Guest Column

Myanmar’s Ruling Generals Trapped in Warrior King Mentality

By Bertil Lintner 13 March 2023

There are two questions, some would argue enigmas, at the center of Myanmar’s ethnic and social crises: Why has the military, for decades the country’s most powerful institution, failed to build a functioning nation state? And why have the soldiers remained so immensely loyal to their officers that they are willing to carry out the most horrendous atrocities against the civilian population, who obviously despise the dictatorship they are being forced to live under? Myanmar’s civil wars are the world’s longest-lasting, and there has never been any serious factional infighting among the officers, nor have the rank-and-file risen in mutiny against their tyrannical leadership. The answer can be seen at the parade ground in the capital Naypyitaw: three larger-than-life statues of the most prominent warrior kings in Burmese history, Anawratha, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya. On March 27, 2006—when Armed Forces Day was commemorated in the new capital for the first time, and the city’s name, Naypyitaw, was announced to the public—then junta leader Senior General Than Shwe declared: “Our Tatmadaw [armed forces] should be a worthy heir to the traditions of the capable tatmadaws established by noble kings Anawratha, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya.”

Dictator Than Shwe

Genuine democratic reforms have never been on the minds of the generals. They see themselves as successors to the pre-colonial warrior kings, a fact reflected in the name of the capital, which means “abode of kings” in old-fashioned usage. Than Shwe oversaw the construction of Naypyitaw, which is populated almost exclusively by military men and their families, associated government officials, and those serving them. But, as any serious study of Burmese history would reveal, while those warrior kings, whom today’s military leaders see as role models, may have been excellent warriors and conquerors, they were very bad state builders. The empires they established were poorly organized and never lasted more than a couple of reigns under weaker successors. The kings lost their conquests because they established few administrative institutions—other than those responsible for tax collection—and depended solely on military might to control the people they had subjugated.

Anawratha became king of Pagan, then a small state on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, and founded the First Burmese Empire in 1057 when he conquered the Mon city-state of Thaton. As booty, he brought back 30,000 Mon prisoners of war, who were used by Anawratha and his successors to build temples and pagodas. The Burmans also adopted the Mon writing system, and the presence of the new Mon population brought the kingdom more firmly under the influence of Theravada Buddhism. It is generally assumed by historians that Pagan was ransacked by the Mongols in 1287, which led to the collapse of the First Burmese Empire. There is no doubt that wars were fought between the forces of the First Burmese Empire and the Mongols, but Pagan’s temples don’t show any serious damage that would be consistent with a destruction of the place. The damage to some of the temples could just as well have been caused by earthquakes—or general neglect and decay of whatever institutions existed at that time. By the 13th century, Pagan was an empire in decline, mainly caused by massive spending on the construction of temples and pagodas and very little actual nation-building.

A Second Burmese Empire was founded under the Toungoo Dynasty in 1531 and Bayinnaung, who reigned from 1551 to1581, was its most celebrated warrior king. He reigned from his palaces on the central plains of Pegu between 1551 and 1581 and conquered territories north of Pagan, parts of the Shan plateau in the east, and pushed as far east as Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and Vientiane in Laos. According to Czech Burma scholar Jan Becka: “He failed, however, to create an effective administration and the stability of his empire rested solely on military strength and allegiance to his person. The incessant military campaigns exhausted the country’s human and material resources. On Bayinnaung’s death, the people who were subjugated to his rule reasserted their independence.” The Second Burmese Empire, with a new capital established at Ava (Inwa) in 1634, saw its ups and downs and began to fall apart due to increasing rivalries among the ruling elite.

An unnamed Englishman wrote around 1750 about an uprising in the province of Pegu against the Court of Ava: “People are chusing to live among the Wild Beasts, than be at the Mercy of the cruel and tyrannical Government, which at present has a King, without any experience, and intirely ruled by Ministers, without any other knowledge but a bare private Interest, which makes the Country in general wish for change, because every petty Governor of Towns or Cities,  if he can but satisfy the Minister at Court, can at his pleasure oppress the people under him, without any fear of punishment, which has caused the Revolt of the richest and largest Province of this Kingdom [Pegu], who for this last 10 years has baffled all attempts that have been made by all the King’s forces to bring them again under Subjection; having at present no hopes to accomplish it, being quite disheartened by their continual losses, which are wholely owing to the bad Government all over the Kingdom.” Although this was written in the 18th century and Ava was sacked in 1752 by ethnic Mon rebels, the account strikingly resembles today’s Myanmar. Little has changed since the days of the old warrior kings. The only differences are that the current revolt is not confined to “the richest and largest province” but nationwide, and now there are “hopes to accomplish” the overthrow of the present despotic order.

