Guest Column

Fear Rising Among Myanmar Military Elite 

By Zaw Tuseng 3 May 2022

No one has seen such fear among the Myanmar military since it launched its first coup in 1962 under the late General Ne Win. Although it is the normal psychology of any dictator and their followers who have taken power by force to have irrational fears and anxiety, the current, growing fear among the Myanmar military elite and their families is both very real and rational. The army and its followers have very good reasons to fear losing control of the country as the anti-coup resistance movement gains ground.

Crucially, the military’s takeover on February 1, 2021 has created a political convergence point among the people that no one has seen since the 1947 Panglong Agreement. The military’s violent response to the peaceful anti-coup protests nationwide has resulted in it waging war against its own people, creating terror and chaos.

Previously, Buddhist Burmar people in inland Myanmar had only heard of the junta’s atrocities against the ethnic minorities in the borderlands. But now the military’s slaughter of Bamar civilians has led to the people not wanting to return to the pre-coup years where the military retained an effective constitutional veto thanks to its holding a quarter of all seats in parliament. A political convergence point has been reached that has brought stakeholders together in the National Unity Government (NUG) and the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) to form a national political alliance. Even though the alliance is still in its early stages, the military regime can be surrounded politically in the near future. At the same time, the military is struggling to cope with increasing armed resistance across the country.

Junta threatened by armed resistance groups 

In the early 1990s, there was a prophecy that if the armed forces of the pro-democracy movement could open a military front in the northwest of Burma along the Chindwin River, in Sagaing Region which borders Chin State to the west and Kachin State in the northeast, that would be the beginning of the end of military dictatorship. 

I believed in the prophecy. Soon after the then junta refused to honor the results of the 1990 election, and fearing arrest because of my participation in the pro-democracy movement, I fled to the Myanmar-India border to join a student-led camp training people for armed resistance. Now, over 30 years later, the prophecy of the early 1990s may be coming true.  

Karenni Nationalities Defence Force and Karenni Army fighters at a checkpoint near Demoso in southeast Myanmar’s Kayah State in 2021. / AFP

In March, the Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar reported almost 300 clashes between the NUG’s People’s Defense Forces (PDF) and the Myanmar military in Sagaing Region from July 2021 through March 2022. Over 20,000 Bamar people were displaced by the fighting and junta raids and arson attacks. 

Five years after I joined the students’ army, I was assigned to a communication office to assist [with encrypted email messages] a few commanders who were in charge of transferring an All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) battalion from an area under the control of the Kachin Independence Army to the Myanmar-India border in Sagaing Region. If successful, the transfer could have enabled us to smuggle much-needed weaponry into the region of the prophecy. Now, local PDFs have made the dream come true. 

From Putao in the far north to Kawthoung in the far south, the regime is facing an unprecedented level of armed opposition. At the same time, there are increasing clashes with ethnic armed organizations in Kayah, Karen, Kachin and Chin states. Armed resistance against the illegitimate Myanmar military is growing across the country.    

Rising number of regime casualties and relocation of junta families to Naypyitaw

On April 22, Myanmar Now reported that families of people working for the State Administration Council (SAC) are relocating to the junta stronghold of Naypyitaw as attacks by urban resistance forces increase in Yangon. The report stated how fear was growing among the Yangon-based family members of junta personnel that the SAC may not be able to protect them from the increasing presence of guerilla groups in the city. 

Over 500 family members of army personnel have applied for long-stay visas in Thailand, according to a source close to a Myanmar military family in Yangon. Meanwhile, elite pro-military supporters such as Aye Ne Win, the grandson of former dictator Ne Win, seem to spend more time in Dubai than Myanmar. 

The recent shooting of the Deputy Governor of the junta-controlled Central Bank of Myanmar, Than Than Swe, is the most high-profile example of the over 1,000 junta personnel who have been targeted by Yangon resistance groups. Former navy lieutenant commander Thein Aung, the Chief Financial Officer of the military-owned Mytel Telecommunications Co, was gunned down in Yangon in late 2021, while more than 80 Mytel towers across the country have been bombed by PDFs. 

The rising number of casualties among the military elite has created cracks in the military, while the SAC’s ongoing purge of tycoons such as Khin Shwe, a prominent member of the military-business establishment, highlights the tensions within the regime.

Resistance movement funding and technology

At the end of 1990, I had to sell my bike to finance my one-month long trip to join the opposition forces on the border. In contrast, current anti-coup activists are funded by the Myanmar diaspora to fly to Thailand in a day to work for the NUG. 

It took the ABSDF about four to five years to raise US$500,000 in the 1990s. But the NUG’s Ministry of Defense in its March 2022 report revealed that the NUG had spent US$30 million to support PDFs. While that is a small amount in comparison to the SAC’s military budget of around US$3 billion for 2022-23, the resistance movement has the technology and the sustained support of a public that believes that dictatorship can be ended in Myanmar. Those are important elements in the war against the junta.

Organized by Helping Hands for Burma, the Myanmar diaspora in New Jersey, United States, raised nearly $150,000 on April 24 this year alone from the sale of NUG bonds and a fund-raising fair.

As well as funds being raised in a short period of time, the resistance is being innovative in producing its own weapons. A homemade rifle made by some PDFs costs less than $100. Resistance fighters have been posting photos of them with guns made with 3D printers. Other PDFs use cutting-edge technology such as drones and remotely-controlled bombs.

Conclusion

The Spring Revolution led by Burmese youths born after 1988 is quite different from the anti-dictatorship movements led by former premier U Nu in 1970s and the student-led uprising of 1988 and the subsequent armed resistance movement of the 1990s. Previous resistance movements lacked the conducive environment we are currently seeing in Myanmar. If the political progress encapsulated by the NUG and NUCC can create an even more favorable environment, a commitment for a new federal structure for Myanmar can emerge. Although many challenges remain before the opposition forces can put an end to military dictatorship, the junta is definitely weakened. The Myanmar military elite and their families have very good reasons to be scared.

Zaw Tuseng, a former pro-democracy activist, is founder and president of the Myanmar Policy Initiative (MPI). The MPI was formed recently to mobilize Myanmar researchers to formulate policies and institutionalize the policymaking process for Myanmar. He holds an executive Master of Public Administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

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