Yes, the Myanmar Military Really Could Implode

By The Irrawaddy 27 March 2023

Today, it’s a fair question to ask: How long can the Myanmar military last? Or even: Could the military implode? The answer to the latter question is yes.

The military no longer enjoys any public support at all after committing crimes throughout the country, from ousting a popular elected government to arresting and killing thousands of civilians.

Since they turned their guns on the people, the armed forces, once referred to respectfully as the Tatmadaw, or “Royal Armed Forces”, are now loathed by the people and referred to in the independent media (who once again find themselves in exile) by the more prosaic label Sit Tat, which simply means “military”.

Why are they no longer seen as the Tatmadaw? The simple answer is they don’t deserve to be.

The institution is no longer the Tatmadaw that arguably still garnered respect, particularly among the Burman population, into the 1980s. Rather, it is a group of armed men—thugs, basically—lording over the country and burning it to the ground as they do so.

Today, the army runs around the country torching villages and houses, killing civilians and raping women, while jet fighters and helicopters bought from Russia and China attack the civilian population, bombing townships and villages.

The military is at war with its own people.

Some neighboring countries and allies of the regime, eager to advance their narrow interests, continue to peddle the narrative that the Myanmar military is a “unifying force” in the country, that it will inevitably win, since it has the resources and the military might.

It is not true.

The enemy within

In reality, the Myanmar military today, far from being a unifying force, is only a source of division, destruction and conflict. It has neither the respect nor the support of the majority of the people inside the country. How can it last?

There is a very real possibility that the Myanmar military will collapse, and there is plenty of evidence for this.

The military’s real enemy lies within.

Independent media and the political opposition focus on the armed forces’ atrocities and deeply entrenched culture of brutality. But less attention is paid to the institution’s deep-seated corruption. Fear, violence, a culture of hierarchy and impunity, long-lasting patron-client relationships and corruption run deep in this once-respected institution.

Myanmar regime leader Min Aung Hlaing during the Armed Forces Day parade in March, 2022.

Long-suppressed voices and grievances inside the military are now rearing their heads, as seen in a number of published interviews in social media and established media, including this publication.

Since the coup, army officers and insiders have spoken frankly about facing public revulsion and the fact that they are no longer proud to be in the military and wear the uniform. They know they can no longer enjoy and live a normal life in public.

They feel insecure and know that the military cannot protect them and keep them safe. A common refrain among defectors is, “This institution is a disgrace.”

Many who have left the military say that more defectors will follow if the opposition offers better incentives and security. There are various reasons that soldiers want to leave the military.

Army officers see their superiors and top generals enjoying lavish lifestyles while rank-and-file soldiers—many of whom have lost limbs or their lives—and their families receive little in return. They have only gotten poorer.

This feeling of disgruntlement is not new. Since the early 2000s, the Myanmar military has seen a decline in morale and discipline, as many top generals and their families have gotten involved in lucrative businesses tied to military-owned state assets. These generals and a new generation of crony businessmen have grown rich together.

The generals’ sons and daughters have become millionaires while the families of ordinary soldiers struggle to get through their daily lives. They feel exploited; the idea that they are serving and protecting their country seems more and more like a delusion. Many now realize that they too are victims of a corrupt and dictatorial regime.

The gap between officers and the military’s rank and file is wide. Newly trained officers and soldiers lack discipline and do not adhere to any code of conduct. They can’t make intelligent decisions on the battlefield and—while inflicting great harm on the population—do not really know how to use the lethal force at their disposal effectively, in a military sense. Defecting military officers say they are not trained to think or make decisions.

The chain of command is still in place for now, but senior officers on the front lines are having increasing difficulty controlling their units.

Not a ‘normal’ military

Many officers who have received extended training overseas have witnessed first-hand how modern civil-military relations work. They understand that the Myanmar military is different from its counterparts in countries like India, China, Malaysia or Japan, whose militaries steer clear of politics. Deserting officers question why “our military” is involved in politics.

