What Does the Myanmar Military Post-Coup Future Look Like?
A closer look at how Myanmar's military could shape the country's struggle for its future.
A new book examines the role of Myanmar’s ruling military in the country’s ongoing struggle for its future following the 2021 coup that shut the door on a promising partial opening.
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“Our Tatmadaw…has remained steadfast in its commitment to safeguarding the motherland,” Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing noted in his remarks at a parade marking the 78th anniversary of the country’s Armed Forces Day in March1. Few missed that his remarks on Myanmar’s military marked a deep contrast with ground realities. Much of the country has continued to resist the military’s coup in February 2021, and indeed, even the parade grounds had been attacked by resistance forces a day earlier2. At the same time, for those who have interacted with the military, these remarks were far from surprising. The Tatmadaw has long cultivated a legitimation narrative that for all its faults, it is the indispensable guardian of the country from domestic and foreign enemies. As longtime Myanmar scholar Mary Callahan once succinctly noted, the Tatmadaw concluded early on after the first decade of postcolonial rule that elected political leaders “could not be trusted” and citizens were “potential enemies” prone to brainwashing3.
A new book by journalist Oliver Slow, Return of the Junta, delves into the military’s dominance of the country and what it means for its future prospects. The book is part of a series of works focusing on the background to Myanmar’s 2021 coup which shut the door on the country’s partial opening in the early 2010s and has complicated regional realities, with the others including Amitav Acharya’s Tragic Nation (previously reviewed here) and Erin Murphy’s Burmese Haze. Return of the Junta is divided into seven major chapters, along with an introduction and an epilogue4. The first two main chapters trace the origins of the military’s self-perception and culture — from its origins as a small resistance force built up by the Imperial Japanese army during World War II to its utilization of crises to strengthen itself into one of the world’s largest militaries over decades5. The next five chapters examine the military’s influence in Myanmar across diverse realms: including conflict, education, majority-minority dynamics; religion and the economy (see table below)6. Within each chapter and in the epilogue, the book also unpacks what this might hold for Myanmar’s post-coup future and how domestic and international actors might factor into this uncertain landscape.
Key Chapters and Areas of Myanmar Military Influence
The book sheds light on a critical actor in the history, present and future of Myanmar. It is difficult to understand the 2021 coup without first comprehending how the Tatmadaw utilized decades of crises and conflict to expand its capabilities and cultivate an image of a guardian against a series of enemies — including communists and ethnic rebels in the 1950s; unarmed protesters during the 1988 uprising; the legitimately elected National League of Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi; and, since the coup, what even the junta admits to the its own citizens across most of the country’s territory. Slow examines some key aspects in the Tatmadaw’s evolution. These include its brutal “Four Cuts” strategy employed since the 1960s of cutting off enemy food, funds, intelligence and recruits; and the campaign in the 1990s to buy new equipment, establish military-linked conglomerates and strengthen its intelligence network leveraging lessons from The CIA, Mossad and MI-67.
The book also addresses the question of steps that can be taken in post-coup Myanmar, based on an engaging mix of sources including interviews and on-the-ground reporting. Each of the chapters sets the context for the military’s role historically and then takes the reader out to the post-coup period. The book does utilize official documents and leverage the work of veteran Myanmar experts such as Thant Myint-U, Andrew Selth and Mary Callahan. It is also filled with stories from diverse personalities, partly gathered by Slow when he was based in Myanmar in the 2010s. Along the way, we hear from senior Tatmadaw figures; the brainchild of Myanmar’s military conglomerates; Rohingya refugees who fled to Malaysia during the 2015 boat crisis; Myanmar journalists covering the country’s borderlands; a defected military captain; participants in the 1988 protests; former prisoners; university lecturers; and a jade miner8. For those with an interest in forecasting, the epilogue in particular contains several recommendations on potential areas of future leverage by the international community (see table below)9.