Whose Army?


Bogyoke Aung San during a visit to England in 1947 (Photo: Getty Images)

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi shocked many of her supporters and admirers when, in a BBC interview in January of last year, she expressed support for the Tatmadaw, saying: “The truth is that I am very fond of the army, because I always thought of it as my father’s army.”

She also admitted that “there are many who have criticized me for being what they call a poster girl for the army.” But as if to reinforce that impression, last year, on March 27, she attended the Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw and watched soldiers marching in perfect formation past the grandstand where she sat, tanks thundering past, helicopters buzzing by and fighting jets flying overhead.

While it is understandable that she does not want to antagonize the military, which is still the key to any fundamental change in Myanmar’s political power structure, her references to “my father’s army” have been questioned by many. Although her father, Bogyoke Aung San, did form the Burma Independence Army (BIA) under Japanese auspices in Bangkok in December 1941, little of that force remained when Myanmar became independent in 1948.

Ironically, there have actually been more veterans from the Second World War in various insurgent organizations than in the government’s army since independence. Almost the entire People’s Volunteer Organization (PVO), a paramilitary force made up of thousands of veterans from the BIA and its successors—the Burma Defense Army, the Burma National Army and the Patriotic Burmese Forces—went underground at independence. Other Myanmar regiments in the government’s army mutinied, formed the Revolutionary Burma Army, or joined the insurgent Communist Party of Burma (CPB). The Kayin battalions went underground as well, while ethnic Kachin units remained loyal to the government—at least for a while.

Of the legendary Thirty Comrades, who went to Japan for military training before the Japanese invasion of Myanmar in 1942, two—Bo La Yaung and Bo Taya—commanded the PVO rebellion. Three—Bo Zeya, Bo Ye Htut and Bo Yan Aung—joined the CPB when the communist insurrection broke out shortly after independence. Of the Thirty Comrades, only Brig. Kyaw Zaw, Gen. Ne Win and Maj. Bo Bala remained in the army in the 1950s. Four of the others—Bo Let Ya, Bo Yan Naing, Bohmu Aung and Bo Setkya—rallied behind the right-wing resistance, which former Prime Minister U Nu organized on the Thai border in the 1960s. And, in late 1976, Brig. Kyaw Zaw, once the most popular commander in the army who had been pushed out by Gen. Ne Win in 1957, went underground and joined the CPB.

Ne Win

On Sept. 6, 1988, nine out of the 11 survivors of the Thirty Comrades denounced Gen. Ne Win and called on the army to join the pro-democracy uprising of that year. Only Brig. Kyaw Zaw, who then was still with the CPB, was unable to join the appeal against their erstwhile comrade-in-arms, Gen. Ne Win. Later, Brig. Kyaw Zaw also expressed his support for the pro-democracy movement.

The power base of the military regime that seized power in 1962 was actually a very narrow one. It consisted mainly of officers from Gen. Ne Win’s old regiment, the 4th Burma Rifles, and nearly all officers who became prominent in the 1960s came from this particular unit. When the Revolutionary Council (RC) was set up in 1962, it was popularly referred to as “the Fourth Burifs Government.” Number two in the RC, Brig. Aung Gyi, came from this regiment, as did the two other most prominent members of the post-1962 junta, Brigadiers Tin Pe and Kyaw Soe.

More ex-4th Burma riflemen rose to power in the 1970s and 1980s as other officers were gradually weeded out of the top military leadership: U Sein Lwin, who served as president during the stormy events of August 1988; stalwart Col. Aye Ko of the only legally permitted political party from 1962 to 1988, the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP); Gen. Kyaw Htin, who served as chief of staff of the army from 1976 to 1985, and defense minister from 1976 to 1988; and U Tun Tin, deputy prime minister and finance minister from 1981 to 1988.

When socialism was discarded after the one-party system was abolished in 1988, the BSPP was renamed the National Unity Party (NUP), with U Tha Gyaw, also a former 4th Burma rifleman, as its first chairman. Even Gen. Ne Win’s personal cook, an ethnic Indian called Raju, had served in the same capacity in the 4th Burma Rifles.

It is fair to say, then, that the economically and politically powerful military machine that emerged in the 1950s and, especially, after 1962, was in terms of organization as well as personalities entirely different from the army that Bogyoke Aung San had founded during World War Two.

Dr. Maung Maung, Myanmar’s official historian during the pre-1988 regime, estimated that there were maybe 2,000 soldiers at Gen. Ne Win’s disposal when he took over as commander-in-chief in 1949, but they were all scattered in decimated, weak battalions and companies. The army that was rebuilt after independence was not Bogyoke Aung San’s army, but Gen. Ne Win’s army, with the 4th Burifs at its core.

In October 1958, officers from across the country met in Meiktila, and, for the first time, the army formulated its own policy. A document entitled “The National Ideology of the Defense Services” strongly resembles the old dwifungsi concept of the Indonesian army, i.e., that the military have to play a role in a country’s social and political development, as well as its defense. The Myanmar and Indonesian armies are the only armies in non-communist Asia that have developed their own ideologies.

