Military-controlled regimes in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, have gone through various incarnations since General Ne Win's initial military takeover of 1962. With a favorable ideological climate, intellectual and academic justification, political and diplomatic recognition, and strong Western material support, the stage was set for Ne Win's military, the Tatmadaw, to tread its chosen path without accountability - a course it has maintained to the present.
With ties to and assistance from the US military and West Germany's state-owned arms manufacturer Fritz Werner, for
decades the military has engaged in what might be termed "selective professionalization". The Tatmadaw upgraded its organizational and technical capacities, but when it came to professionalizing its relations with civilian institutions vital to forging a modern political state out of a myriad of multi-ethnic communities, it shunned democratic civilian leadership.
Some 60 years ago generals, brigadiers, colonels, and commanding officers felt disdainful towards "inefficient" and "talkative" democratic politicians. During the country's parliamentary democracy period immediately following independence (1948-58), a young captain would typically assume "attention" position upon entering the office of a civilian township administrative officer. If a military officer violated the general civil law of the land, he would be liable for prosecution at a court of law in the politically independent judiciary.
Today, Myanmar's military class feels that they are a cut above the rest of society, the Burmese equivalent of the "heaven-born". The military now plays judge, jury and prosecutor within the legal system which it doesn't observe itself. Constitutionally, the military is governed by its own set of laws, norms and regulations. These take precedent over any other legal frameworks and no military personnel, past and present, may be prosecuted for deeds which they have engaged in while discharging their duties.
In short, civil laws do not apply to military personnel. For its part, the Burmese public has come to despise the once honorable military, both its leadership and institutional power base. The public knows that the military as an institution has become a class in and of itself. From their formative years as cadets in the country's defense academies, two successive generations of officer corps, numbering in the thousands, have been subject to an intense and sustained indoctrination process designed to make them think, feel and act as a distinct nationalist class. It thinks and acts as if it were the natural ruler of the people.
The most important of all officers' training schools is the Defense Services Academy (DSA) at Pyin Oo Lwin (formerly May Myo, British colonial era summer station) whose alumni now occupy virtually all important positions in the military, including the most powerful Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces as well as other civilian organs of the state, such as the cabinet and the various line ministries which it runs.
Since the DSA's inception at the then newly built Bahtoo military town in Shan State in 1955, it has undergone significant changes, both quantitatively and qualitatively. It has been massively expanded in terms of the number of graduates it produces in a single batch. Its original motto for the officer-cadets was circumspect, professional and modest: "Future Victorious Warriors for the Country". Today the DSA instills in thousands of young cadets between the ages of 16 and 21 a new ethos, with a stated aim of training "The Future Ruling Elites of the Nation".
In the early years, the academic curriculum was developed and managed by civilian academics in various arts and science fields, with the aim of instilling due respect for the civilian public, modesty, love of truth, fairness, honor, and national duty in graduating soldiers. The military curriculum was developed by Burmese graduates of Britain's Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and US staff and command colleges.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were no more than 50 officer cadets graduating annually from the DSA. Upon graduation they would be assigned to three different branches of the Armed Forces (Infantry, Navy and Air Force). Towards the end of the first military dictatorship of General Ne Win in 1988, about 120 officer cadets graduated in a single in-take. The military was 125,000-strong in 1988, while the country's population was estimated to be about 26 million.
By 2011, its graduating class was somewhere between 2,000 - 3,000. In 2010, the country's military was estimated to be nearly half-a-million strong, making it Southeast Asia's largest military after Vietnam. The total population of the country doubled in the two decades since the collapse of Ne Win's rule in 1988 (and that of the Beijing-backed insurgent Burmese Communist Party a year later), while the country's armed forces grew 400%.
In 2011, 24% of the country's national budget was reportedly earmarked for the military, compared with 4% for education and 1.3% for health services. In addition, bypassing its own military-controlled Parliament, the military leadership declared the establishment of the extra-legal, supra-Constitutional National Defense Fund (NDF). An unspecified amount of state funds is stored at the NDF, which authorizes the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces as the only state official with access to its resources. It is effectively unanswerable to any organization or individual.
