The coup d’état in Myanmar has restored the powerful armed forces, or Tatmadaw, to full control of the country, after a decade of nominally civilian rule. The carefully constructed 2008 Constitution constrained the ability of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to challenge the privilege of the military politically, economically, or legally, despite an overwhelming electoral victory in 2015, and an even more sweeping victory in November 2020, with mass public support.
The unfolding nationwide protests against the coup are remarkable for their breadth—over 300 separate protests in towns and cities on some days—and representative of a diverse nation: Almost every conceivable social identity has protested, from civil servants and drag queens to businesses, musicians, ethnic communities, and even some police personnel, across age groups and displaying a dazzling array of protest slogans with irreverent humor. The military has so far been the only group not to take to the streets.
Why would the Tatmadaw jettison such a generous constitutional deal—which granted it parliamentary seats, three key ministries, vast economic power, and impunity for past and present crimes—with a clichéd coup? What were its leaders thinking? That’s the key question.
The coup reminded everyone, both inside Myanmar and around the world, that there is very little we know about the institution that has ruled in one guise or another since 1962. During the isolationist years of 1962–88, and through the reign of the State Law and Order Restoration Council, which staged the last coup after massive nationwide demonstrations in 1988, redolent of the current protests, Washington agonized and opined, viewing Myanmar as a bipartisan feel-good foreign policy issue: an outpost of tyranny, bereft of basic freedoms, and a glamorous icon of the struggle for human rights, ripe for the imposition of ineffectual sanctions.
The Obama administration viewed the post-2011 “pacted transition” from military to conditional civilian rule as an easy victory to be celebrated, and Suu Kyi as a beacon of the audacity of hope. The obvious fault lines of an unreformed military were inconvenient, so played down. The mass slaughter and expulsion of the Rohingya Muslims in 2017 curdled that narrative.
Why do we misunderstand the Tatmadaw? One reason is that they simply don’t calculate their interests and options in ways comprehensible to outsiders—Western or Asian—who often make the mistake of projecting their own agendas and rationales onto Tatmadaw decision-making. Scores of UN envoys and high-level diplomats have deluded themselves over the years, thinking they’ve made a “breakthrough” or come to an “understanding” with senior military leaders, only to find their rapport trammeled by the exigencies of implacable junta leaders. Suu Kyi has even professed admiration for the Tatmadaw, a sop that failed to produce any measure of détente and may have lulled diplomats into thinking they could have some positive influence on the military.
For many years, analysts, academics, and journalists have speculated about internal factions and perceived rifts in the top leadership, on the assumption that the Tatmadaw was much like the militaries of Thailand and the Philippines, where factional rivalries stem from the different military academy classes and their competing generational aspirations. But the Tatmadaw has been remarkably successful at ensuring institutional cohesion.
Outsiders may scoff at crude propaganda slogans such as the “Three Main National Causes” (non-disintegration of the union, non-disintegration of national solidarity, and perpetuation of sovereignty). But to the Tatmadaw, these broad ideals are core objectives; they appear in almost all national-level publications and in the speeches of Min Aung Hlaing, leader of the February 1 coup and the Tatmadaw’s commander in chief.
It is more useful to consider internal stress fractures of the military as between classes, rather than factions. The officer class is the imperious elite, the rank and file the long-suffering but loyal peasants. Yet in 70 years of constant civil war, there has never been a major mutiny from below; and only once, in the 1970s, did mid-ranking officers challenge the top leadership.
One of the chimeras of the initial stages of the democratic transition was the promise of “military-military” engagement with the Tatmadaw. The United States attempted this decades ago in Myanmar, as it does with armed forces around the world, in a fusion of the old imperial “civilizing mission” and Cold War alliance-building. It didn’t take. Washington supported the Tatmadaw with counter-narcotics aid, providing $80 million in helicopters, defoliants, and crop dusters from the early 1970s to 1988. Heroin shipments rose, in part because the army used the aid not only to attack ethnic rebels but also to clandestinely support drug militias. The belief that US military aid and engagement would “professionalize” the Tatmadaw, however well-intentioned, produced no results. The Myanmar army had no interest in being lectured on the laws of war or the virtues of being placed under civilian oversight.
