On February 1st, the day parliament was due to swear in those elected in 2020, the Tatmadaw staged a coup to depose the democratically elected National League for Democracy government. For many it was a bewildering moment, at the time we couldn’t understand why they would enact a coup while still holding many important ministries and while they were ostensibly free to assert power as they pleased. Nine months later, with hindsight I ask again, why would the military stage a coup to depose a government of which it ultimately had significant control over already?
Many observers have offered plausible explanations for the cause of this coup. Some highlighted the Tatmadaw’s nearly retired Commander-in-Chief’s personal ambitions to be military supremo for life— previously the tradition with Tatmadaw commanders. Others say it is the desire to protect the wealth and business interests of the Tatmadaw’s top personnel. Most of the explanations emphasized the personal interests of the Tatmadaw’s leadership, however, we have to think of the role of the Tatmadaw as an institution to understand the coup.
Many refer to the hegemonic structure of Burma as a Military Bureaucratic Capitalist System. The Tatmadaw has historically been the most dominant bureaucratic institution within this state. However, the semi-reformist agenda of the civilian-led NLD government threatened to weaken its control over that bureaucracy on both the national and local level – albeit gradually over time, particularly in relation to opening up the country to international markets. Therefore, the Tatmadaw staged the coup to reclaim its status as Burma’s key political institution, rather than see it become gradually eroded over time.
The Tatmadaw: An Institution
The Tatmadaw is held together by charismatic leaders and doctrine. The Tatmadaw has always sought to present itself as the parent of the country. This parental approach appeals to the two major authoritarian parts of the psyche of Burmese nationalist culture: discipline and guardianship. The Tatmadaw upholds both of these doctrines; discipline is used to maintain internal order, while guardianship is about portraying the role of guardian of the state and defender of the nation from external forces.
Discipline is the lifeblood of the Tatmadaw and is exercised ruthlessly. It is, of course, drummed into recruits that when orders are given, they must be obeyed without question. There have been “desertions” and “defections” in the past, but over the last 60 years, they have remained, to a remarkable degree, loyal and cohesive, bound by shared beliefs, a strict disciplinary code and an elaborate system of punishment and reward. This strict military discipline has been passed on from one generation to another over the decades.
This is an automatic discipline, where commands are followed from hierarchical channels with highly centralized control, unquestioning obedience, and strong respect for senior-junior relations. For the Tatmadaw, any democratic reforms, such as the decentralization of political power are always interpreted as a threat to the institution. “Discipline,” is even included in the reform process as a basic principle of the country’s charter in a way to guide the nation’s politics.
In the period since 2009, the political system began to move away from direct military rule, supposedly to a more open system that many hailed as the “flourishing of a genuine, disciplined multi-party democratic system”. Yet, the military remained in its historic role as guardian of the state, perpetuating their interests through the provisions of the 2008 constitution. In other words, the Tatmadaw was at no point guiding the country into a liberal democracy, rather a type of democracy where the military will remain the guarantors of state politics.
At a forum in 2017, when representatives from the civilian side of the government suggested putting the military under civilian control, the Tatmadaw warned that it is impossible to remove them from the political process. In the same year, a civilian politician, Yangon’s Ex-Chief Minister, U Phyo Min Thein, had to apologize to the Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief over the claim that the head of the military was still the de facto ruler of the country.
The Tatmadaw never tolerated any attempts to shift its image as the parental guardian of the country. Seemingly, the NLD civilian government represented a threat to that image of guardianship. Notably, Aung San Suu Kyi is considered to be ‘the mother of the nation’ by many of her supporters.
The NDSC Saga
The popularly-elected civilian (NLD) administration led by Aung San Suu Kyi attempted to gradually sideline the Tatmadaw from political leadership in a country where the military regards itself as “the father and the mother.” She perpetuated her image as the nation’s sole decision-maker by refusing the call to convene the meeting of the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), where the Tatmadaw and civilian leaders would come together to discuss and make decisions on security and defense affairs in Burma.
The NDSC is Burma’s most powerful body when it comes to decision-making on security issues or during emergencies. According to its setup, there are six NDSC members from the Tatmadaw and five from the civilian government including the President, two vice presidents and two Parliament speakers.
When Thein Sein, a former general, took over as president in 2011, the NDSC met regularly, but at the time those were the meetings between former generals and serving generals, rather than genuine civilian representatives. In contrast to the Thein Sein government, the Aung San Suu Kyi administration did not call for a single meeting of the military-dominated NDSC. A Tatmadaw spokesperson criticized the NLD over the act, stating that there must be regular assessments of the current situation, regular discussions, consultations, and decision-making. He went on to say that it is important to work for the interests of the whole country and not for the interests of certain organizations and individuals. A Tatmadaw backed party Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) MP U Maung Myint said that Aung San Suu Kyi was excluding the military from governance, even on matters like defense.
