Guest Column

Fear is the Glue That Holds Myanmar’s Military Together

By Bertil Lintner 9 March 2021

Demonstrations against the Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar have continued for more than a month. Brutal and even lethal force against the pro-democracy demonstrators may have reduced the number of people who are risking their lives by taking to the street, but there is nothing to indicate that protests against the re-introduction of a naked military dictatorship will cease any time soon. But what has stunned the world most is the violence that Myanmar’s army and police have unleashed on the population at large.

More than fifty people have died, scores have gunshot wounds and more than a thousand protesters — along with some people the military simply thought would be sympathetic to the protesters — have been arrested. Even prominent business tycoons and bankers suspected of having provided monetary support to the National League for Democracy (NLD), which led the ousted government, were detained briefly and interrogated by Myanmar’s secret police, sa ya pa, the Bamar abbreviation for “the Office of the Chief of Military Security Affairs.”

More than a third of those killed were teenagers who had been shot by a single bullet to the head, indicating that snipers have been active among the security forces. Video clips show soldiers stopping an ambulance clearly marked as such with a red cross, then dragging the medics out of it and beating them senseless. According to several reports from the country’s largest city Yangon, uniformed men have ordered medics not to treat wounded demonstrators. In Yangon as well, a man was seen being shot by the police — after he had been apprehended. In the central city of Mandalay, video footage shows a soldier firing his rifle into a hospital.

A teenage boy in Kale was shot and killed because he had flashed the three-finger sign to a group of soldiers. In North Okkalapa, a Yangon suburb, automatic rifle fire, as opposed to single shots, could be heard when the military tried to suppress a protest there on March 3. And, as The Irrawaddy reported on March 2, a pregnant woman was beaten and her home looted when policemen and soldiers went on a rampage in the southeastern town of Myeik. They destroyed furniture and stole an ATM card and 400,000 kyats in cash. In other places policemen and soldiers have smashed people’s motorcycles and cars.

The list of atrocities committed against the protesters and others could be made much longer, but the question many are asking now is how the military leadership can get its soldiers and policemen to commit such violent acts apparently without hesitation?

Why would only small groups of policemen have had the courage to refuse to obey their superiors when no soldier would do the same?

The myth perpetuated by the country’s ruling junta — and some Western academics and half-baked analysts — is that the country would fall apart if the military were not in power. The armed forces are the “glue,” as one Western academic put it, that keeps the ethnically diverse country together.

The coup and its aftermath should have put an end to whatever remained of such fairy tales among the general public. A much stronger factor than the supposed “patriotism” of the military is the fact that since it first seized power in 1962 it has evolved into a privileged state-within-a state, where perks, privileges and power over the country’s economy are phenomena that they don’t want to give up and are prepared to do anything — no matter how brutal — to crush those opposed to their rule.

There is also another reason the military refuses to give up any of its powers, or even reduce those to acceptable levels as the NLD-led government tried to do during 2016-2021. And that is fear.

That, more than anything else, is the “glue” that keeps the armed forces united. A relatively weak officer like the Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, probably knows that he is either in power, in prison, in exile, or worse. The same goes for several other high-ranking officers, especially in view of what’s happened since Feb. 1.

Riot police and soldiers arrested two men after launching a raid into Thida Street in Yangon’s Tamwe Township to crack down on anti-regime protesters on Mar 6. / The Irrawaddy

And what the urban population is experiencing now — murder, theft and the destruction of property — is what people living in the ethnic minority areas have been subjected to for decades, along with the burning of villages and rape of young women.

It would be hard to find any army officer who has not taken part in such brutality, and they and many of their soldiers fear that they will have to face justice for crimes against humanity if the military relinquishes power.

While an all-out mutiny within the Myanmar army or a counter coup by disgruntled military officers are highly unlikely scenarios, there is another kind of fear that keeps to top leadership united: that a lone maverick, perhaps together with some comrades, might take a drastic, even desperate, step that would change the course of history.

In late 1963 Anglo-Bamar captain and aide-de-camp called Kyaw Swa Myint, known as Johnny Liars in English, saw how the economy of his country was deteriorating after the 1962 coup and the introduction of what was called “the Burmese Way to Socialism.” He tried to assassinate then military dictator, General Ne Win.

The attempt failed, but Kyaw Swa Myint managed to escape to Thailand then made his way to Australia where he refused to mix with other exiles, fearing that Ne Win had sent agents after him. His wife, mother and sisters were jailed and tortured. Following that incident all Anglo-Bamar were either dismissed or pushed sideways. Among the few who were allowed to stay although he actually was a friend of Kyaw Swa Myint’s was the Sandhurst-trained officer David Abel, who became a minister in several governments that were formed after the bloody crushing of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

In 1976, Ohn Kyaw Myint, a young army captain who had graduated with best cadet award in Batch 29, saw the misery the nation had fallen into after 14 years of misrule. Together with some of his comrades he attempted to assassinate Ne Win, hoping for the fall of his government. That failed as well. Ohn Kyaw Myint was sentenced to death and later executed. The others were purged and many classmates from OTS 29, who had had nothing to do with the plot, were sidelined. One of the witnesses at the trial of Ohn Kyaw Myint was a junior army officer called Than Shwe, who became Myanmar’s military ruler in 1992 and remained in power until he eventually retired after the 2010 election.

It was in the wake of those two attempts on his life that Ne Win strengthened his military intelligence service and made it into his own Praetorian Guard. It became known throughout the country as em-eye. Although that institution has been reshaped and purged many times, its main objective is still what the old nickname suggests: to spy on the military in order to detect any sign of dissent within the officer corps. That remains the case in its most recent incarnation as sa ya pa today. Any challenge to the supreme authority has been out of the question and remains so today.

Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that change in Myanmar can come about without involvement by some men within the military, which has remained the country’s most powerful institution since 1962. Exactly how that would happen is something not even Myanmar’s famous fortunetellers and astrologers would dare to predict.

What can be said with certainty, though, is that Myanmar will not be the same after Min Aung Hlaing made his disastrous decision to launch a coup on Feb. 1. He and his henchmen provoked an entire nation to rise up against his dictatorship in mass demonstrations never seen before, not even in 1988. Thanks to computer savvy youngsters, there is not an incident that goes unreported and transmitted to the outside world over the internet.

“You messed with the wrong generation” is a comment that has often been heard during the protests. And it is those talented young people who represent the future of Myanmar. Not some generals living in the past who think they can get away with anything.

Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant who has been writing about Asia for nearly four decades. He currently works as a correspondent for Asia Times. His views are his own.

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