The last version of the Second Burmese Empire finally collapsed after the fall of Ava, and a Third Burmese Empire ruled by the Konbaung Dynasty was established by Alaungpaya in 1755. He launched wars against the Mons and recaptured and completely destroyed Pegu in 1757. Dr. Than Tun, one of Burma’s foremost historians, writes in his study A Modern History of Myanmar 1752-1948: “Most of the buildings [in Pegu] were set on fire. Many fled to Chiang Mai and Thailand. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives during the fightings.” Alaungpaya’s son Hsinbyushin then sacked the Thai capital of Ayutthaya in 1767, a deed for which the Thais have never forgiven the Burmese. At the same time, he fought the Chinese and his decision to fight two simultaneous wars—against the Chinese and the Siamese—forced him to withdraw from Siam.  The Konbaung kings were eventually defeated by the British in the the Anglo-Burmese wars of 1824-1826, 1852-1853 and 1885. Developments before the first of those wars have been described by Dr. Than Tun: “He [the then king Bagyidaw, also known as the Sagaing Min] inherited a large empire and it was left to him to consolidate it and give the people good administration. But he hopelessly failed in this.” Bagyidaw, Dr. Than Tun writes, lived on the glory of past empires and “was not able to understand the strength of the English power.”

It was not until Mindon became king in 1853 that Burma saw some meaningful reforms. A new revenue system was implemented, industry and commerce were encouraged, and reforms were introduced to make the armed forces more disciplined and professional. Under his reign, a newspaper called Yadana-bon Nay-pyi-daw was published in the new capital of Mandalay. Mindon, an enlightened monarch, even enacted Southeast Asia’s first indigenous press freedom law. But it was too late. Mindon died in 1878 and in 1885 his successor Thibaw was led away by the British in front of a mourning and wailing crowd, who had gathered to say farewell to the last monarch of an independent Burmese state. Thibaw was sent with his once-powerful wife Supayalat and their children into exile in Ratanagiri in India, where he died in 1916.

Most empires and kingdoms in ancient Burma were actually chaotically run by rulers who thrived on suppression, and had their resources depleted by costly military campaigns or, as Dr. Than Tun puts it: “The theory of Myanma [Burmese] Kingship was quite different from the Divine Right Theory of Kingship in Europe. In Myanma the claim to rule was through conquest.” There might have been a strong center at the court of the kings, but the further away one got from that center, the weaker the administration became. The chaotic nature of the Burmese empires and kingdoms has been thoroughly described and analysed in Victor Lieberman’s Burmese Administrative Circles: Anarchy and Conquest, c. 1580-1760.

The myth of a strong Burmese state has most prominently been disseminated by Robert Taylor, a British-American academic whose main work is appropriately called The State in Burma, the first edition of which was published in 1987. Taylor’s main aim in the book appeared to be to prove a thesis fostered by him and some other Western academics: Traditionally, Burma has been an authoritarian state with a strong center, gradually expanding its authority over the minority-inhabited, peripheral areas in an inevitable process of integration and assimilation of the non-Burman nationalities. Consequently, the 19th- and 20th-century liberalism of the British colonial era, and its extension after independence in 1948, was little more than a brief, alien interlude in the country’s history. Following the military coup d’état in 1962, the country “reasserted” the continuity the colonialists and the liberals had upset—hence the title of the book’s last chapter: “Reasserting the State 1962-1987.” The then dictator General Ne Win, Taylor wrote, emanated some kind of “benevolence”. The book had hardly been published before the country erupted in one of the most massive anti-government manifestations in modern Asian history. In August and September 1988—as in 2021—tens of millions of people took to the streets to demonstrate against a repressive regime that had kept them in a choking grip for more than two decades. Taylor’s notion of Ne Win being “benevolent” was brutally crushed when his army fired indiscriminately on largely unarmed protesters, killing thousands of men, women and children. A slightly sanitized version of Taylor’s book, now called The State in Myanmar, was published in 2009.

Nevertheless, and despite lots of subsequent events that would contradict what Taylor wrote, his theories have led to a belief among certain likeminded Western scholars that only the military is capable of preserving that “strong state.” That fiction was expressed by Marie Lall, a London-based academic, in a virtual conversation with the UN University in Tokyo on Feb. 19, 2021: “We have to understand that the Tatmadaw is the glue of the nation” and “is very much perceived by a lot of people as the stalwarts to keep Burma together.” Lall made this astonishing comment less than three weeks after the coup—when tens of millions of people in virtually every city, town and major village across the country were demonstrating against the military takeover. So who precisely would “a lot of people” be? Certainly not the vast majority of the people of Myanmar. Lall is also the author of a book titled Understanding Reform in Myanmar: People and Society in the Wake of Military Rule. In the wake of? The military remained the country’s most powerful institution even during the decade of relative openness, 2011 to 2021. A longtime observer of the political scene in Myanmar commented after listening to Lall’s online claptrap and having read her book: “Her overly optimistic assessments in the early phases of ‘reform’ were not vindicated by subsequent events, and her failure to understand deep systemic military interests and abusive behavior limited her outlook.”

