A class above, the heaven-born By Maung Zarni

Part 1: Evolution of a mafia state
Part 2: Fascist roots, rewritten histories

Military-controlled regimes in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, have gone through various incarnations since General Ne Win‘s initial military takeover of 1962. With a favorable ideological climate, intellectual and academic justification, political and diplomatic recognition, and strong Western material support, the stage was set for Ne Win’s military, the Tatmadaw, to tread its chosen path without accountability – a course it has maintained to the present.

With ties to and assistance from the US military and West Germany’s state-owned arms manufacturer Fritz Werner, for decades the military has engaged in what might be termed “selective professionalization”. The Tatmadaw upgraded its organizational and technical capacities, but when it came to professionalizing its relations with civilian institutions vital to forging a modern political state out of a myriad of multi-ethnic communities, it shunned democratic civilian leadership.

Some 60 years ago generals, brigadiers, colonels, and commanding officers felt disdainful towards “inefficient” and “talkative” democratic politicians. During the country’s parliamentary democracy period immediately following independence (1948-58), a young captain would typically assume “attention” position upon entering the office of a civilian township administrative officer. If a military officer violated the general civil law of the land, he would be liable for prosecution at a court of law in the politically independent judiciary.

Today, Myanmar’s military class feels that they are a cut above the rest of society, the Burmese equivalent of the “heaven-born”. The military now plays judge, jury and prosecutor within the legal system which it doesn’t observe itself. Constitutionally, the military is governed by its own set of laws, norms and regulations. These take precedent over any other legal frameworks and no military personnel, past and present, may be prosecuted for deeds which they have engaged in while discharging their duties.

In short, civil laws do not apply to military personnel. For its part, the Burmese public has come to despise the once honorable military, both its leadership and institutional power base. The public knows that the military as an institution has become a class in and of itself. From their formative years as cadets in the country’s defense academies, two successive generations of officer corps, numbering in the thousands, have been subject to an intense and sustained indoctrination process designed to make them think, feel and act as a distinct nationalist class. It thinks and acts as if it were the natural ruler of the people.

The most important of all officers’ training schools is the Defense Services Academy (DSA) at Pyin Oo Lwin (formerly May Myo, British colonial era summer station) whose alumni now occupy virtually all important positions in the military, including the most powerful Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces as well as other civilian organs of the state, such as the cabinet and the various line ministries which it runs.

Since the DSA’s inception at the then newly built Bahtoo military town in Shan State in 1955, it has undergone significant changes, both quantitatively and qualitatively. It has been massively expanded in terms of the number of graduates it produces in a single batch. Its original motto for the officer-cadets was circumspect, professional and modest: “Future Victorious Warriors for the Country”. Today the DSA instills in thousands of young cadets between the ages of 16 and 21 a new ethos, with a stated aim of training “The Future Ruling Elites of the Nation”.

In the early years, the academic curriculum was developed and managed by civilian academics in various arts and science fields, with the aim of instilling due respect for the civilian public, modesty, love of truth, fairness, honor, and national duty in graduating soldiers. The military curriculum was developed by Burmese graduates of Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and US staff and command colleges.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were no more than 50 officer cadets graduating annually from the DSA. Upon graduation they would be assigned to three different branches of the Armed Forces (Infantry, Navy and Air Force). Towards the end of the first military dictatorship of General Ne Win in 1988, about 120 officer cadets graduated in a single in-take. The military was 125,000-strong in 1988, while the country’s population was estimated to be about 26 million.

By 2011, its graduating class was somewhere between 2,000 – 3,000. In 2010, the country’s military was estimated to be nearly half-a-million strong, making it Southeast Asia’s largest military after Vietnam. The total population of the country doubled in the two decades since the collapse of Ne Win’s rule in 1988 (and that of the Beijing-backed insurgent Burmese Communist Party a year later), while the country’s armed forces grew 400%.