Today, almost all those who served with the 4th Burifs have passed away, but the legacy remains. Gen. Ne Win created an army that was predominantly Myanmar rather than multi-ethnic—and a financially strong and ideologically motivated military machine over which civilian, or even pseudo-civilian, governments have virtually no control.

Even the 2008 Constitution stipulates that “all the armed forces in the Union shall be under the command of the Defense Services”—making them, in effect, autonomous and not answerable to any non-military authority—and that the Tatmadaw shall also “lead in safeguarding the Union against all internal and external dangers.”

Chapter One of the 2008 Constitution enables “the Defense Services to be able to participate in the National political leadership of the State”—a principle far from that envisaged by Bogyoke Aung San when he led the struggle for independence. In a speech in Yangon on May 23, 1947, he said “the defense of a free Burma is a national responsibility entrusted to the State. The State alone will shoulder this responsibility.” The highest organs of the state, of course, would be the elected Parliament and the government. The 1947 Constitution stated very clearly that “the right to raise and maintain military, naval and air forces is vested exclusively in the Parliament.”

It remains to be seen whether Myanmar can shake off the legacy of the 4th Burifs and the authoritarian system that was introduced by its erstwhile commander, Gen. Ne Win. But let us be very clear: Bogyoke Aung San’s army disintegrated after the Second World War. And the new Tatmadaw that emerged after independence, and, especially, after the 1962 coup, is an entirely different entity.


8 Responses to Whose Army?

  1. you deliberately forgot the Chin Riffles who stayed loyal to the new young independent country. Those Chin Riffles saved Capital Rangoon from the Karen insurgents which you could say to some extent, they save the new country.

    You deliberately left the chin riffles in your text.

  2. The modern Burma Army was formed under the Gandhi Agreement between the British Government and General Aung San working towards Myanmar Independence. The Army was formed with 200 officers and 5000 men, drawn from various Myanmar and ethnic forces active during WW II.
    That is Why every Myanmar accepts that Aung San is the father of modern Myanmar army.
    Even General Ne Win at one time during the socialist era declared publicly that he is only the step father and the true father is Aung San, when some of his underlings tried to feature him as the father of the Army.
    What nonsense you are writing about?

  3. Prince Shwe Joe Phyu was granted political asylum by Chief Con Bik of Tlaisun as he sought asylum because the British military was seeking his life. The Chin Rifles saved the young and newly independent Union of Burma which was having terrible civil w ar. We the Chin people contributed important things to save the Burmese and the Union of Myanmar, but in return, we are getting just insults from the Burmese. We need nothing from Regime but self determination and federal state. No college/university in Chin State. It is okay. We will establish a better one than the government college/university. No matter the army is of Aung San? of Ne Win? of Than Shwe, or of Min Aung Hlaing? I do not care. We need none. We just need freedom and democracy. We are not asking their daughters. We are not asking their silver and gold. We just want back our God’s given freedom and rights back which were robbed from us.

    • It’s a pity that it took so long for the Chins among all the ethical to come to senses. They were loyal to the core and finally they were given what they deserved from the Bamah army. They were given both equal opportunity and gender equality by the Bamah army raping both men and women. Before that they were the henchmen of the Bamah army with hesitation to gun down any protesters young and old. Their blind obedience and uncritical loyalty made them the perfect executioners and protectors of the successive illegitimate military governments. Congratulations!

  4. When one gets in bed with the Burmese generals, one must expect the diseases they spread.

  5. Very detailed analysis with remarkable accuracy. The article , in my opinion is lost in the detail.People come and go-yes.While under the occupation of the greatest empire the world has ever known with well over 359 million tax payers [ vs 260 million US at it’s height], and the land area where the sun never set, who would dare to organise and come up with this small group[30] to struggle out of the empire? [ good or bad].We cannot , you cannot deny the fact that General Aung San was the founding father. On the diabolically opposing view, it is NOW, nobody’s army but Sr General Min Aung Hlaing’s army PERIOD.

    TIME changes PEOPLE.
    PEOPLE changes PLACES.
    PLACES changes FACES, so said the late Captain Khin Hla,marine officer, Hong Kong, from the then British colony.

  6. Aung San’s army? Yes and good. He was leading the army to fight for freedom. Min Aung Hlaing’s army? Yes and bad. He is using the army to protect a few bad families, and he uses the army to intimidate the people. So, I do not care when Suu Kyi said, “My father’s army …”. We know the difference between Aung San and Min Aung Hlaing.

  7. We’ll see about whose army in the near future. As for Daw Suu claiming the military to be her father’s army is as good as her brother Aunt San OK claiming inheritance of their parent’s house. Everyone who has a sense of observing historical facts would find that like the Mafia U Ne Win’s military centered on those who served in “Kalahari” and those who served in the Eastern Command in the Shan State. Hard to put the finger on the exact reason why but a carefully calculated guess may be “their implications in the drugs trade”. Ne Win was the Don and the rest his “made men”.

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