The Enemy Within
covering burma and southeast asia
Friday, May 24, 2019


The Enemy Within

By David Scott Mathieson MAY, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.5

The early days of the Burmese military provide important clues to how it views society, progress and itself. Any visitor to Rangoon’s Defense Services Museum is struck by how seriously the Burma Army takes itself. This is a trait common among all armed forces, particularly those who have shed as much blood—of their own and of others—as the Tatmadaw. Every achievement, no matter how grandiose or minute, is presented with reverence: battle dioramas, lists of bridges and roads built, weapons manufacture, even consumer goods made by the Defense Industries. The grand halls speak of sacrifice, bravery, nationhood and struggle. The museum connects the grand monarchical past with the authoritarian present, portraying the army as Burma’s omnipotent institution. Why then has the military regime failed to get people interested in such a monument to duty? The museum is usually empty of the people it is designed to impress. Mary Callahan’s remarkable book, Making Enemies, is the closest study yet to reveal why the modern Tatmadaw has pursued violent state-building strategies, creating a huge gulf between itself as an institution and the society it purports to protect. Callahan explores just how these brutal, inept, and intellectually bankrupt elite can maintain such enduring military rule, by uncovering their growth as an institution and the creation of a Tatmadaw “ideology” in the 1950s. The military has gradually come to view all of society as “potential enemies” in its drive to mold the nation in its image and preserve the sovereignty of the state. From its desperate early days, through its ruinous experiment with hermetic socialism, and through the turbulence of 1988 and the pressures to reform, the military has never hesitated to use violence to maintain unity. As a result, the modern Tatmadaw is incapable of “distinguish[ing] between citizens and enemies of the state.” Fighting wars became the model for how politics was to be performed. Callahan argues that the military is yet to discover any way of doing it differently, let alone better. Callahan’s starting point is the ferment of rebellion following the British annexation of Upper Burma in 1885, when for the next five decades the largely neglected territory was the most violent and criminalized of all the colonies. The growth of nationalism in the 1930s produced the founding elite of the Tatmadaw, who departed from their loosely held leftist convictions to be trained and allied with the Japanese during WWII. This brush with fascism didn’t last longer than a few years before Gen Aung San shrewdly marched the now expanded Burma Patriotic Forces to the British to ensure swift independence. The breakdown in order following independence in 1948 was the Tatmadaw’s heyday, when it saved U Nu’s “Rangoon Government” from the ethnic Karen and Communist Party of Burma, or CPB, insurgents, taking years to drive most of them from the cities. Yet as Callahan reminds us, the Tatmadaw was one of scores of pocket armies roaming the countryside, allied to corrupt political bosses and resisting central rule. Then half the army mutinied to side with the CPB, the Karen or other insurgent groups. The rest rallied around Ne Win and a handful of nationalist officers. The second test of the Tatmadaw had them face the invading Chinese Kuomintang, or KMT, army that had pushed into Northern Shan State in 1950, resulting in a costly and bitter campaign to push them out. A more professional and determined military was the result. By the late 1950s, the Tatmadaw began to view the civilian political structure as another enemy of national stability. Callahan’s skillful rendering of the machinations behind its consolidation, expansion, ideological maturation and their intrusion into politics makes for compelling reading. The tensions sparked by internal ideological differences, localized versus centralized power, and the growth of the Tatmadaw’s social, economic and political power is crucial background to contemporary military rule. One trend Callahan observes is the cyclical nature of center-periphery tensions within the Tatmadaw. In the 1950s, disputes between Rangoon-bound staff officers and field commanders engaged in the “grim war” against the KMT and CPB, propelled the test case coup of 1958, and eventually the real one in 1962. From the 1960s to the 1980s, another generation of field officers watched their Rangoon superiors pursue Ne Win’s half-baked socialism, while many of them believed they could have crushed the various insurgents fighting the army on several fronts had they been given the resources to do so. These were largely the officers who seized power in 1988. In the 1990s they faced similar problems of distant commanders having to be reined in and reminded of their corporate loyalty. Predictably, tensions between the city and the trenches involved only officers.

1  |  2  next page »

Please read our policy before you post comments. Click here
E-mail:   (Your e-mail will not be published.)
You have characters left.
Word Verification: captcha Type the characters you see in the picture.

more articles in this section