In 2011, 24% of the country’s national budget was reportedly earmarked for the military, compared with 4% for education and 1.3% for health services. In addition, bypassing its own military-controlled Parliament, the military leadership declared the establishment of the extra-legal, supra-Constitutional National Defense Fund (NDF). An unspecified amount of state funds is stored at the NDF, which authorizes the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces as the only state official with access to its resources. It is effectively unanswerable to any organization or individual.

Cost of the coffin
The Burmese problem is not simply the country’s successive ruling cliques of generals aggrandizing themselves at the expense of the public. Those Burmese who grew up hearing the hope-filled speculation that things would get better once Ne Win’s reign was over are no longer fooled by this once-the-old-guards-are-gone buzz. As the Burmese saying goes, “Once you have been dead you know the cost of the coffin.”

The old generation of nationalist soldiers, including Ne Win, left intact a process of distinct class formation with recognizably feudal features – minus the old cultural and customary constraints of the Indic moral guidelines for conduct of rulers. Nearly 70 years since its founding by Aung San, the Tatmadaw officer corps, and the soldiering class as a whole, have come to view themselves as a cut above the predominantly agrarian masses. This ruling military class has effectively set the political clock back to the country’s feudal past.

Naypyidaw has belatedly jumped on the global bandwagon of free marketization and privatization, though with distinct Burmese characteristics. Under the banner of privatization, public assets (land, forests, immovable infrastructure such as office buildings, power industries) are being divided among the families of senior and junior generals, as well as their cronies who, inter alia, serve as the generals’ portfolio managers.

With all these signs of bountiful state-sponsored cronyism, the country’s soldiering class has taken an increasingly kleptocratic turn, a throw-back to the old feudal days in which the monarch and his men “ate” the kingdom in terms of land, labor, and natural resources. The Burmese have a wonderfully descriptive term for this type of phenomenon: “Hungry hounds stumbling on a pagoda feast.”

Ne Win and his men deliberately set in motion the revolutionary process of class formation, revolutionary in the sense that the military that was originally created by, of, and for the people no longer sees itself as part of the people. It is now a class of the “heaven-born”, entitled to rule, not simply govern, the country in accord with the needs, concerns and interests of senior and junior generals.

All these men began their military careers as cadets or other ranks pledging before every meal the mantra, “We pledge our allegiance to the country that feeds us.” As a class, they have failed to uphold this cardinal pledge, acting instead with blind obedience to frequent and indiscriminate “shoot to kill” orders against various segments of society – monks or Muslims, Bama or Karen, farmers or laborers, young or old.

The military has drifted away from a sense of gratitude to the country and honor to serve the people towards institutional/class allegiance and personal loyalty towards the chief. It is telling that when some ex-military officers who publish their biographies (ex-Brigadier General Tin Swe and ex-Lieutenant General Gen Tun Kyi, for instance) describe not the people but the armed forces as their “surrogate parents”.

This is a fundamental regression with dire national consequences, as the military as an institution and the soldiering class no longer serves or defends the people from any enemy, including unscrupulous military leaders. In the process, the Tatmadaw has established its own economic base and interests, fostered a distinct class consciousness informed by their own sense of superiority vis-a-vis the rest of society, and wrote its own radical revisionist history where the military is the sole national liberator and guardian of the nation.

Military re-feudalization
Since 1988, a re-feudalization of the country’s military class and political culture distinguishes the present phase of class formation from Ne Win’s previous socialist revolutionary military rule. The process has paradoxically removed any cultural or traditional constraints on governmental conduct, including the once conditioned belief in honor as a warrior, as well as the Indic code and notions of the “righteous ruler”, who is said to possess, among other things, compassion, wisdom, integrity, sacrifice, and fairness.

It has led to the creation of a crony capitalist economy via a pool of its own economic agents, better known as “cronies”; class consolidation and reproduction through a combined policy of setting aside a high percentage of admission slots in military academies exclusively for the army-bred, and of careful screening of family backgrounds of officers and their spouses, especially for influential posts within the military; and, last but not least, the widespread practice of active participation of the wives of military officers in intra-military and political affairs, including the hiring and firing of deputies for their husbands and managing the flow of bribes and business deals.

