Mentality Of The ‘Tatmadaw’ Through The Living History – Presentation


(1) Biased Interpretation of the Union of Burma History

The ancient history of Burma is a history of war between the rival petty kingdoms. Sometimes the Myanmar monarch won and sometimes the other ethnic nationalities like Shan, Mon and Arakanese won. The warrior kings either Myanmar or non-Myanmar often endeavour to subdue their neighbouring kingdoms, but the peoples of Burma always lived in the same country and no ethnic group Myanmar or non-Myanmar, can solely claim that the country has been under their rule throughout all the time. But Chauvinistic (Mahar) Myanmar who are myopically nationalist and hegemonic claiming that they have ruled the country except in the colonial period believe in the linear progression of Myanmar, and imagine themselves to be a historically cohesive nation, whose organizational integration with the ethnic nationalities in the peripheries only need to be completed either democratically or by force. General Than Shwe’s Armed Forces Day speech in Naypyidaw in 2009 said, “Our Tatmadaw should be a worthy heir to the traditions of the capable Tatmadaw established by noble kings Anawratha, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya,” that is why the Tatmadaw set up the three mammoth statues of the warrior kings under whose shadow they marched past every annual Resistance Day (there is no such thing as Army Day in Burma). The name “Naypyidaw” in Burmese means royal capital city of kings.

Hence, the history of post-colonial Burma centers on a pathological process of neo-colonization of the non-dominant members of the Union by the dominant Myanmar elite, where the urban elites and males, and soldiers, are more equal than the other ethnic communities, classes and females. They Tatmadaw have resumed this old expansionist mission in the name of post-colonial nation-state building.

(2) Tatmadaw is an occupational Army

The current Myanmar Tatmadaw have originated from BIA, hence it is only the Myanmar ethnic group and not a Union army. As said the Union army was originated in 1937 when the country was separated from India composed of the ethnic nationalities, known as the Burma Rifles, a sort of a federal army, under the British command. When the Allies retook Burma from Japan, the British Burma Rifles played an important and crucial part, acting as scouts and gathering intelligence and harassing the enemy from behind the line, while the BIA was still aligned to with the Imperial Japanese army. Only when the BIA saw that the allies and the British Burmese army were winning and that Mandalay had fallen to the allies did the BIA decide to join the winning side. When the two groups were amalgamated the two Karen commanders became chief of the armed forces (General Smith Dun) and chief of the air force (Saw Shi Sho); the chief of operations was the Sandhurst-trained Karen, Brigadier Saw Kya Doe. The Quartermaster General, who controlled three-quarters of the military budget, was a Karen, Saw Donny. Brigadier Bo Let Ya, army chief of staff.

The Myanmar had considered the ethnic nationalities especially the Karen and Anglo Burman as mercenaries. Within a twelve weeks after Britain give independence on Jan 4th 1948, the Burma Communist Party revolted. This was the first Myanmar ethnic insurrection against the Union of Burma, the Myanmar Communists Parties were the only group among the insurrectionists that did not recognize the Union of Burma, while the ethnic nationalities insurrectionists recognized the Union of Burma and wanted only autonomy within the union, a sort of a Federal Republic. The second rebellion was by the PVO (part of Tatmadaw) and the third was the Red flags communist (Thakin Soe) Hence among the insurrections only the Myanmar ethnics that did not recognize the Union of Burma.

The Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) was forced to rebel in 1949, after the Karen quarters in Rangoon city (Kenmendine) and Insein town came under attack by Myanmar troops. So, unlike in Pakistan, where a professional military force became politicized, in Burma the military was politicized from the outset because of its role in the independence struggle. It may or may not accept civilian control up to this day, but at times out of conviction as well as expediency it may accept.

But up to this date the people still look at the Tatmadaw as the people’s army. However Ne Win and his lieutenants were more ambitious, as they had tasted power in the form of caretaker regime and launched a military coup on March 2nd 1962 and their ugly visage on 7th July by massacring hundreds of, Rangoon University students. Since then Tatmadaw despised both nationally and internationally and came to be much feared by the people and could not rely on the popular vote to stay in power.

