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.””

US public opinion on the Afghanistan withdrawal

What has the US public thought about the withdrawal from Afghanistan? Nathaniel Rakich had a valuable overview in FiveThirtyEight on August 20, 202 of polling toward the Afghanistan withdrawal in the US, Frank Newport at Gallup has a summary of both recent and past surveys, and Amber Phillips looks at trends since 2002 in the Washington Post.

Below I’ve pulled out key figures from several recent surveys.

Ipsos/Chicago Council (August 23-26); the link also points to prior surveys on this question:

Washington Post/ABC (Aug. 29-Sep. 1):

CBS News/YouGov (August 18-20):

Pew Research Center (Aug. 23-29):

The regional composition of India’s armed forces

This Rajya Sabha (Unstarred Question No. 2097, March 15, 2021) answer provides a state-level breakdown of the current composition of the Army, Navy, and Air Force (caveat: without Army officers). The PDF I downloaded is here; I first noticed it via this Tribune article. Steven Wilkinson’s 2015 book is the most up to date and detailed historical treatment of this issue. Drew Stommes and I have tried to back out the average historical regional composition of the BSF and CRPF here. I’m slowly organizing some Assam Rifles data as well that I hope to post soon.

Another take on the Indian democracy debates

India’s downgrading in some measures of democracy met with pushback from some Indians (and the Indian government). My take on these dynamics from back in 2019 is here, and I am not a coder and have no relationship with any of the measurement projects, though I certainly see their value, despite limits, more than their critics.

One productive way to take on this disjuncture comes from a 2019 Pew survey. This figure on the high level of satisfaction with democracy in India has been making the rounds on twitter:

This is very important and needs to be taken into careful account in any discussion of what democracy in India is/isn’t and how to describe it. There’s a caveat worth mentioning before we plow ahead – recent surveys of democratic satisfaction in Pakistan also show majority satisfaction (though with a much smaller margin – 59-36% in 2018 IRI; 54-47% in 2018 Gallup), which would logically lead to a conclusion that is perhaps not what some stalwarts of India would agree with (insert qualifiers about surveys across methods, environment for open answers, etc). And it’s not obvious that they would agree that Japan’s negative net satisfaction means that one of India’s key Asian partners is actually an autocracy, or the same for other strategically friendly states like France and the US. Sometimes indicators hold up in comparative perspective, sometimes they don’t.

But leaving that aside, I think the exact same 2019 Pew survey helps get at some of the disjuncture in the broader debate (with yet another caution, in this case about comparative response rates, that I don’t have the time to track down this morning so this is all a case of getting what you pay for).

In addition to general satisfaction with democracy, Indians are satisfied that voting gives them a say:

But what substantial portions of the public view as very important appears to be rather different than in some other electoral democracies. Here are questions on the importance of freedom from state interference for human rights organizations and opposition parties:

And the differences are, I think, more striking when it comes to free speech, uncensored media, and internet freedom:

This may or may not be remotely informative given the problems of cross-national surveys and how they are interpreted: none of this may actually tell us much. But if the satisfaction-with-democracy finding is seen as plausible/important, then we should treat these others as plausible/important as well. It may help to account for why this debate (both among Indian and between Indians and foreigners) is met with, among other things, a kind of mutual disbelief between those who appear to sincerely see India as obviously democratic and thus criticism as purely driven by all-consuming Modi hatred, and those who are baffled that anyone could see the events of the last few years as anything but a dynamic of democratic decline (along at least some key dimensions). There can be fundamental tensions between conceptualizations/definitions of democracy that weight/balance differently advocacy of/concerns about majority rule and the tyranny of the majority. And which you choose matters a lot.

An article I like for unpacking some of this is Khosla and Vaishnav, which tries to sidestep the simple coding question: “In today’s India, the assent of the people is considered to be not only necessary but also sufficient to justify all forms of state action. Individually, the three faces of the Indian state—what we call the “ethnic state,” the “absolute state,” and the “opaque state”—bring to light an underappreciated side of India’s contemporary political order. . . the most striking feature of India’s new constitutionalism is the presence of popular authorization alongside the absence of the rule of law.”

P.S. these issues are also very much at play in the United States.

Indian public opinion toward China: some new research

Aidan Milliff and I have been working on a paper examining Indian public opinion toward China, with a mix of interesting – if limited – historical data and a deep dive into recent surveys.

Massive caveats: it needs substantial revisions (this version from early March has already received extensive feedback to address in the next round of changes) and will still need to go through peer review. Nevertheless, given the importance of China-India relations these days, we wanted to make this draft available to those interested in the topic.

You can find the working paper here.

Managing insurgent decline: 1970s Naga edition

I came across a substantial file in the Abilekh Patal portal with materials supporting the Government of India banning the Naga National Council/Federal Government of Nagaland as unlawful organizations. It included as an annexure an apparent letter from the Office of the GOC Eastern Command Naga Army, 1 July 1973, in the midst of the post-1972 Indian crackdown. It struck me as an interesting document as an example of how an armed group tries to keeps its forces motivated in the face of clear military pressure (something I’ve written about more generally elsewhere):