Some of the more superficial acts of re-feudalization of the military and the state include former junta leader Senior General Than Shwe’s and his family’s well-known royal pretensions, whereby family members are known to address one another using the arcane language of the long-gone feudal courts and which today is spoken only in the Burmese theatre.

Than Shwe built a brand new capital, Naypyidaw, and named it and all its residential quarters and streets auspicious-sounding old royal names selected from Buddhist Jartaka tales. At Naypyidaw, Than Shwe required comically obsequious gestures and demeanors from all subordinate members of the bureaucracy, military and society. For instance, subordinates, their spouses and families are required to get down on their knees, even in informal gatherings, and abide by the royal protocol of subordinates speaking only when spoken to in the presence of their military superiors.

During the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster, victims were instructed by military officials to greet Than Shwe and other generals during their propaganda journeys to the storm-ravaged Irrawaddy Delta, as if they were Boddhiisattva, or would-be-Buddhas. Military-led re-feudalization has gone to comic extremes, as the scenes of Burmese citizens kowtowing to these military men of vainglory becomes more and more commonplace.

To paraphrase the late Ernest Gellner, a Cambridge anthropologist and noted author of “Nationalism”, in feudal societies it is power that generates wealth, not the other way round. Economically, Than Shwe whetted, and subsequently unleashed, the economic appetites of other senior and junior officers.

As a point of departure from Ne Win’s military regime, which pushed out a large number of alien commercial and technical elements from the economy (for instance, 300,000 Indians) with its catastrophic economic nationalization scheme, Than Shwe and his deputies have strategically chosen to build and expand the military’s economic and commercial base. In so doing, they have resorted to nepotistic practices which involve patronizing only the army-bred, ex-military officers and business-minded civilians who have unquestioningly embraced the primacy of the military class.

The best known case is Tay Za, Myanmar’s wealthiest and most influential tycoon with close personal ties to Than Shwe’s family, who also serves as the military’s principal arms-dealer. A son of a former deputy of Brigadier Maung Maung, who was the chief architect of the military’s institutional developments including the establishment of military and defense academies in the immediate post-independence years, Tay Za was himself a cadet at the DSA in the early 1980s.

He was expelled from the academy for violating the then strict code of conduct for cadets. Aung Thet Mann and Toe Nay Mann, the two sons of Thura Shwe Mann, until recently the regime’s third-ranking general and now Speaker of the military’s newly established parliament, have also joined the country’s top 10 most influential and richest “businessmen”.

The famous tycoon Zaygaba Khin Shwe, a close friend of former prime minister General Khin Nyunt, who headed the powerful military intelligence until his demise in a 2004 purge, also served with the Army Engineering Corps during Ne Win’s rule. Khin Shwe is now a member of the military-controlled parliament representing the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, while his daughter is married to one of Shwe Mann’s sons.

President Thein Sein, for his part, is known to hold major shares in Skynet, the country’s most popular TV network. The company is fronted by ethnic Kokant businessman Shwe Than Lwin Kyaw Win, a nephew of the late drug lord Lo Sing Han. Than Shwe’s family owns Myawaddy TV, the sole TV network established exclusively for the armed forces personnel and their families.

There are lesser known cronies who are army-bred and thus army-backed, (for instance, Hla Maung Shwe of the Myanmar Peace Center and Myanmar Egress, a local nongovernmental organization which the regime has used as its “civil society” proxy. It is, without a doubt that these men, and many others like them, owe their personal fortunes to military rule and the generals .

Hijacked nation
In exchange for their entrepreneurial services to this growing military class, of which they have long been an integral part, the ruling junta has allowed the nouveau riche to exploit the country and its resources. Recently, Yuzana Htay Myint, another in-house businessman, has been permitted to take over 100,000 acres in the ancestral land of the Kachin minority in the northern most part of Myanmar. It was originally designated by the regime as a national wildlife sanctuary.