(3) Attitudes towards non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities

Tatmadaw believes that the ethnic nationalities are inherently inferior (culturally/socially) and would split from the country if given a chance. They also believe that the ethnic nationalities are distrustful and have the fear of Myanmar domination, however, they provide lip-service respect for ethnic nationalities’ culture through ritualized holidays and propaganda efforts. They believe that if the Myanmar do not oppress other ethnic nationalities then they would find themselves oppressed. For them, national reconciliation means assimilation and preventing disintegration. All the ethnic nationalities and their languages, traditions, culture and values are to be assimilated into those of the Myanmar race hence, if the Tatmadaw falls everything falls. They believe that their mission is to protect the country and that the country would fall apart without them. Essentially, their power is rooted in the deep racism that has permeated Myanmar society since the beginning, the racial supremacy over the non-Myanmar, and the Divide and Rule Policy. Hence, the 3 As method of Annihilation, Absorption and Assimilation were adopted on the ethnic nationalities.

The Tatmadaw believes that the country is surrounded by enemies – real and imagined. These threats no longer take the form of territorial aggrandizement, but economic domination and the possibility of encouraging ethnic nationalities for separatism. This fear is based on a reality once extant, but now completely outmoded. These past instances of such foreign support are the American assistance to KMT forces in Burma, Pakistani-Bangladeshis’ support for Muslim insurgents, the Thai’s tolerance to a variety of insurgent groups (both ethnic and Myanmar), Indian backing of anti-Junta groups, some British humanitarian support for the Karen, Chinese aid to the Burma Communist Party and a general perception that Christian minorities have closer support and contact with foreigners than do the Myanmar Buddhists.

(4) Tatmadaw’s Philosophy

The Tatmadaw, has no real ideology and no constituency within the society under its rule, but for a time it was successful by entrenching fear and hopelessness in the minds of the people. Even its junior and mid-level officers work mainly only for purposes of their own power or wealth. Employment in Tatmadaw is one of the few viable careers in today’s Burma. As for the rank and file soldiers, many are conscripted by forced, while others are coerced or misled into believing that the Tatmadaw provides an escape from personal trouble or protection for their families. The current generals of the Tatmadaw lack experience of independence struggle and Cold War politics, and are unable to stand on a nationalistic platform and non-alliance ideology. They are not skilful in playing political theory games. The only lessons they have learnt are some effective ways to hold on to their power. The training and lectures given eventually instill in all soldiers a Tatmadaw mindset, which is comprised of the following features: -We work harder than others for the sake of the country.

-We sacrifice our lives to work for the sake of the country.
-Our comrades are injured or killed by our enemies.
-The enemies, who injure or kill us are supported by a part of the population.
-We must follow orders, live under the discipline of the army at all the time.
-We are soldiers serving the country 24-hours a day.

Hence from the soldier’s view, ordinary people and civil servants live more easy-going lives, indiscipline and have many leisure hours and do business just to enrich themselves. The end result is that soldiers believe they have the sole right to hold state power due to their hard work and sacrifices. These basic opinions hinder the relationship between the people and the Tatmadaw.

When the Tatmadaw cracks down on peaceful demonstrators, they viewed them as lazy opportunists, who are asking for rights without working hard and sacrificing like they do. The Tatmadaw, in a way, blames the people for failing to develop the country. They appeared to believe that the Tatmadaw as a whole works hard, the people and civil servants do not work hard. Foreigners work and think smarter than do the lazy people of Burma, and these are the reasons why developed countries are ahead of Burma is their rationale. However, when ordinary people go abroad to seek job opportunity, they see them as betraying the country by opting for a foreign one. The soldiers work industriously, because they receive advantages from their work. They are disciplined, because they are simply reaping the advantages from performing well. Clearly, the Generals followed the dictum of Mao Ze Dong: “Crack down on the extreme minority, leave the educated to live in illusion, and label the majority of ordinary people as supporters.”

(5)Tatmadaw’s Perspectives on Economics

The Tatmadaw view economic progress, reform, or liberalization as secondary to maintenance of political control. They believe that the primary function of an improved economy is greater military power, general political acquiescence of the population to Tatmadaw control through military delivery of greater economic rewards for loyalty, which improves their political legitimacy, but not the betterment of the human condition. To this end, the Tatmadaw leaders believe they must control the economy and thus they have set up direct and many indirect mechanisms for control e.g. such as UMEHL (Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings) and MEC (Myanmar Economic Corporation), in short they deliberately set up a crony capitalism. The Tatmadaw view any form of pluralism, within the administration at any level, in the dissemination of information and within non-governmental organizations as a threat to the state and their control

(6) Is Myanmar Tatmadaw, the Guardian of the country?

