The March of Folly
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, September 25, 2017
Magazine

BOOK REVIEW

The March of Folly


By David Scott Mathieson AUG, 2003 - VOLUME 11 NO.7


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A Burma scholar traverses the history of Burma’s armed forces, its reasons for expansion and the complications facing the country’s most dominant institution. The Burma Army possibly has the worst press in Asia. Vilified as a regime of inept thugs who cosy up to drug dealers, whose foot soldiers perpetrate murder and rape on a major scale, who flesh out their ranks with children and waste money on planes that don’t fly at the expense of health and education, it would be hard to make them look good. Andrew Selth, the preeminent expert on the Burmese armed forces, the Tatmadaw, doesn’t attempt to improve their image, but he does provide the reader with a more in-depth perspective on this much-maligned organization. His book, Burma’s Armed Forces: Power Without Glory, provides a detailed study of the Tatmadaw, its dramatic expansion during the 1990s, and the ideological and practical impulses for its repressive behavior. It represents the most serious and erudite analysis of the Tatmadaw since its formation in the 1940s. Rather than portray the military as a faceless repressive mass, Selth meticulously explores its many sides as an institution. He presents highly detailed chapters on the three separate arms of the Tatmadaw, its intelligence functions, arms production, and budgetary privileges. While the book is heavily reliant on technical information, right down to the classifications of individual ships, rifles and aircraft, this should not deter the lay reader. It strengthens the book as both a serious analytical work and a comprehensive record of Burma’s order of battle. What is most striking is just how much the military has grown to be a state within a state. Following the coup in 1988, the Tatmadaw embarked on a major weapons purchasing spree and expansion, doubling its numbers from 180,000 to over 400,000. According to Selth, the Tatmadaw is now the 15th largest military in the world and takes an estimated 44% of Burma’s central government expenditure. It is the extent and size of the expansion that is most alarming. The obvious question is what for? Internal security and the continued fight against those insurgents that continue to resist central government rule are obvious answers, as Selth acknowledges. Yet he also argues that the expansion and weapons upgrade of the Tatmadaw was long overdue and necessary, particularly for the often overlooked Navy (Tatmadaw Yay) and Air Force (Tatmadaw Lei). The complications for the expansion begin in the choice of weapons, mostly originating from an estimated US $1.4 billion spending spree from China and other unscrupulous suppliers such as Pakistan, Singapore and Israel, many of who have also provided training to Tatmadaw personnel. What was delivered included clunky Chinese aircraft, poorly manufactured trucks and misfiring artillery pieces that have created as many problems for force augmentation as they intended to solve. Even the domestically manufactured small arms that the Tatmadaw developed are barely effective. The vaunted MiG-29 purchase has legitimate air defense duties, but is probably more a prestige purchase than something the Tatmadaw can use, or according to Selth, will be able to any time soon. This massive expansion, crucial for regime maintenance, has caused difficulties, and probably has occurred "more in theory than reality." The Tatmadaw is now larger and more powerful than at any time in its history, yet the price is understaffed and poorly trained combat units, continuing logistics problems in the field, disappointing or unsuitable equipment, and a growing distance between the ranks and the privileged officer corps, to saying nothing of the gulf between the Tatmadaw and the population. The military’s power may have grown, but it has come at a huge cost both to the institution and the country. The sober tone is the book’s strong point. Selth gives a level of credibility to the Tatmadaw’s self-promotional literature that permits a more balanced assessment of their political vision and their reasons for the expansion. Like it or not, the leaders of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) actually believe what they say when they talk of saving the country and averting disintegration and chaos. Recognizing this unavoidable fact is the key to understanding the institution. It is also constructive to give voice to the constraints of the military themselves, their self-appointed political and administrative roles, nation building and myriad conventional defense roles. Amidst the politicization of the military as a regime, it is often forgotten that there are legitimate security roles that the Tatmadaw fulfills, often without credit of its performance or its limitations. Selth balances recognition of the military’s limitations and their manifold shortcomings with a skill that has made him one of Burma’s most astute observers. The book does have a contestable omission.


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