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Myanmar's Black Hole: the Military as the Greatest Obstacle against Reforms, Peace and National Reconciliation (Draft Essay) by Maung Zarni (2010)

Myanmar's Black Hole: the Military as the Greatest Obstacle against Reforms, Peace and National Reconciliation (Draft Essay) by Maung Zarni (2010)

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Myanmar's Black Hole: the Military as the Greatest Obstacle against Reforms, Peace and National Reconciliation (Draft Essay) by Maung Zarni (2010)
Myanmar's Black Hole: the Military as the Greatest Obstacle against Reforms, Peace and National Reconciliation (Draft Essay) by Maung Zarni (2010)

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Published by: rohingyablogger on Sep 30, 2013
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 Page | 1
Burma’s Military as
the Country’s
Burma’s military, both the despotic leadership and its institutional instrument of power,
namely the
or the Royal Army, remains enigmatic, in spite of it being in power forhalf-a-century (since 2 March 1962). It is the black hole of understanding in knowledgeproduced about BurmaThe world knows a lot about Aung San Suu Kyi
her political beliefs and stance, herinspiring personal tale, and her pedigree. Even her aesthetic tastes are well-publicized, and soare the abuses and acts of persecution towards her. And yet the world knows surprisingly little
about the country’s
dictatorship, despite its half-century of military rule and the exceedinglynegative impact that has had on Burmese society, culture, economy, politics, and foreignrelations. This is not surprising since dictatorships typically thrive on secrecy about their modusoperandi, and the resultant confusion amongst the oppressed. The Burmese dictatorship is noexception in this respect. In contrast, iconic dissidents such as Aung San Suu Kyi and oppositionmovements can only sustain their relevance and popular support by making their views,stances and strategies accessible to their friends and supporters, as well as opponents anddetractors. Systems of political repression strive to paralyze the domestic public and itsinternational supporters, while liberation struggles seek to mobilize both.Despite their often-reported ignorance, the military rulers in Burma are, in fact, farbetter informed about the world than they are given credit for, but the world continues todeliberate as to what will help nudge the Burmese dictatorship out of their darkness. TheBurmese despots may feign strategic ignorance, but it would be a mistake to underestimatetheir knowledge of the world. As a Burmese saying goes,
the ruler has 1,000 ears.
Accordingto Kyaw Thet, former professor of international relations and history at Rangoon University,General Ne Win sent one of his personal as
sistants to fetch a copy of Kyaw Thet’s doctoral
thesis which examined the Sino-
Burmese relations. In Professor Kyaw Thet’s words, “(of allpeople) the General was the only one who showed a genuine interest in my thesis.” The current
aging despot Senior General Than Shwe, a former instructor at the now defunct Central Schoolof Political Science at Chawtwingone, a suburb of Rangoon, is known among the staff of ForeignMinistry and Ministry of Defense to take interest in strategic ideas about internationalrelations. Before the relocation of the old capital from Rangoon to the purpose-built newcapital at Naypyitaw, Than Shwe was known to have surprised the staff at the National Defense
College, the country’s highest
-level staff college for upwardly mobile military officers, bycoming to attend class discussions and listen in on seminars.
 Page | 2
Over this half-century, successive military rulers have adopted a rather successfulstrategy of keeping their inner circles and the institution of military as little understood or
as possible, by friends a
nd foe alike. Even Beijing, the regime’s most important
international supporter and business partner, was left in the dark on 6 November 2005, whenthe regime decided to relocate the entire administrative capital from the colonial Rangoon toNaypyidaw, the purpose-built brand-new military fortress, complete with N. Korean-designedunderground bunkers and escape tunnels. Regardless of the Chinese leadership
’s reported
serious irritation at being kept in the dark, the military typically takes enormous pride on beingable to keep its affairs and modus operandi secretive, unpredictable and thoroughly under-studied.
An illustrative motto “Reveal little, listen, look and gather all you can”
posted on thedoor of former Military Intelligence Unit Number 7 on Halpin Road, Rangoon sums up the
military’s strategic stance on informational and institutional
