Some of the more superficial acts of re-feudalization of the military and the state include former junta leader Senior General Than Shwe's and his family's well-known royal pretensions, whereby family members are known to address one another using the arcane language of the long-gone feudal courts and which today is spoken only in the Burmese theatre.
Than Shwe built a brand new capital, Naypyidaw, and named it and all its residential quarters and streets auspicious-sounding old
royal names selected from Buddhist Jartaka tales. At Naypyidaw, Than Shwe required comically obsequious gestures and demeanors from all subordinate members of the bureaucracy, military and society. For instance, subordinates, their spouses and families are required to get down on their knees, even in informal gatherings, and abide by the royal protocol of subordinates speaking only when spoken to in the presence of their military superiors.
During the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster, victims were instructed by military officials to greet Than Shwe and other generals during their propaganda journeys to the storm-ravaged Irrawaddy Delta, as if they were Boddhiisattva, or would-be-Buddhas. Military-led re-feudalization has gone to comic extremes, as the scenes of Burmese citizens kowtowing to these military men of vainglory becomes more and more commonplace.
To paraphrase the late Ernest Gellner, a Cambridge anthropologist and noted author of "Nationalism", in feudal societies it is power that generates wealth, not the other way round. Economically, Than Shwe whetted, and subsequently unleashed, the economic appetites of other senior and junior officers.
As a point of departure from Ne Win's military regime, which pushed out a large number of alien commercial and technical elements from the economy (for instance, 300,000 Indians) with its catastrophic economic nationalization scheme, Than Shwe and his deputies have strategically chosen to build and expand the military's economic and commercial base. In so doing, they have resorted to nepotistic practices which involve patronizing only the army-bred, ex-military officers and business-minded civilians who have unquestioningly embraced the primacy of the military class.
The best known case is Tay Za, Myanmar's wealthiest and most influential tycoon with close personal ties to Than Shwe's family, who also serves as the military's principal arms-dealer. A son of a former deputy of Brigadier Maung Maung, who was the chief architect of the military's institutional developments including the establishment of military and defense academies in the immediate post-independence years, Tay Za was himself a cadet at the DSA in the early 1980s.
He was expelled from the academy for violating the then strict code of conduct for cadets. Aung Thet Mann and Toe Nay Mann, the two sons of Thura Shwe Mann, until recently the regime's third-ranking general and now Speaker of the military's newly established parliament, have also joined the country's top 10 most influential and richest "businessmen".
The famous tycoon Zaygaba Khin Shwe, a close friend of former prime minister General Khin Nyunt, who headed the powerful military intelligence until his demise in a 2004 purge, also served with the Army Engineering Corps during Ne Win's rule. Khin Shwe is now a member of the military-controlled parliament representing the regime's Union Solidarity and Development Party, while his daughter is married to one of Shwe Mann's sons.
President Thein Sein, for his part, is known to hold major shares in Skynet, the country’s most popular TV network. The company is fronted by ethnic Kokant businessman Shwe Than Lwin Kyaw Win, a nephew of the late drug lord Lo Sing Han. Than Shwe’s family owns Myawaddy TV, the sole TV network established exclusively for the armed forces personnel and their families.
There are lesser known cronies who are army-bred and thus army-backed, (for instance, Hla Maung Shwe of the Myanmar Peace Center and Myanmar Egress, a local nongovernmental organization which the regime has used as its "civil society" proxy. It is, without a doubt that these men, and many others like them, owe their personal fortunes to military rule and the generals .
In exchange for their entrepreneurial services to this growing military class, of which they have long been an integral part, the ruling junta has allowed the nouveau riche to exploit the country and its resources. Recently, Yuzana Htay Myint, another in-house businessman, has been permitted to take over 100,000 acres in the ancestral land of the Kachin minority in the northern most part of Myanmar. It was originally designated by the regime as a national wildlife sanctuary.
