Crony Militarism in Myanmar

The war in Myanmar has continued to escalate since the February coup (for recent overviews of the state of play, see here by Anthony Davis and here by Hannah Beech), with over 1,000 dead, fundamentally driven by large-scale, intensive military repression.

This has raised the question of what holds Myanmar’s military together. There are a number of reasons – the historical legacy of past conflicts, ideology (a particular version of nationalism fused with military exceptionalism), fear, and greed all have a plausible role to play.

One interesting aspect is the political economy of the military. Military economics matter greatly in Egypt, Pakistan, and Thailand, among other cases (historically, a crucial issue in Turkey and Indonesia for instance), and are certainly relevant to the Tatmadaw as well.

I’ve come to think of the Myanmar situation as one of “crony militarism,” in which economic resources are fused with a deeply authoritarian and militarized regime, providing reasons for internal compliance as well as advancing military interests within a crony-ized “private” economy. These kinds of blends of military power and economic exchange can occur at the level both of comparatively local dynamics (like the “ceasefire capitalism” Kevin Woods has so valuably analyzed) and at the elite/national-level. The question of the Tatmadaw cohesion involves both, though elite/factional rifts would be more dramatic and with more rapid effect than a steady drip of low-level defections (which also can be important, to be clear).

Three recent pieces address different aspects of crony militarism and Tatmadaw cohesion. Ye Myo Hein has a very long and interesting article in Frontier Myanmar that tackles a number of issues around the past, present, and future of military cohesion, including crony militarism:

“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”

A group of excellent Reuters journalists (Poppy McPherson, Reade Levinson, John Geddie, Wa Lone, Simon Lewis, and Stephen Grey) have written a fascinating piece in on the family connections of the Tatmadaw:

“Corporate filings and a military procurement document reviewed by Reuters, as well as interviews with friends and associates of the family and with five defence contractors, show that the couple are part of a young generation of military families with business interests across the economy.

Besides his son and daughter-in-law, the air force chief’s nephew and niece have also prospered: They own a company that supplies the country’s aviation sector, corporate filings and media interviews show. Two defence contractors, a business associate and a former Myanmar airline executive told Reuters that the nephew was also involved in deals to supply the armed forces.

Maung Maung Kyaw, 57, was promoted to head the air force in 2018 and has presided over a modernisation program, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on upgrading aircraft used to support a military that for decades has been accused of human rights abuses. These included mass killings in 2017 of the Rohingya Muslim minority with “genocidal intent,” according to United Nations investigators. The military has denied this, saying it was waging a legitimate campaign against militants who attacked police.”

Finally, veteran journalist Bertil Lintner writes in Irrawaddy about changes that he believes occurred within the Tatmadaw as it has expanded, benefited from ceasefires, and then been forced back into actual war-fighting:

“Be that as it may, it is undeniable that the strength of the Tatmadaw in terms of manpower and equipment is way above that of the 1980s. But, because of the old ceasefire agreements, which lasted for nearly two decades, that also means that a generation of troops have very limited fighting experience. They are, as a source said, better at parades showing off their new uniforms and guns than at combat. And then, the embrace of the market economy that followed the 1988 uprising gave the officers ample opportunities to earn vast amounts of money. As one Myanmar source wrote on social media: “the army officers are only interested in taking bribes and making business deals with the cronies, they don’t want to fight battles anymore, they joined the army to get rich quickly.” Or, as a retired Tatmadaw officer once told me: “luxury when I was in the army consisted of a badminton set and a bottle of army rum, and I was a colonel. Now even captains and lieutenants have more than one car, several sets of golf clubs, and at least two mistresses. And they don’t have to fight.””

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