There was an unsuccessful proposition by the Tatmadaw and its proxy party USDP to give broader powers to the NDSC which included the power to call for the dissolution of Parliament and to convene it if requested by five of its members. In reprisal, The NLD has tried to change the Tatmadaw dominated set up of the NDSC by proposing to add two deputy speakers for Parliament to the council, essentially taking civilian control, but the motion failed. Here we can see the subtle tug of war between the two factions that was going unnoticed by many in the country prior to the coup. It was actions like these, by the NLD, which questioned the Tatmadaw’s claim to legitimacy as the guardian of the state.
Weakening Tatmadaw Bureaucracy
Aung Sang Suu Kyi also tried to ease the Tatmadaw’s political influence gradually at local levels. A major achievement of this effort was the transfer of the General Administration Department (GAD) to civilian control in 2019. This department, previously in the military-controlled ministry of home affairs, has long been integral to the functioning of local government administration, with the power to appoint government officials and bureaucrats across the country.
Under the 2008 Constitution, the GAD existed as part of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA), its ministerial home since 1988. The MoHA is one of three important ministries led by high-ranking military officials, alongside Defense and Border Affairs. The GAD is the eyes and ears of the government right down to the village level, historically by infiltrating the daily lives of civilians and thus entrenching its position as the most powerful general institution in the country. Its officers undertake a variety of integral roles, such as land administration, service delivery and tax collection.
However, in November 2018 a NLD spokesperson stated that the government bureaucracy, historically dominated by retired military personnel, was a major obstacle to progress. He went on to add that the NLD intended to tackle this with radical changes after winning the 2020 general election.
The civilian president U Win Myint also pledged to reform the government from the bottom up and to supposedly prepare the country for a federal system by reducing centralized control. Upon his request, around 100 senior government officials representing both the Tatmadaw and civilian groups in the government, met in Nay Pyi Taw and agreed to transfer the GAD to civilian control.
Although placing the GAD under full civilian control did not lead to immediate changes to local administration, it was a sign of the weakening grip of the Tatmadaw over government bureaucracy and its hierarchical structure of discipline, thus curbing their control over the civil service down to the ward and village level.
After GAD reform the Tatmadaw had increasingly shrinking coordination between civil and military agencies. For the first time they were functioning as a parallel institution to the state, as is visible in nearly every area: from COVID-19 responses to the peace process. At this point we began to see The Tatmadaw changing diplomatic tactics ahead of the 2020 election. The Tatmadaw chief publicly visited a historic mosque, places of Christian worship, Hindu temples, and a Muslim hospital, donating massive amounts of money to them.
However, the military proxy USDP suffered a humiliating defeat in the election, losing heavily to the NLD. The party performed poorly compared with 2015 and was arguably no longer a significant presence in the state and regional legislatures. The result further detracted from the Tatmadaw’s political ambition in a system they built by crafting the 2008 constitution, which specifically states that the Tatmadaw should play a leading role in political life.
In the aftermath of the coup, the Tatmadaw originally reconstituted the NDSC with only its members, so as to legally declare a national emergency. The GAD was also returned to the Tatmadaw’s control and its elected administrators were replaced with direct appointments by the new regime.
Ending the Illusion of Tatmadaw-led Reform Process
Subsequently, the coup ended the illusion that the Tatmadaw was leading the reformation process towards democracy. It is now clear that the Tatmadaw never wanted to relinquish their political leadership since General Ne Win seized power in a 1962 coup. They have only loosened or tightened their grip throughout the decades, repeatedly proving that it has an absolute monopoly on violence whenever its core interests are challenged — be it in 1990 or 2021.
In the last 10 years of the supposed reform process, the majority of people in Burma enjoyed the right to vote and political representation, while the economy grew, together with unrestricted international exposure and internet access. In reality however, when it came to power, the 2008 constitution barely moved the country away from the Tatmadaw’s control. It created a system of electoral voting for 75% of the parliament but continued to restrict civil society and freedoms. When the Tatmadaw felt a genuine legitimacy challenge from the NLD, using its brand of ‘disciplined democracy,’ they returned to their original position to suppress reform and reassert their power.
To establish any kind of just society in Burma, the Tatmadaw and all of its despotic paternalist doctrines must be removed from the country’s political environment. The people must come together to imagine a peaceful, Tatmadaw-free future, ensuring equity and equality via federalism.
In staging its coup, the Tatmadaw proved that there will always be the possibility of a coup whenever their power is threatened, akin to Thai politics. The Tatmadaw fears the introduction of policies or programs that curb their doctrines and accelerate the reduction of the military’s power in ways that make its leaders feel vulnerable or threatened. The Tatmadaw, therefore, should have no role in the future or present politics of Burma, otherwise, we will all remain either victims or witnesses of their unyielding despotism.