In his otherwise insightful analysis titled "The Future of Tatmadaw's Political Role in Myanmar: Prospects and Problems," Maung Aung Myo, an army-bred former lecturer at Myanmar's National Defence College, observed that the Tatmadaw has been "hijacked by a small group of generals" for their own personal aggrandizement. Upon closer examination, it is really a case of intra-class symbiosis where juniors and seniors divide their ill-gotten gains at the expense of the citizenry. If anything has been hijacked, it is the country and its future that has been stolen away by its own soldiers.
In feudal systems of the country's bygone eras, all the king's men served at the monarch's pleasure, and they rose and fell, lived and died, precariously. This scenario has been re-enacted in Than Shwe's Myanmar and in Ne Win's Burma, as the country was then known. Whimsically, these despots carried out large scale purges, for instance, the purge of military intelligence under the directorship of Brigadier Tin Oo in 1983 and the ousting of Khin Nyunt and the dissolution of the entire Directorate of the Defense Services Intelligence in 2004.
Consequently, military officers, as well as other ranks, have opted to optimize their administrative and political authorities by translating them quickly into riches through bribery, big and small, while in office. To get rich quick was indeed glorious for Deng's China post-Chairman Mao Zedong. But in Than Shwe's Myanmar, "eating" as much of the country as fast as possible may not be glorious, not at least in the eyes of the traditional pious Buddhist population, but it has become the wisest and most strategic course of action for virtually all military officers who are clever enough to recognize that theirs is a class kleptocracy. Only the naive remain moral in this new thoroughly feudalized military class.
Since the early 1990s, the Ministry of Defense has taken over state-owned enterprises and re-established them as "private" businesses owned solely by the Tatmadaw. The military now has its hand in virtually every economic pie, ranging from poultry farms, small factories, real estate, tourism, transportation, construction, rental of regimental facilities, shipping, power, banking, export and import, agriculture, energy and mining. Virtually no business entity of commercial significance can operate without being linked to the military, institutionally or to individual commanders, thereby bringing the entire economy under the Tatmadaw's effective control.
Unlike Ne Win's socialist military government, the current regime does not alienate commercial elites. Instead, the generals have made local entrepreneurs work for military rule through an evolving economic and political symbiosis. In this new arrangement, which harks back to the old monarchical days of commercial and trade monopolies, the military has learned to patronize the economic class for its own benefit.
Than Shwe has effectively leveraged the twin pervasive elements of greed and anxiety about the soldiering class's future, encompassing both the officer corps and emerging crony capitalists. Internationally, Than Shwe knows well how to dangle the possibility of economic liberalization before foreign investors and venture capitalists who view Myanmar primarily as "the world's last economic frontier". Western governments and corporations have tripped over themselves in recent bidding for telecommunications and other infrastructure and resource-related concessions.
Only time will tell whether the forces of the free market will overpower Myanmar's ruling soldiering class. Unlike the military in Indonesia, the Philippines and Turkey, Myanmar's military is marching backward along feudal lines. The Tatmadaw is consolidating its class hold on society, economy and polity, while at the same time trumpeting "democracy and free market", which they know resonates well in Western ears.
During the formative years of post-independence, the pro-capitalist West had looked at Myanmar's regressive evolution only through the self-serving lens of the Cold War and thus hailed soldiers as "modernizers". Western concerns then were the containment of anti-market Maoist and Soviet influences. Sixty three years later, post-Cold War Western governments and their affiliated interests are now bent on overlooking not only the military’s war crimes against ethnic minorities, but also the general's attempts to build a military apartheid, wherein the military and its commercial, technocratic and ethnic proxies rule over the bulk of the population as a class above, as the heaven-born.
Maung Zarni (www.maungzarni.com) is a Visiting Fellow at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics. A former admit to Myanmar's Military Officers' Training Corp (1980), he hails from an extended military family. He has worked with three separate heads of the military's intelligence service from 2004-8 as an initiator of Track II negotiations.
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