With great fanfare – but few guests – Myanmar’s armed forces recently celebrated their 76th anniversary in the national capital of Naypyitaw.
Only Russia, China, Thailand and a handful of other Asian countries sent representatives to attend the March 27, 2021 parade showing Myanmar’s modern war machines – mostly imported from Russia and China in the past. decade, to the tune of US $ 2.4 billion (AU $ 3.15 billion).
The Burmese army has terrorized civilians since a coup two months earlier. On the day of the parade, soldiers killed more than 90 people for protesting against the military regime, including a 5-year-old boy and three teenagers. An estimated 564 people have been killed in Myanmar since the February 1 coup.
One of the poorest countries in Asia, Myanmar spends twice as much on defense as it does on education and health combined. With half a million troops, at least on paper, Myanmar has the 38th most powerful army in the world, according to Global Fire Power, which ranks 140 countries on their ability to wage war.
Myanmar’s military has not always been a repressive force. It began as a beloved liberating force founded to end colonial rule.
How was the first national army born?
Burma’s First National Army emerged from World War II and the quest for independence.
Led by a group called the “30 Comrades” who received military training from the Japanese, “the Burmese Independence Army has allied with Japan to fight the British. Everyday people sold their gold to support this revolutionary force.
The Burmese Independence Army drove the British out in 1941. The Japanese then occupied Burma, fighting Britain, the United States and other Allied forces from this strategic location in Southeast Asia.
Soon, however, the Burmese army also wanted Japan to leave Burma. It was the same for many Burmese. Thousands of ethnic and religious minorities from rural border areas have joined the army.
Historically, these minority groups had kept their distance from the Buddhist majority in the country, called Bamar, and from each other. The British maintained and reinforced these ethnic divisions as a tactic to maintain their colonial rule.
But during the 1940s resistance movement against the Japanese, everyone was united behind the Burmese army, according to my research, including women.
In 2007, I interviewed the first five female soldiers who joined the struggle for the independence of Burma.
“When the resistance movement started, we were ready to give everything, including our lives,” Daw Khin Kyi Kyi, then 80, told me.
The women underwent military training, traveled to villages near the army camps to explain why the army was now fighting the Japanese, and convinced locals to offer food and shelter to the soldiers. The women also enlisted locals to spy on Japanese troops.
Why did the civil war start?
The Japanese surrendered to Allied forces in 1945 and withdrew from all occupied territories, including Burma.
This put Burma back in British hands, with promises of full sovereignty.
However, before the British granted Burma independence, they demanded that the country’s rulers in Bamar prove that its many minority groups also wanted independence as a nation. Burmese Revolutionary Army leader Aung San called a summit in the city of Panglong with leaders of various ethnic groups to negotiate the foundations of a unified and independent Burma.
However, the Karen, a predominantly Christian population in the southeast of the country, had previously been promised British aid to establish their own free state. Karen leaders refused to join the 1947 Panlong Agreement.
Burma became independent in 1948. The following year, elite Karen troops staged an armed revolt against the new national government.
Since then, the Myanmar army, called Tatmadaw, has essentially existed only to fight against Myanmar’s minorities.
What happened after independence?
For about a decade after independence, Burma had a democratic government. But the army was more powerful. Between 1962 and 2010, Burma was a military dictatorship. The military regime has endured occasional uprisings, spectacle elections and several coups d’état in which one group of generals overthrew another.
Civil war is costly, which is why Myanmar has developed a war economy. At first, he financed his battles with rice exports and loans from the United States and the Soviet Union. Over time, the Burmese army has taken root in the global economic system.
In 1962, the military junta regime established Burma Trade Limited in central London as a “legitimate” international broker. The military also mined and sold jade, mainly in areas that were home to repressed ethnic minorities and profited from a bustling opium trade in Burma.
This army-controlled economy made Burmese generals richer, but the money did not translate into national economic growth. In 1987, the United Nations classified Burma among the “least developed countries” of the world.
The name of Burma was changed to Myanmar in 1989.
What is happening today?
Today Myanmar’s economy is almost entirely controlled by the military, from telecommunications to drugs. The military’s sprawling commercial networks – which some rights groups call “cartels” – have protected the generals from attempts at democratization.
In 2008, for example, the Myanmar military approved a new constitution formally granting 75% of seats in parliament to civilian politicians and reserving 25% to military officials.
Unofficially, however, the military largely continued to rule the nation. This included a relentless crackdown on minority groups, including the Karen – who maintained their insurgency for seven decades – and Rohingya Muslims.
The 2015 elections were meant to mark a turning point in this quasi-democratic system. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of revolutionary Aung San and leader of a previous democratic uprising, and her National League for Democracy won in a landslide.
Suu Kyi has been criticized for not standing up to the military, especially in his attacks on the Rohingya. Despite this, she was deposed in the February 2021 coup and is now being held in an unknown location. Some dissidents are fleeing to Karen territory and other rebel-controlled ethnic areas to escape the military.
As Myanmar’s death toll rises, international pressure grows for countries to impose tougher sanctions on the junta and for companies to stop trading. Japanese beer Kirin and a German company that supplies Myanmar mint are among those that have severed ties with Myanmar.
Meanwhile, civil disobedience inside the country continues. Stifling funding for the military could give protesters and the fallen civilian government a fighting chance.
Tharaphi Than is Associate Professor in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Northern Illinois University