Tatmadaw relives glory days with attacks on refugees
covering burma and southeast asia
Friday, May 24, 2019
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Tatmadaw relives glory days with attacks on refugees


By LJN APRIL, 1998 - VOLUME 6 NO.2


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March 27 marked the fifty-third anniversary of the “Japanese revolution” declared by Gen Aung San, Burma’s independence hero and founder of the Tatmadaw, or armed forces. The occasion is celebrated annually as Armed Forces Day by the country’s present regime, which might also have derived a certain amount of satisfaction from other events this month which pointed to a more recent, if less illustrious, victory over the declared enemies of the country’s burgeoning military. “Find the closest enemy and fight.” These were Aung San’s words to those who joined him in fighting against the Japanese at the end of World War II, paving the way for his country’s post-war independence. Over the years, however, the esteem of Burma’s military has diminished even as its size has been enlarged, a trend that began when the country’s brief and hard-won era of democratic rule came to an end in 1962. When Gen Ne Win took control in 1962, he sought to expand the role of the Tatmadaw by redefining the nation’s enemies. All soldiers were taught that “The ethnic rebels are robbers and bandits … The pro-democracy movement was created by communists and rightists … The Tatmadaw is your father and mother.” In the 1940s Burma’s army fielded 5,000 men. By 1988 it had risen to over 200,000. It has since topped 300,000.According to the constitution, the role of the Tatmadaw is to defend the country and to protect its citizens. But o­n July 7, 1962, four months after Ne Win’s rise to power, a peaceful gathering of hundreds of university students was gunned down by the army and Rangoon University’s historic Student Union Building was demolished. From that day o­n, the army became known as Ne Win’s Kha piet saung tat, or “pocket army.” When in July of 1988 Ne Win publicly announced his resignation as chairman of his party, (a move that did not actually remove him from power) he said: “I have to inform the people throughout the country that when the Army shoots, it shoots to hit, not to the sky.”In that same year thousands of unarmed demonstrators were killed, not by ethnic insurgents or communists, but by the Burmese army. Thus, following the 1988 massacres, the Tatmadaw came to be more commonly referred to in private as Tha’ mataw. Tha’ means “to kill” and mataw means “not enough.”If the military has any popular support at all, it derives entirely from its aura of privilege. In Rangoon today, a popular saying among the youth in the streets is, “Join the army if you want to get rich and have a privileged life.”Recruiting is easy. Burma is rife with unemployment. Criminals who wish to enlist in the army are pardoned automatically. Some join the army merely because they are crazy about uniforms and the Rambo mentality.Notwithstanding the base motives which inspire many to join the army, a government-controlled newspaper declares nearly every day o­n its front page that “The Tatmadaw has been sacrificing much of its blood and sweat.” This presumably does not apply to the army’s leaders, who spend most of their time going through the motions of administering a country in steep economic decline: issuing orders, cutting ribbons, and inspecting monasteries, construction sites, and public buildings.It is widely acknowledged that a great deal of the sweat and blood that has been sacrificed belongs to unwilling recruits and unwitting victims. By the time of the historic 1988 uprising, the Tatmadaw’s methods had become more brutal, not o­nly in the cities, but in the border areas and villages as well. Thousands of civilians have been taken forcibly to the front lines to act as porters. Many innocent villagers have been executed o­n suspicion of informing for ethnic armed groups. Whole villages have been burned, and village women, some of them pregnant, are routinely abducted and raped. Since the fall of Manerplaw less than two months before the golden jubilee celebrations of Armed Forces Day in 1995, the military regime has had extra reason to be pleased with itself, as it now has to do even less of its own dirty work. Manerplaw, long a stronghold of the Karen National Union and democratic forces including students, politicians and intellectuals, was weakened by religious conflicts between Christian and Buddhist Karens and later succumbed to a major offensive by Rangoon’s troops. The Tatmadaw did not take credit for this major victory, however, less out of a sense of modesty than out of an awareness of the strategic advantage of supporting the so-called Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) without having to take responsibility for their tactics.In the three years since then, Burma-watchers have repeatedly been witness to atrocities sponsored by the Tatmadaw and carried out by the DKBA, most recently in the weeks leading up to this year’s Armed Forces Day celebrations.


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