Tatmadaw forces are seen marching in Nay Pyi Taw on March 27 to mark Armed Forces Day in a screengrab from military-run Myawaddy TV.(AFP/ MYAWADDY)

Finding fault lines within the Tatmadaw

A split in the Tatmadaw has until now been considered unlikely but a steady increase in defections and desertions since the coup amid plunging morale has some questioning whether unity can be maintained within the nation’s most powerful institution.

By YE MYO HEIN | FRONTIER

The National Unity Government’s recent declaration of a “people’s defensive war” against the Tatmadaw has increased concerns about imminent large-scale armed conflict in the country. This conflict would pit one of the largest militaries in the region against a loosely connected network of trained and untrained militias. It seems unlikely the opposition could prevail in such a fight.

But what if the Tatmadaw crumbled from within? Many have pointed to what appears to be a steady rise in defections and desertions from the Tatmadaw since the coup, and expressed hope that these defections could mark the beginning of more widespread fissures.

Seasoned scholars of Myanmar have long discounted the possibility of a split in the country’s strongest and most disciplined institution. But despite its apparent cohesion, the Tatmadaw’s own history provides ample examples of division within the armed forces. 

When the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, the newly founded and institutionally immature Tatmadaw experienced splits along both ideological and ethnic lines. 

Six months after independence, the entire 1st Burma Rifles, as well as some troops from the 3rd and 5th Burma Rifles, defected to the Communist Party of Burma (BCP). Then, over the next six months, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Karen Rifles defected to the Karen National Defense Organization. The defections had long-lasting consequences: the BCP posed the predominant threat to the Tatmadaw until its collapse in 1989, and the Karen remain engaged in fierce fighting with the Tatmadaw even today.

In Roots of the Revolution, historian U Ba Than cites an estimate that the Tatmadaw lost 42 percent of its personnel and 45pc of its equipment in the post-independence turmoil. In To a Soldier Son, the seventh president of Burma, Dr Maung Maung, said that the defections during this period left the Tatmadaw with a total strength of around 2,000 personnel, “all scattered in decimated, weak battalions and companies”.

From that early crisis, the Tatmadaw managed to rebuild its strength and over the decades wear down many of its opponents. Today, many analysts put the total strength of the Tatmadaw at between 300,000 and 350,000

The People’s Embrace — a group of soldiers and police who have defected and now help others do the same — recently claimed that about 1,500 military personnel and 500 police officers have defected since the coup. Since the declaration of war on September 7, there have been reports of an increase in defections and people contacting the group for assistance. 

These developments have revived debate about the level of cohesion within the Tatmadaw and the possibility that it may disintegrate long before it could be defeated on the battlefield.

Propaganda and indoctrination

The defections during the post-independence period took the Tatmadaw to the brink of collapse and left an indelible scar on its institutional memory. This experience motivated subsequent Tatmadaw leaders to devote considerable efforts to ensure it could never again be threatened by defections. 

They did this by creating an institution whose worldview is shaped through relentless propaganda and indoctrination, that sustained itself through economic interests and privileges, and that launched ruthless internal crackdowns against the slightest deviations from institutional norms. 

After the Tatmadaw seized power in 1962, it made itself into a state within a state, with its own educational and healthcare networks, housing and welfare programmes, and business empires. Today, the military stands self-sufficient and detached from the rest of Myanmar society: at the top, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing holds the institution and its hierarchy of personnel in a grip as absolute as a feudal king’s.

To give its personnel a sense of belonging to a ruling class, the Tatmadaw launches constant indoctrination and propaganda campaigns, telling soldiers that they are the guardians of the nation and national unity. These campaigns tell them that they are above the civilian population and imbue soldiers with the belief that the country will fall apart without the military. The seclusion of barrack life provides few opportunities for these messages to be challenged.

The propaganda campaign extends to militarising school curricula — filling them with the narrative of the warrior kings, their inflated military capabilities and the militarised stories of the founding of their kingdoms — and promoting its role in Myanmar politics through different media outlets. 

Tatmadaw-owned television stations constantly broadcast high-budget war movies propagandising the Tatmadaw’s achievements every year on Armed Forces Day. These propaganda campaigns are built on slogans. “Only if the Tatmadaw is strong, will the nation be strong,” reads one. Another boasts that “the Tatmadaw is [the] mother and father of the people”. And while the impact of this propaganda on broader society has been limited, it exerts significant influence on the closed social circle of military personnel. 

This institutional unity is reinforced through economic interest. The Tatmadaw has created an entrenched patronage network using resources acquired through its prolonged monopoly over the most lucrative sectors of the national economy since the 1950s. 

Senior military leaders and their families use their control over the Tatmadaw’s long-accumulated wealth and assets to draw potential rivals into their own patronage networks, in the process helping to silence any opposition to the supreme leader. The distribution of rewards and benefits rarely stretches to the rank and file, however, who continue to live and work in deplorable conditions. 

These patronage networks have been reactivated since the coup. Informed sources within the business community say that family members and affiliates of the generals have been using this time as an opportunity to expand their business empires and expand their economic interests. 

Moreover, the Tatmadaw and its supreme leader do not tolerate even the slightest deviation from its institutional norms. There has been a long history of the Tatmadaw reacting forcefully to crush any perceived threat, of which the most powerful example is the comprehensive purge of former intelligence chief and prime minister General Khin Nyunt, along with his entire Military Intelligence organisation, in 2004. 

General Khin Nyunt, the then third ranking leader of the military, and his intelligence corps, a key pillar of the regime, became extremely powerful and morphed into a separate parallel institution to the Tatmadaw after the 1988 democratic uprising. The leaders of the armed forces perceived the growing power of Military Intelligence as a threat to the institutional unity of the Tatmadaw, and it resulted in the wholesale purge of the nation’s most powerful intelligence apparatus.