secrecy. It is also consideredtreason for the rank and file members to communicate with foreigners, without priorauthorization. And those who are officially assigned to liaise with foreign visitors of all nationalbackgrounds are highly trained, least likely to spill any beans about their institution and leastprepared to speak their mind to any foreign visitors.During the first military dictatorship of General Ne Win (1962-88), in the middle of 
, the regime relaxed a little in this respect by allowing some of its top commanders tomingle with western diplomats and military attaches. Declassified US Embassy cables from thatperiod sent to Washington by its diplomatic intelligence unit in Rangoon indicate that ex-Brigadier Thaung Dan, former Deputy Chief of Staff 
Air Force, and a graduate of the Japanese
Military Academy in the 1940’s, would make personal r
equests to the Embassy staff to get
certain books, such as Dr Ba Maw’s “Breakthrough in Burma” (Yale University Press), at the
time banned by the Burmese regime. Also former Defense Minister ex-General Tin Oo (now the82-year-old vice-chair of Aung San Su
u Kyi’s National League for Democracy party) was allowed
to play tennis with western diplomats by mid-1970s. These restrictions have been tightened
since the end of General Ne Win’s rule
. Headquartered in the remote new capital Naypyidaw,the military is increasingly inaccessible to the West.In 50 years, only two foreign scholars have been granted limited access to the ArmyArchives, Ministry of Defense. (They are Robert H. Taylor and Mary Callahan, the politicalscientists who respectively authored
The State in Myanmar 
(1987) and
Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma
(2003). After a serious vetting process by the military intelligence
and blessings from the highest level of authorities, both Ne Win and Than Shwe’s regimes
officially allowed these Americans in as researchers, Taylor in the early 1970s and 1980s and
 Page | 3
Callahan a decade later. Even then, no archival materials dated after 2 March 1962, the date of the military coup, were made accessible to either researcher.The now widely-ackn
owledged fogginess of the world’s knowledge of Burma’s military
dictatorship and the military as their institutional base of power is the intended outcome of adeliberate strategy of information and data control. Thus the resultant general ignoranceabout the generals and their world,
and the generals’ studied display of ignora
nce about the
outside world has served the country’s
dictatorship rather well. The generals have apparentlytaken
Sun Tsu’s
advice to heart,
“Confuse your enemies”
, and turned it into the official policyregarding information about the military.
The Nationalist Military or a
Nationwide M
On the eve of t
he country’s greatest popular uprisings in 1988, a decorated soldier with
the rank of major remarked candidly to me that, the Tatmadaw
or the country’s Armed Forces
in which he served had morphed from the once venerable national and nationalist institution
into the country’s
largest mafia, soaked in corruption and rotten to its core, with all themanifest characteristics of a criminal network. Sitting in his office in a military compound andlooking deeply dismayed, this officer mocked such a long-
cherished popular notion as “soldiersas ultimate patriots”. He continued, “We call ourselves patriots and nationalists. A
ll we do issteal from the people and rob them of their future. This whole army stinks. My wife has tosuck up the wife of my boss. The guy below me licks my boots and I have to do the same withmy superiors. If I want to climb the career ladder I have to pay my commanding officer. This
chain of bribery and corruption is pervasive.”
His final solemn words of advice to me were:
So, d
on’t come back here (to Burma). Find greenerpastures and settle there
The overwhelming majority of foreign writers, experts on Burma and diplomats usuallyfind the Burmese military dictatorship morally repugnant and show varying degrees of disdaintowards the ruling generals. And yet many of them would not hesitate to use the term
to describe the motivations of military personnel. What moved a decoratedsoldier to speak unequivocally
ill of his “surrogate parents”
, the army, while many Burmascholars and journalists who have never met a flesh-and-blood Burmese soldier and/or set theirfoot on a military
compound refer to the very same institution as “nationalistic”?
“Soldiers’surrogate parents” is a
special term the Ministry of Defense Directorate of PsychologicalWarfare has coined and actively promulgated a
mong the military’s rank and file members
inorder to specifically remind the armed service personnel that their primary allegiance is to theArmed Forces, which is coterminous with the sovereign Burmese nation-state.Upon hearing the speculations about the possible reforms that it was said would comeabout from the formation of a new cabinet and a new parliament in April 2010, a former junior

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