The people of Myanmar are not so gullible. Widespread animus toward the Tatmadaw is culturally ingrained, and the coup has turbo-charged that frustration. Distrust of the Tatmadaw takes divergent forms: Urban, majority-Bamar Buddhists are angry about a predatory military often seen as frustrating economic interests; rural communities are incensed about land seizures and crushingly incompetent agricultural policies; and diverse communities in ethnic-minority areas are resentful of their oppression by an often-obscured campaign of “state building” through subjugation.
The Tatmadaw is a postcolonial army that has, since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, acted as a colonizing force in multiple ethnic areas. Brutal war against the civilian population has long been a feature of its counterinsurgency against dozens of diverse ethnic rebel armies.
The nationwide peace process sparked in 2012 promised a breakthrough. Led by a former Tatmadaw general, with the clear backing of then-President Thein Sein but the ambivalent support of Min Aung Hlaing and the Tatmadaw, it led to the October 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with eight insurgent signatories. But the NCA was not nationwide, nor was it really a cease-fire. A cobbled-together assortment of minor rebel groups with few soldiers or political legitimacy, it left out key players: Several of the largest insurgencies, some with constitutional assurances of semi-autonomy and thousands of soldiers, did not sign on. Armed conflict in multiple areas continued throughout Suu Kyi’s first term, often eclipsed by lavish annual Union Peace Conferences, which were mostly symbolic. From 2018, a virulent new insurrection by the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army raged until late 2020, displacing over 200,000 civilians, killing another 300, and likely inflicting thousands of Tatmadaw casualties.
What was clear to leaders of non-state armed groups—that the Tatmadaw leadership had made no commitment to a sustainable peace—was lost on Western donors, who lavished tens of millions in funding on a process that was obviously failing. That nationwide peace process, touted as national reconciliation, floundered through Tatmadaw intransigence. Once again, internationally, an obtuse military was misconstrued. Yet the Tatmadaw and the NLD were simpatico—the Tatmadaw had no genuine interest in peace, and neither did Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi pursued “national reconciliation” not as the peaceful resolution of incessant civil war with ethnic minorities and the guarantee of political, social, and economic rights that had long been suppressed. For her, rather, it was between her ethnic Bamar civilian political party and the Bamar-dominated military—an elite bargain. Her insouciance toward Rohingya Muslim suffering is well-known, but that was mirrored by a lack of empathy for many ethnic communities that had long suffered abuses by the Tatmadaw. The peace process failed not just because of Tatmadaw truculence but also because of her indifference, when she expected ethnic submission to her vision of a unified Myanmar.
What should have been evident—and was purposefully downplayed during the transition—was the brutality of the Tatmadaw. After 20 years of interviewing victims of the military in conflict zones, as well as prisoners of war and deserters, it is clear to me that the Tatmadaw’s institutionalized culture of abuse is undeniable. Clear patterns of the use of torture, arson, sexual violence, child soldier recruitment, human shielding, and atrocity demining have been recorded in almost all conflict zones, from Rakhine State against the Rohingya Muslims to Shan, Kachin, and Karen states. There has been almost zero accountability—whether through military or civilian justice systems—for these long-standing practices of violent pacification. And yet, in another manifestation of domestic divide and rule, Myanmar people living in urban centers often rejected reports of widespread violations against civilians in conflict zones.
The military’s greed is widely both evident and resented. The senior leadership has enriched itself from the plunder of natural resources, especially jade and logging; through its involvement in real estate and construction; and through kickbacks from the narcotics trade. The hundreds of pro-Tatmadaw militias that it uses to ensure local control often act as muscle for transnational criminal networks, transforming northern Myanmar into a $40 billion crystal methamphetamine production zone.
Over the decades, the Tatmadaw’s widespread land grabs have left it in control of valuable real estate for development and agribusiness. Driving anywhere in rural Myanmar with local activists brings revelations of military plunder; the profits from coal mines and uranium, rubber, and concrete plants are often channeled through Tatmadaw-controlled holding companies. Land seizures also established a network of bases that serve as the exoskeleton of military control along key transport networks, a constant reminder of the Tatmadaw’s repressive presence.
Conventional wisdom held that a coup would be against the military’s interest, right up to the hours when the coup occurred. But conventional wisdom on predicting the behavior of Myanmar’s military has long been a fool’s errand.
The Tatmadaw is an army of darkness, its inner logic a riddle, its brutality against the population for generations a clear expression of its repressive character. Only one thing about the military leadership is obvious: They don’t care what people think of them.