Cost of the coffin
The Burmese problem is not simply the country's successive ruling cliques of generals aggrandizing themselves at the expense of the public. Those Burmese who grew up hearing the hope-filled speculation that things would get better once Ne Win's reign was over are no longer fooled by this once-the-old-guards-are-gone buzz. As the Burmese saying goes, "Once you have been dead you know the cost of the coffin."
The old generation of nationalist soldiers, including Ne Win, left intact a process of distinct class formation with recognizably feudal features - minus the old cultural and customary constraints of the Indic moral guidelines for conduct of rulers. Nearly 70 years since its founding by Aung San, the Tatmadaw officer corps, and the soldiering class as a whole, have come to view themselves as a cut above the predominantly agrarian masses. This ruling military class has effectively set the political clock back to the country's feudal past.
Naypyidaw has belatedly jumped on the global bandwagon of free marketization and privatization, though with distinct Burmese characteristics. Under the banner of privatization, public assets (land, forests, immovable infrastructure such as office buildings, power industries) are being divided among the families of senior and junior generals, as well as their cronies who, inter alia, serve as the generals' portfolio managers.
With all these signs of bountiful state-sponsored cronyism, the country's soldiering class has taken an increasingly kleptocratic turn, a throw-back to the old feudal days in which the monarch and his men "ate" the kingdom in terms of land, labor, and natural resources. The Burmese have a wonderfully descriptive term for this type of phenomenon: "Hungry hounds stumbling on a pagoda feast."
Ne Win and his men deliberately set in motion the revolutionary process of class formation, revolutionary in the sense that the military that was originally created by, of, and for the people no longer sees itself as part of the people. It is now a class of the "heaven-born", entitled to rule, not simply govern, the country in accord with the needs, concerns and interests of senior and junior generals.
All these men began their military careers as cadets or other ranks pledging before every meal the mantra, "We pledge our allegiance to the country that feeds us." As a class, they have failed to uphold this cardinal pledge, acting instead with blind obedience to frequent and indiscriminate "shoot to kill" orders against various segments of society - monks or Muslims, Bama or Karen, farmers or laborers, young or old.
The military has drifted away from a sense of gratitude to the country and honor to serve the people towards institutional/class allegiance and personal loyalty towards the chief. It is telling that when some ex-military officers who publish their biographies (ex-Brigadier General Tin Swe and ex-Lieutenant General Gen Tun Kyi, for instance) describe not the people but the armed forces as their "surrogate parents".
This is a fundamental regression with dire national consequences, as the military as an institution and the soldiering class no longer serves or defends the people from any enemy, including unscrupulous military leaders. In the process, the Tatmadaw has established its own economic base and interests, fostered a distinct class consciousness informed by their own sense of superiority vis-a-vis the rest of society, and wrote its own radical revisionist history where the military is the sole national liberator and guardian of the nation.
Since 1988, a re-feudalization of the country's military class and political culture distinguishes the present phase of class formation from Ne Win's previous socialist revolutionary military rule. The process has paradoxically removed any cultural or traditional constraints on governmental conduct, including the once conditioned belief in honor as a warrior, as well as the Indic code and notions of the "righteous ruler", who is said to possess, among other things, compassion, wisdom, integrity, sacrifice, and fairness.
It has led to the creation of a crony capitalist economy via a pool of its own economic agents, better known as "cronies"; class consolidation and reproduction through a combined policy of setting aside a high percentage of admission slots in military academies exclusively for the army-bred, and of careful screening of family backgrounds of officers and their spouses, especially for influential posts within the military; and, last but not least, the widespread practice of active participation of the wives of military officers in intra-military and political affairs, including the hiring and firing of deputies for their husbands and managing the flow of bribes and business deals.