Tatmadaw and Burmese (Myanmar) Society

   When Bogyoke Aung San and his comrades established the Tatmadaw during World War II, he described it as an armed force serving the people and working in close collaboration with them. Two developments after independence in 1948, however, made its status as a "people's army" problematic. First, communist and ethnic minority rebellions in 1948-1949 led to a "Burmanization" of the rank and file, especially the officer corps, including the retirement of the Karen (Kayin) commander in chief, General Smith Dun, and his replacement by Ne Win. The Tatmadaw's Burman (Bamar) perspective was reflected in the harsh treatment meted out to populations in Shan State during the 1950s, when the army launched attacks against the Kuomintang (Guomindang) invaders. By the late 1960s, most major ethnic minorities and many small ones had their own insurgent groups, and members of these communities regarded the Tatmadaw as a foreign army of occupation.
   Second, the monopolization of economic and political power by the armed forces after Ne Win established the first martial law regime, the Revolutionary Council, in March 1962 led to the emergence of the Tatmadaw as a privileged caste who were increasingly separate in lifestyle and living standards from the civilian majority, both in ethnic minority and Burman areas. Military officers, using their privileged access to goods at subsidized prices, were able to enrich themselves in the black market, even though the Ne Win regime (1962-1988) was, in principle, socialist and committed to ending the "exploitation of man by man."
   After the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was established in September 1988, the alienation of the army from Burmese society accelerated. During 1988's Democracy Summer, Tatmadaw-perpetrated massacres in Rangoon (Yangon), Sagaing, and elsewhere made the army an object of hatred and fear among Burmans, who, unlike the minorities, had previously held soldiers in high esteem. Throughout the country, civilian populations were forced by the army to engage in unpaid labor (forced labor), a practice that was not new in 1988 but was enforced with unprecedented severity. After the abandonment of socialism in 1988, moreover, economic liberalization policies have given high-ranking military officers new opportunities to make money and indulge in conspicuous consumption, such as luxury homes, cars, and golf memberships, while many ordinary Burmese, including lower-ranking soldiers, do not have enough to eat.
   The military has its own systems of schools, universities, hospitals, and other social services, which are usually of better quality than those available to civilians. Officers and men live in special areas on the outskirts of major towns and cities, such as Mingaladon in northern Rangoon, which resemble the "cantonments" of the British colonial era, an ironic development for an army that prides itself on its anticolonial past.
   See also Human Rights in Burma.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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