Yet, despite all these efforts to shield the military from internal dissension, defections continue. 

Turning the tide

During the national uprising in 1988 and the monk-led protests in 2007 known as the Saffron Revolution, some had  high expectations that the tragic events could result in mass defections from the Tatmadaw.

While there were indeed some defections and desertions, these events did not lead to a major split. 

But times have changed. Australian academic and Myanmar specialist Andrew Selth has written that a new generation of Tatmadaw officers has emerged in a more open and interconnected environment than their predecessors. 

“It would be a mistake to assume that they are just a mindless mass prepared to do whatever they are told, without question,” Selth wrote. 

The defections since the February coup have still not been large enough to affect the operational ability of the Tatmadaw. However, they are likely having a psychological impact.

Some Tatmadaw officers who have defected to the Civil Disobedience Movement say that most soldiers have been demoralised by the brutal suppression of the public they vowed to protect. On top of this, soldiers may see the coup itself as having been staged unnecessarily for the personal interests of the top generals rather than the benefit of the rank and file. 

Officers who have defected maintain that a split is likely if defections continue at the current rate.

In a recent interview, NUG health minister Dr Zaw Wai Soe said, without elaborating, that 3pc of the Tatmadaw’s forces have already deserted or defected, and that if 0.4pc more leave, it would “necessarily lead to the institutional collapse of the military as a domino effect”. However, this would mean that about 10,000 soldiers have defected already, and regardless of the accuracy of that number, there is no theory that says the defection of 3.4pc of its personnel would trigger its institutional collapse. 

Looking at local media reports, it seems like between five and 10 Tatmadaw personnel are deserting every day, and informed sources have told this author that the desertion rate is much higher. But it is difficult to say for certain that the current trend will result in a major split, particularly if senior officers do not change sides. Unless conditions change, a major split is still a distant prospect.

However, the war for the hearts and minds of the rank-and-file has already begun. The NUG and the People’s Defence Force groups throughout the country recently launched several propaganda and psychological warfare campaigns in an attempt to hasten the Tatmadaw’s collapse. On August 10, the Chin Defence Force-Mindat shrewdly announced the offer of a K5 million reward for soldiers who defect with their weapons, which has achieved some success among soldiers operating and living under terrible conditions. 

But countering the military’s well-established propaganda machine will require propaganda and psychological warfare campaigns that are more systematic and more vigorous. 

Despite its call for a federal democratic union, the anti-junta movement lacks a persuasive ideology. The military have been profoundly indoctrinated with an ideology of “guardianship”. Without being offered any viable alternative ideology, it is inconceivable for many of the rank and file to change camp. The NUG should provide an alternative ideology, perhaps one of glorious professional soldiers fully entitled to the human dignity, professional rights and adequate standard of living they are being deprived of within the Tatmadaw.

Another thing needed to encourage a greater shift of loyalty among officers and enlisted soldiers is leadership. Tatmadaw personnel are accustomed to working under strong leaders and would be reluctant to join the pro-democracy movement in the absence of a robust or charismatic leadership. 

The National League for Democracy has had its head cut off, with most of its leaders in junta custody. The younger generation activists in the National Unity Government are new faces. In such circumstances, the perceived absence of strong leadership could be a major obstacle to encouraging more defections from the Tatmadaw. 

However, if the NUG could successfully bring about the collective leadership of the various pro-democratic and pro-federal protagonists, as it claims in its charter, it might be a game-changer. A strong alliance between the politically legitimate NUG and battle-hardened ethnic armed groups could create a strong political and military leadership and vision that would prove magnetic for military personnel. 

The final element affecting any mass defections is the concern that military personnel, and especially senior officers, have for their safety and for the safety of their families. Because they are compelled to live in a climate of fear, it may be nearly impossible for the lower ranks to break away in a coordinated way, even if there was a high desertion rate. 

The junta has been making “hostage” arrests of the family members of protesters and activists it has been unable to arrest and the close relatives of any Tatmadaw personnel who defected could expect the same fate. Tatmadaw defectors who are caught can expect to receive the death penalty, which is likely to be commuted to life imprisonment. 

‘They want to turn people into robots’

The high level of control that the Tatmadaw wields over its personnel also makes defecting difficult. Defectors have told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that soldiers are required to live on military bases and only permitted to leave with permission from their superiors. The Tatmadaw dictates what soldiers and their families “wear, say and believe in, even how to decorate your home”, a defector told the broadcaster in a report published on its website in May. 

“They want to turn people into robots, who don’t think [for themselves],” another defector said.

Due to its limited capacity, the NUG has not been able to provide a full guarantee of safety, as well the necessary support, for military and police defectors and their families. And although territory under the control of ethnic armed groups has been a magnet for activists from the Bamar heartland, most Tatmadaw personnel are uncomfortable about seeking refuge from those against whom they have waged deadly battles. Short of a full-blown civil war breaking out, a big split in the Tatmadaw would be a miracle under these circumstances. 

Despite these realities, though, it must be acknowledged that the morale of most military personnel has fallen dramatically since the coup, driving an increase in desertions and defections that has been described as “a record-breaking number unmatched in nearly six decades”. 

The junta itself is playing close attention. Spurred on by the fear of widespread defections, it is ramping up its internal propaganda campaigns to prevent any shift in loyalty, and has intensified its attempts to hunt down defectors and deserters.

Large-scale defections and desertions cannot be entirely ruled out, but only if those who are fighting for a return to democracy can create the right conditions. The coup has opened Pandora’s box – in this volatile environment, nothing is impossible. 

Ye Myo Hein is a fellow with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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