Myanmar Military’s Superior Size Means Less When the People Are United Against it

By Zaw Tuseng 20 August 2021

It has become the norm in analytical pieces on Myanmar’s conflict to note that the Myanmar military has approximately 350,000 members. It is then surmised that the ethnic armed organizations can muster around 75,000 and the National Unity Government (NUG)-instigated People’s Defense Force militias around 25,000 at best. It is then neatly concluded that these are wholly unequal forces in comparison to those of the military regime.

One-to-one comparisons of the Myanmar military versus the assorted ethnic and democratic armed resistance groups opposing it are not adequate analytically to understand the ‘military balance’ in Myanmar. It is an over-simplification of a foundational issue and leads to questionable analytical conclusions.

These conclusions by some non-Myanmar nationals who are so-called Myanmar experts run the gamut. Most notably, they include the notion that the regime cannot be defeated and that the conflict is inherently going to become a stalemate because nobody can ‘win’. The one-to-one figure also implies other realities: that Myanmar is a conflict pitting one ‘army’ against another and that an equal or greater force must be created to counter the military.

As conventionally understood, the military balance is a conceptual tool used to compare military forces and generally includes a straightforward listing of such things as the number of armed force members and the assorted weaponry available to them. I have no doubt that the Myanmar military is a significant force and that the figure of 350,000 could be roughly accurate. What is important is that the size of the military – if used as such an important analytical premise for so many wider conclusions, underpinning everything from geopolitics to political negotiations – be appropriately analyzed. This requires framing the issue adequately by asking better questions for the sake of strategic-level discussions.

Firstly, how do we analyze what the 350,000 means in terms of actual capabilities? The simplistic use of the number is a bad starting point because it implies that all those soldiers are combat forces. They are not. In fact, a large proportion are support units as would be normal for any conventional armed force anywhere in the world. Realistically, the Myanmar military has between 100,000 to 120,000 actual combat personnel available. More significantly, the simplistic usage of the 350,000 number fails to give any weight to the actual competencies of the Myanmar military. Essentially a light infantry force, it is dispersed across the country in numerous small bases. This has important ramifications for conflict analyses.

Secondly, how do we accurately assess the prospects of ongoing armed resistance? There is a need to focus on military capacities in terms of their trajectory rather than view them as static. Revolutions never start with a resistance that is well-armed, fully staffed and professionally competent. Successful ones have a steep learning curve in terms of effective leadership, developing tactics and making all due haste in acquiring weapons. This also has important ramifications for political questions around the solidarity of the democratic movement. Battlefield successes against the military will do more to catalyze national solidarity than anything else.

Thirdly, and more importantly, how do we clearly define what type of ‘conflict’ this is? The political environment is very different from what we saw in 1988, 1996 and 2007. Myanmar since the coup cannot be understood using conventional notions. This is not a conventional war, not even a civil war or an insurgency. It is a national uprising. It is rare to find a country where the population has so conclusively turned against one institution. The biggest threat to the military is not another standing army; it is a public that is united in seeing it as the problem.  Resistance against the Coup is taking many forms, of which being armed is just one of them. The question is whether a single institution, the military, is viable against such a wide confluence of social, economic, political, and military dynamics confronting it?

It is pointless to focus on the size of the Myanmar military unless it is clearly juxtaposed against the actual opposition. If we like to argue about figures, we need to focus on the fact that Myanmar has a population of over 54 million and they nearly all viscerally hate the military. It is this context that confronts the generals. They have reduced their military to essentially being a foreign occupying force desperately trying to suppress nearly all the Myanmar population. Wherever their soldiers look, they see hostility. Other than its immediate proxies, notably the police and the Union Solidarity and Development Party, there are no significant chunks of the public that are supportive of the military anymore.

There is nothing pre-determined about what will happen in Myanmar and that includes the survival of the military. The coup was a historic shift in the country and a strategic blunder by the generals of existential proportions. To understand adequately what is happening and what might be possible requires a seismic shift in analysis to match the fluid reality on the ground.

This requires asking some big questions. What does ‘winning’ even look like for the opposition? Can the people’s government, the NUG, translate public support into concerted action? Does the military have a viable strategy to counter the national uprising? It also requires asking more boring but detailed questions. Does the Myanmar military have the logistics capacity to support so many small bases spread out the country, especially when it is having to fight routinely across the Bamar-majority regions as well as across the ethnic states?

None of this is to say the military will be absolutely defeated. It is simply to say that this common analytical point, the figure of 350,000, is not helpful in understanding the current situation in Myanmar. Decisively removing the military from power is not an easy task, otherwise it would have lost control of the country decades ago. However, no country has the same dynamics forever and there is a strong argument to be made that the events since the February 1 coup are a historic shift. Supporting a positive outcome and path towards it requires asking the right questions, framing the context appropriately, and strong analysis.

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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