungsi, or dual function, doctrine of the Indonesian army that stated that the military has both a defence and social-political role”. This transition of power in Burma to the AFPFL also somewhat alienated the ethnic minorities, whose loyalty to the British while they were rulers, were much longer and steadfast. From this vantage, Myanmar’s current problem can be seen as a consequence of the nation’s inability to: first, purge its defence forces of the political DNA inherited from the days they were freedom fighters. Second, is the inability to work out a comprehensive federal political structure to satisfactorily and equitably share power between its many nationalities.
While the latter problem is quite obvious, the former can also be visualised through an analogy familiar to India. In many ways, Burma and India shared a lot of their postcolonial history. Both were in fact part of the same British India from 1885 when Burma was annexed by the British, till 1937 when the British decided to put India and Burma under two separate administrations. Their fates crossed even in their struggles for independence, and hence BNA under Aung San and the INA Subhas Chandra Bose, ended up fighting the British alongside the Japanese Imperial Army. If a counterfactual scenario were to be imagined now, in which as in Burma, the INA had ended up as ones to liberate India militarily or else through a truce, India’s post-independence politics would quite obviously have been radically different. For like Aung San’s BNA, the Subhas Chandra’s INA too were freedom fighters in whom were combined both the military and socio-political roles. The reconciliations that the INA would have to make, especially with the British Indian Army form which most of them defected from and fought during the WWII, and the complications this would have led to, is also quite imaginable.
There is yet another illustrative analogy. America also won its independence through a civil militia’s armed struggle against their colonisers, the British. After the struggle however, the militia did not transition into the country’s military, leaving America with the freedom to raise a professional defence force divested from any direct political role. The country however would also have had to make reconciliations to resolve the issue of giving its activist freedom fighter militia their due. It is arguable that American constitution’s controversial Second Amendment which made owning arms by its civil population, a fundamental right, is the unacknowledged price of this reconciliation. Two and half century later, the country is still to come to terms with this concession and its consequences.
It is still uncertain which way or how the current crisis in Myanmar, triggered by the February 1 coup and widespread civil unrest thereafter, will reach a resolution. But even if what now seems an intractable problem is settled, bringing back peace and normalcy to everyday life again, the country will still be faced with two daunting tasks. One, is to find a way to exorcise its military of its genes from its political freedom fighting past. Two, is to work out a comprehensive federal political structure where all its nationalities have a part to play and equitable benefits to reap. Until then, even if democracy returns, the spectre of a military coup can materialise anytime in its future again.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author