“If the hypothesis that the Tatmadaw should take temporary control, when a civilian government strays from its ‘national ideal’ or obligation, is correct,” then it should have already solved the country’s problem long ago as any genuine guardian might do. For example, when there was a dilemma in civilian rule in the years from 1950 to 1958 when the ruling party AFPFL split, the pro-West faction wanted to take aid from the West and Japan, but the neutral faction wanted to remain non-aligned, Tatmadaw, joined the winning side of the pro-West faction to wipe out the ethnics and the communist. This is the first proof that Tatmadaw is not a genuine guardian and has no basic loyalty to the country as it claims.

The second proof is when Ne Win and Sein Lwin were forced to resign in 1988 the Tatmadaw move against their own civilian government of Dr. Maung Maung. The third is when Tatmadaw’s pet party NUP won only 10 seats compared to the pro-democracy party of the NLD 392 the Tatmadaw broke its own promise to hand over power to the winner and changed the rules of the game. The fourth is current 2008 Nargis Constitution of occupying 25 % of seats in all the elected bodies, is the authentic proof that the military was determined to hold on to power, at any cost through its sham democratic-trappings.

The fifth was as lately as August 2015 Shwe Mann was ousted from the pro-Tatmadaw party, the USDP, by force, not only because he was too close to the NLD party of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but also he had angered the military by supporting an attempt to amend the 2008 Nargis Constitution.

Tatmadaw’s continuing presence provides one of the greatest obstacles to the aspirations of those committed to democratization and federalism in Burma.

(7) Targeting Education

After the 2nd World War, during the Cold War period, democracy, in the newly emerging nations of Afro-Asian and Latin American countries were not strong and naturally there were military coups e.g. Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, came to power in Thailand, General Ayub Khan in Pakistan, General Suharto in Indonesia and in Burma, General Ne Win. But looking back at these military coups in these neighbouring countries, we find that they always bounced back to democracy within a decade or two, except in Burma. Why? One of the answers is because the Tatmadaw targeted the higher education system, where the young brains are hatched to think, as number one enemy. Starting from 7th July 1962 waves after waves of students were killed and persecuted. The Tatmadaw believes that students and educated class went into politics because of their misconceptions and that universities were, and are the birth place of dissent against autocratic rule, hence the Burmese generals have sought to subvert education for their own purpose, – to keep them in power in perpetuity. The Tatmadaw has kept bonded the rights to education hostage, to be kept in permanent captivity. If the university were not closed, they were isolated and separated from one another and so that they would not be able contact one another. Iron fences were built around universities campuses. The universities were sent to remote places and were closed down at the slightest sign of any trouble. This prolonged closure of schools and universities has affected the future of almost all the young people of Burma and except for those with political influence, such as the children of the generals and those rich enough to send their children abroad, continue to enjoy uninterrupted and quality education. The Tatmadaw controlled education system has resulted in sub-standard education and critical lack of teaching facilities, stymied by unskilled teachers, and lack of job opportunities after graduation, corruption and bribery.

(8) Tatmadaw’s New Weapon (The Rapist Army)

Sexual violence as a weapon of war in ethnic cleansing was implemented, as girls and women have been singled out for rape because women are viewed as repositories of a community’s cultural and spiritual values. Due to the well-known impunity for rape, survivors and families are extremely reluctant to complain about rape. In the rare cases where victims do complain, the military often responds with violence. The UNHCR found that refugee families frequently cite rape as a key factor in their decisions to seek refuge. Tatmadaw is overtly targeting civilians; says Benjamin Zawacki, Southeast Asia, researcher for Amnesty International “The violations are widespread and systematic.’’ A well-documented phenomenon for at least a decade, “License to Rape” report inspired a level of interest and outrage on the part of the international community. A well-documented rape and murder of the two Kachin missionaries Tangbau Hkawn Nan Zing (21) and Maran Lu Ra, (20), in the Church compound, of Kwang Hka village, Nam Tao Township, by the soldiers of the 503rd Light Infantry Regiment, under Northeast Regional Command, was never admitted nor its DNA results made known. Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has said he also wants the truth to be known, but the case was shut up to this day. This explicitly means that the Generals themselves were involved in this ethnic cleansing policies, which the Tatmadaw has been doing all these years since 1962.