From the time they begin their cadet training at the Defense Services Academy (DSA), young cadet officers, especially those assigned to infantry divisions, are relentlessly brainwashed and immersed in propaganda and a distorted view of Myanmar history. They are told that “one day you will be governing the country; it is your duty.” This “guardianship ideology” is a core teaching at the DSA. Once they become officers they believe they are destined to govern the country. This explains Min Aung Hlaing, a typical DSA product. Such officers are poorly educated and detached from reality.

However, more independent-minded officers now ask, “Is it really our job to govern the country?”

DSA cadets endure brutal, repressive physical training inflicted on them by their superiors in a process that instills the military’s longstanding and rigid hierarchy. Many officers who have left the military recall these brutal training sessions as little more than inhumane bullying. They say they have no regrets about leaving.

According to defectors, talented officers are often removed or shifted to inactive posts before they reach higher ranks such as brigadier general. The top generals demand loyalty and only want to see yes-men promoted.

After the period of political opening began in 2012, Myanmar officers and soldiers exposed to outside and independent media, and with access to the internet, began to see that while the country’s political system was changing, the same was not true of the military leadership. They knew something was wrong in the country.

The military never believed in civilian control, and merely transferred power to retired military officers appointed to run “civilian” government ministries and departments. But these officers are incompetent and corrupt. How could they be expected to run the country?

In the past decade, military officers were also able to take part in two free and fair elections, in 2015 and 2020. Many military families, for the first time not voting under direct intimidation from superior officers, voted for their favorite parties—and not necessarily the military-sponsored Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Recruitment drying up

Today, recruitment is a real challenge. When Myanmar opened up in 2012, young people left the country looking for more opportunities and jobs overseas. For those who stayed at home, joining the military was the least attractive option.

Since the coup, it has become even more difficult to find new recruits.

Now the regime targets families facing economic hardship, and members of military-affiliated families, including young women, are under increasing pressure to join. Convicts and criminals, once shunned, are being signed up.

Myanmar soldiers stand guard on a road amid demonstrations against the military coup in Naypyidaw on February 17, 2021. / AFP

The military reportedly aims to take in 30,000 new recruits annually, but for the last two years the numbers have been shockingly low—in the hundreds. To counter the growing military threat from ethnic armed organizations and People’s Defense Force groups (PDFs), the military has begun training and arming civilians, including militia groups.

The PDFs, on the other hand, can tap a seemingly endless supply of recruits throughout the country. However, the PDFs lack the resources to train them all and maintain a steady supply of ammunition.

Lastly, field commanders know that the military is overstretched and has enemies everywhere. Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has admitted that the regime controls only half of the territory in Myanmar. The regime’s recent extension of emergency rule—the legal cover it has scripted for itself to govern “constitutionally”—only offered further proof that it cannot bring the country under its full control.

As the country continues to sink into instability and, sadly, achieves failed state status, the isolated and internationally condemned regime is likely to crack.

Infighting and power struggles among the top leaders are conceivable in the near future, and any reshuffle would only offer a short-term solution.

The regime is an army of thugs and darkness—it does not concern itself with federal democracy, stability or the country’s future, but only with maintaining its grip on power by whatever means it deems necessary.

It is fantasy to expect the military to bring the country back to a democratic and stable future. Only fools do.

The murderous commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and his henchmen have shown they are capable of anything when let loose upon the people. What all of this shows is that the regime has no authority—legal, moral or otherwise—to govern the country, whose citizens feel a universal revulsion toward the military and the coup leader.

One day, hopefully soon, the Myanmar people, including ethnic organizations and ethnic armed groups, will have to work hard to establish a professional Union military that respects human rights and human dignity, while protecting the country.

Whatever it is called, whether it is a “Union military” or the “federal Union armed forces”, it must protect the people of Myanmar, of all races and religions, as their servant, and work to become a respected force for stability in the region.

Myanmar needs a professional military, but Min Aung Hlaing and his thugs can’t provide it.

In the new system that is to come, the commander-in-chief must not be allowed to pick his successor. We know that Min Aung Hlaing will only pick a “yes man”—presumably one as dumb as himself—to succeed him.

It may sound like a dream, but the new military should be alternately led, in a revolving appointment system, by Karen, Kachin, Karenni, Shan, Mon, Rakhine and Chin commanders-in-chief, all of whom will be equal in status to a periodically appointed Burman military chief.