For Myanmar’s Army, Ethnic Bloodletting Is Key to Power and Riches

For Myanmar’s army, the campaign of atrocity it has waged to drive hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims out of the country is no innovation. The force was born in blood 76 years ago and has been shedding it ever since.

Its founders, known as the Thirty Comrades, established the army in 1941 with a ghoulish ceremony in Bangkok, where they drew each other’s blood with a single syringe, mixed it in a silver bowl and drank it to seal their vow of loyalty.

The army that they formed led the nation to independence in 1948. But except for a brief, initial period of peace, it has spent the last seven decades warring with its own people.

A military parade in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, in March. The army has spent most of the past seven decades warring with its own people. Credit Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

The army, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power from the civilian government in Burma, as the country is also known, in 1962. The military killed thousands of protesters to keep power in 1988 and suppressed another popular uprising, the Saffron Revolution, in 2007.

In constant fighting with ethnic minorities, the Tatmadaw has displaced millions of people while taking billions of dollars in profit from jade mines, teak forests and other natural resources. Its strategy has been to fight ethnic rebels to a standstill, manage the conflicts through cease-fires and enrich its officers.

“There has never been any sense of needing to win hearts and minds,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington. “The Tatmadaw’s doctrine is based on total submission by the population through fear. And to that end, there is little they will not do.”

Though it holds itself up as the protector of Myanmar’s people, the military has a long history of murdering civilians, torturing and executing prisoners, committing rape, conscripting child soldiers, impressing convicts as porters and making civilians walk ahead of its troops to trip land mines.

Aung San Suu Kyi addressing an antimilitary rally in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, in 1988. The army killed thousands of protesters that year to keep power. CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images

After decades of running an isolated pariah state, the military began loosening its grip in 2010, allowing elections and gradually giving civilian leaders authority over public services, foreign affairs and economic policy. It also began permitting public access to the internet and the mass sale of cellphones.

The moves, aimed at reviving a struggling economy, gave Myanmar a veneer of democracy and prompted the United States and the European Union to lift economic sanctions.

But under the Constitution it imposed in 2008, the Tatmadaw is not subject to civilian authority, it unilaterally appoints a quarter of the Parliament and the commander-in-chief retains control over many key institutions, including the police and border guards. And the atrocities against minorities continue.

“The Tatmadaw is an unreconstructed, unrepentant institution that is abusive to its core,” said David Mathieson, an independent analyst in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.

The violent expulsion of the Rohingya from Rakhine has been condemned as ethnic cleansing by the United States and the United Nations. Human rights advocates have called for the International Criminal Court at The Hague to investigate the Tatmadaw for crimes against humanity.

The military and the government have blocked independent investigations and kept neutral observers from visiting the area, even as the Tatmadaw’s commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, denied that the army committed atrocities against the Rohingya.

But there are signs that the military is feeling at least some pressure.

General Min Aung Hlaing acknowledged this month that four members of the security forces shot 10 Rohingya men whose bodies were found in a mass grave.

Two officials who oversaw the security forces in Rakhine, Maj. Gen. Maung Maung Soe, head of the Tatmadaw’s western command, and Brig. Gen. Thura San Lwin, the border guard commander there, were removed from their positions in recent months without explanation.

Buddhist monks marching in Yangon during the Saffron Revolution in 2007, another popular uprising suppressed by the military. CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images

Washington imposed sanctions on General Maung Maung Soe in December, freezing any assets he might have in the United States. It is unclear, however, whether the penalties will affect him, and so far, he is the only Burmese official the United States has sanctioned over the Rohingya expulsion.

The Tatmadaw is proud of its history, which it glorifies with a colossal museum near Naypyidaw, the capital.

One exhibit recreates the setting of the blood oath ceremony and displays what are said to be the bowl and syringe used by the Thirty Comrades.

The comrades named their militia the Burma Independence Army and gave command to their leader, Aung San, who is regarded as the father of the country (and was the father of Myanmar’s current civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi).

The Thirty Comrades went to Japan for military training and fought against Britain during most of World War II, but they switched sides after it became clear the British would win.

Aung San became premier of the British colony but was assassinated in 1947, when Aung San Suu Kyi was 2 years old. Burma gained independence the following year.

Led by one of the comrades, Gen. Ne Win, the Tatmadaw seized power from a civilian government in 1962. After pro-democracy protests erupted in 1988, he was ousted by other generals. The Tatmadaw killed an estimated 3,000 protesters but maintained control of the government.

For nearly half a century, the military government kept the country isolated. It imprisoned political opponents for years, intermittently closed universities and denied the population access to the internet. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the opposition and received the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, spent 15 years under house arrest.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the supreme commander of the armed forces, is Myanmar’s most powerful figure and is not accountable to civilian authority. CreditHein Htet/European Pressphoto Agency

There was no attempt to create a cult of personality around its leaders, but the Tatmadaw became the country’s only viable institution, with separate schools and hospitals, its own judicial system and a vast network of businesses.

“The military is a state within the state,” said U Ye Myo Hein, executive director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies, an independent policy center in Yangon.

The Tatmadaw academy’s motto is “The triumphant elite of the future.” Triumphant or not, the generals took a nation that was one of the wealthiest in Southeast Asia and, over six decades, transformed it into one of the poorest.