Several NGOs and independent organizations have examined the structures, policies, and practices of the Tatmadaw, and concluded that it was designed to target the non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities.
Before 1988, a secret order was issued that any Myanmar soldier, who is able to marry an ethnic woman would be rewarded a handsome amount of monetary prize, but this happened to be difficult and slow. Therefore, when the Tatmadaw took over the administration, it encouraged raping the women of the ethnic nationalities. This message was received by the lieutenants, and captains, and hence it was these ranks, who committed most of the rape cases. It was hoped that in the long run if there were only one race ‘Myanmar’, one religion ‘Theravada Buddhism’ and one country, ‘Burma’, they would be able to govern and stand tall in the international community. This was basic idea of Tatmadaw’s rape.

(9) Child Soldiers

Even animals do not kill their young or bully them instead they shield them up and help them to grow but Tatmadaw, not only torture and kill but also send the children to the front lines. The worst thing is that it has forced the children to become child soldiers. In March 2007 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on Burma, for “the continuing recruitment and use of child soldiers”. The report: “My Gun Was as tall as me”, estimated that 70,000 or more of the Burma army’s estimated 350,000 soldiers are children.” Human Rights Watch research has shown that boys, as young as 10, continue to be forcibly enlisted into Tatmadaw by a network of predatory recruiters, often soldiers themselves, who lurk at train stations and outside cinemas and tea shops looking for vulnerable young males to coerce into the Tatmadaw. Once forced into the Tatmadaw they were not permitted to contact their families, their ages were fabricated on enlistment material, and receive harsh training before being deployed to bleak and dangerous outposts throughout Burma’s hinterland. Boys are used to fight ethnic insurgents, mete out punishment to civilians, and as porters to support frontline troops. It is hard to imagine the psychological trauma and damage these experiences are inflicting on children. The problem of child soldiers is hidden from the eyes of many international observers and Burmese citizens in towns and cities. Once impressed into the army, child soldiers often eke out a desperate existence fishing and hunting for food and stealing from villagers, surrounded by malarial forests, landmines and ethnic insurgents. Their plight is so desperate that many of their victims of crimes committed by these boys have pity for them. The victims know that these young boys are being brain washed by their commanders.

Despite official regulations within the Tatmadaw prohibiting the use of child soldiers and frequent promises to the UN to erase the practice, it did not appear to be at all serious about curbing the practice. It is almost impossible to place a figure on how many children under 18 were in the Tatmadaw, but there are certainly thousands. As the Tatmadaw expanded rapidly; desertions increased and volunteers decrease. A system of incentives and punishments was in place to encourage recruiters to fill their quotas. Some local authorities were reportedly pressured by the Tatmadaw to produce a certain number of recruits per village, some of them children. Nowhere is there a more disturbing, if not horrifying example of the relationship between a culture of cruelty and the politics of irresponsibility than in the resounding silence that surrounds the torture of children under Myanmar Tatmadaw. There is an undeniable pathological outcome when the issue of Tatmadaw becomes more important than the survival of morality itself, resulting in the deaths of thousands of children

A 29-page report, “Under the Radar” on ongoing recruitment and use of children by the Tatmadaw, by the UK-based NGO Child Soldiers International, shows that military officers and civilian ‘brokers’ continue to use deliberate misrepresentation to entice new recruits, including children. Poor and uneducated boys continue to be frequently intimidated and coerced and lured them to the nearest recruitment centre or battalion. Until safeguards within recruitment procedures are implemented in practice across the country at all levels and until effective age verification mechanisms are put in place and properly enforced, the situation will not significantly improve.


In short, there is no Union of Burma Army (Federal Army) in Burma the current Tatmadaw is held together not by patriotism but by a mixture of patron-client ties, personal power, economic privileges, fear of severe punishment complete and total obedience” of the subordinates in the chain of command. It is a cruel occupationaly army with the highest records of human rights violations, which has never fought an external enemy but used all its resources to surpress the pro democratic and ethnic nationalities. It is the roots of all evil in Burma and need to be replaced by a Federal Army.

Democracy is seen as a threat to the existing order because it would deprive the ruling elite of power. The Tatmadaw and their families are “second state” of approximately two million out of a total population of 50 million plus. It will be a great mistake for any country to have military to military relations with Myanmar Tatmadaw because Burma will never be peaceful, democratic or federal if there is an occupational Myanmar Tatmadaw.

This paper was read at the 12th International Burma Studies Conference at Northern University of Illinois Dekalb on Oct.8, 2016 attended by several experts (both Burmese and international). Meticulously answering every question and criticism proves its authenticity beyond doubt. The viewpoints are the author’s own.

Kanbawza Win

Kanbawza Win is a political scientist based in Canada

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