In his otherwise insightful analysis titled “The Future of Tatmadaw’s Political Role in Myanmar: Prospects and Problems,” Maung Aung Myo, an army-bred former lecturer at Myanmar’s National Defence College, observed that the Tatmadaw has been “hijacked by a small group of generals” for their own personal aggrandizement. Upon closer examination, it is really a case of intra-class symbiosis where juniors and seniors divide their ill-gotten gains at the expense of the citizenry. If anything has been hijacked, it is the country and its future that has been stolen away by its own soldiers.

In feudal systems of the country’s bygone eras, all the king’s men served at the monarch’s pleasure, and they rose and fell, lived and died, precariously. This scenario has been re-enacted in Than Shwe’s Myanmar and in Ne Win’s Burma, as the country was then known. Whimsically, these despots carried out large scale purges, for instance, the purge of military intelligence under the directorship of Brigadier Tin Oo in 1983 and the ousting of Khin Nyunt and the dissolution of the entire Directorate of the Defense Services Intelligence in 2004.

Consequently, military officers, as well as other ranks, have opted to optimize their administrative and political authorities by translating them quickly into riches through bribery, big and small, while in office. To get rich quick was indeed glorious for Deng’s China post-Chairman Mao Zedong. But in Than Shwe’s Myanmar, “eating” as much of the country as fast as possible may not be glorious, not at least in the eyes of the traditional pious Buddhist population, but it has become the wisest and most strategic course of action for virtually all military officers who are clever enough to recognize that theirs is a class kleptocracy. Only the naive remain moral in this new thoroughly feudalized military class.

Since the early 1990s, the Ministry of Defense has taken over state-owned enterprises and re-established them as “private” businesses owned solely by the Tatmadaw. The military now has its hand in virtually every economic pie, ranging from poultry farms, small factories, real estate, tourism, transportation, construction, rental of regimental facilities, shipping, power, banking, export and import, agriculture, energy and mining. Virtually no business entity of commercial significance can operate without being linked to the military, institutionally or to individual commanders, thereby bringing the entire economy under the Tatmadaw’s effective control.

Unlike Ne Win’s socialist military government, the current regime does not alienate commercial elites. Instead, the generals have made local entrepreneurs work for military rule through an evolving economic and political symbiosis. In this new arrangement, which harks back to the old monarchical days of commercial and trade monopolies, the military has learned to patronize the economic class for its own benefit.

Than Shwe has effectively leveraged the twin pervasive elements of greed and anxiety about the soldiering class’s future, encompassing both the officer corps and emerging crony capitalists. Internationally, Than Shwe knows well how to dangle the possibility of economic liberalization before foreign investors and venture capitalists who view Myanmar primarily as “the world’s last economic frontier”. Western governments and corporations have tripped over themselves in recent bidding for telecommunications and other infrastructure and resource-related concessions.

Only time will tell whether the forces of the free market will overpower Myanmar’s ruling soldiering class. Unlike the military in Indonesia, the Philippines and Turkey, Myanmar’s military is marching backward along feudal lines. The Tatmadaw is consolidating its class hold on society, economy and polity, while at the same time trumpeting “democracy and free market”, which they know resonates well in Western ears.

During the formative years of post-independence, the pro-capitalist West had looked at Myanmar’s regressive evolution only through the self-serving lens of the Cold War and thus hailed soldiers as “modernizers”. Western concerns then were the containment of anti-market Maoist and Soviet influences. Sixty three years later, post-Cold War Western governments and their affiliated interests are now bent on overlooking not only the military’s war crimes against ethnic minorities, but also the general’s attempts to build a military apartheid, wherein the military and its commercial, technocratic and ethnic proxies rule over the bulk of the population as a class above, as the heaven-born.

Maung Zarni (www.maungzarni.com) is a Visiting Fellow at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics. A former admit to Myanmar’s Military Officers’ Training Corp (1980), he hails from an extended military family. He has worked with three separate heads of the military’s intelligence service from 2004-8 as an initiator of Track II negotiations.


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