Dictator Ne Win / AFP

And it is often forgotten that the army Ne Win created is a far cry from Aung San’s army of the 1940s. Of the legendary Thirty Comrades who went to Japan for military training before the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942, two—Bo La Yaung and Bo Taya—commanded the People’s Volunteer Organization rebellion after independence. Three—Bo Zeya, Bo Ye Htut and Bo Yan Aung—joined the Communist Party of Burma (CPB)-led insurrection when it broke out at about the same time. Of the Thirty Comrades, only Kyaw Zaw, Ne Win and 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 1950s. And in 1976, Kyaw Zaw, once the most popular commander in the army who had been pushed out by Ne Win in 1957, went underground and joined the CPB. On Sept. 6, 1988, nine of the 11 surviving Thirty Comrades denounced Ne Win and called on the army to join the pro-democracy uprising of that year. Only Kyaw Zaw, who then was still with the CPB, was unable to join the appeal, but, later, he 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 Ne Win’s old regiment, the 4th Burma Rifles, and nearly all officers who became prominent after the coup came from this particular unit. When the first junta, the so-called Revolutionary Council, was set up in 1962, it was popularly referred to as “the Fourth Burifs Government.” What Ne Win established when he had gained control of the armed forces was not a modern, professional force but one that works and functions in a way that could best be described as feudal and deeply rooted in the authoritarian values of the old warrior kings. The king—and now the military dictator—is God and as such he demands and rewards loyalty. He disowns and punishes those who dare to be different, hence the blind loyalty of his soldiers.

The other side of Myanmar’s heritage is represented by a solid intellectual and creative tradition. The yearly cycle in any Burmese village traditionally includes a number of pwes, which is usually translated into English as “fairs”, but they are actually much more than that. Every pwe worth mentioning includes a theatrical performance and there are few people in the world who are so fond of culture and drama as the Burmese. Sir J.G. Scott, a Scotsman who wrote about Burma under the pseudonym Shway Yoe in 19th century, aptly said that “probably there is no man, otherwise than a cripple, in the country who has not at some period of his life been himself an actor, either in the drama or in a marionette show; if not in either of these, certainly in a chorus dance.”

Myanmar regime chief Min Aung Hlaing / AFP

Burma has always had a high literacy rate and education has been a source of national pride since pre-colonial days. At a young age, every Burmese boy was sent to a local monastery to learn to read, write and memorize Buddhist chants and Pali formulas used in pagoda worship. For girls, education was less universal but even so, the census for British Burma in 1872 stated that “female education was a fact in Burma before Oxford was founded.” The long and strong tradition of widespread literacy was further enhanced with the introduction of British-style education during the colonial era. Needless to say, the colonial authorities were mainly interested in procuring a stratum of English-speaking civil servants for the administration and skilled clerks for foreign companies, but the inevitable result was also an abundance of bookshops and newspapers. The movie industry flourished and cinemas sprung up all over the country. The highly creative Burmese psyche also became increasingly politicized, which led to an active independence movement. After freedom from colonial rule had been achieved in 1948, Burma had 21 newspapers in Burmese, seven in English, five in Chinese, two in Hindi, and one each in Gujarati, Urdu, Tamil and Telugu. Ne Win’s 1962 coup put an end to those freedoms and did not “reassert” anything but a return to an old despotic order that most Burmese thought belonged to ancient history. The period of relative openness during the decade after 2011 saw a return of a vibrant press, active political parties and an abundance of non-governmental organizations.

That brief period of relative freedom also came to end and when Min Aung Hlaing staged his politically, economically and socially disastrous coup in February two years ago, and the feudal, warrior-king mentality of crush-and-subdue remains the guiding principle of the generals. And now, according to a leaked letter dated Feb. 17 and made public by the Democratic Voice of Burma, the regime states it would take action against private schools in Burma teaching what it says is “western democratic culture.” More precisely, what Min Aung Hlaing and his cohorts—with promises of elections this year or next—call “Myanmar-style democracy” is just another name for a dictatorship that can only push Myanmar further into the abyss. The military is no “glue of the nation”, and what Burma’s various nationalities need are strong civil society organizations built on their own, creative traditions. Not a return to the middle ages and the worship of some old belligerent rulers who oppressed their own people and waged senseless wars against the neighbors of their respective kingdoms.