Myanmar is reconnecting with the outside world after decades of military rule. Photo: AFP/Khin Maung Win
Myanmar soldiers march in formation in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Khin Maung Win

In her defense of Myanmar against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague last week, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was at pains to stress the complexity of the ethnic conflict in Rakhine state and her country’s stumbling efforts to implement its own process of accountability and military justice.

As Myanmar’s de facto political leader and foreign minister, she was clearly hobbled by her inability to articulate what would have been a far more persuasive line of argument: the 2017 atrocities perpetrated on the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine were hardly an exceptional campaign of genocide, but rather what for the Myanmar Army, or Tatmadaw, was simply business as usual – in military jargon “standard operating procedure” (SOP) – that has not normally garnered international attention, let alone global outrage.

The sickening specifics of the Tatmadaw’s SOP in Rakhine have been spelled out in voluminous reports from a United Nations (UN) Fact Finding Mission and leading international human rights organizations. Some were again recounted by lawyers for the Gambia, which lodged the accusation of genocide with the court.

Army-led “area clearance operations” ostensibly aimed at countering several hundred poorly armed Rohingya rebels involved mass killings of over 6,000 civilians, systematic gang rape and the torching of hundreds of villages that drove some 740,000 refugees across the border into neighboring Bangladesh beginning in August 2017.

However, as they adjudicate on the specific question of an alleged genocide or the need for “provisional measures” to forestall further violence, the judges of the ICJ – and perhaps Suu Kyi herself — will need to confront overarching questions that go well beyond the details of what occurred and what was and was not specifically ordered at regional or national command levels.

How was it that the Tatmadaw – a well-organized and relatively modern state actor with a strong tradition of discipline and claims to military professionalism – managed to drag its own country under the spotlight of the international justice system?

Rohingya refugees shout slogans at a protest against a disputed repatriation program at the Unchiprang refugee camp near Teknaf, Bangladesh, November 15, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Dibyangshu Sarkar

And what particular pathologies underlie the Tatmadaw’s dismal proclivity for disproportionate violence and deliberate targeting of civilians, or what one Yangon-based foreign military officer once described to this writer as “counterinsurgency out of the Stone Age”?

Viewed in historical context, three central factors, each playing out at different levels, have arguably converged to forge a military uniquely prone to a pattern of persistent abuse and periodic massacre which culminated in the horrors of Rakhine.

Often overlooked by outsiders, the most immediate of these elements is the manner in which the Myanmar military’s leading combat units have been exhausted and brutalized by war without end for over seven decades.

Globally, no other national army has been committed to unremitting combat missions for so long. And in the case of Myanmar, those operations have almost entirely been against domestic enemies in guerrilla conflicts where the line between combatant and civilian is perennially blurred.

The origins of the Tatmadaw date back to World War II and training from the Imperial Japanese Army, a force not noted for its attention to the Geneva Convention.

Within months of Myanmar’s post-war Independence in 1948, the army – reduced by the end of that year to just six battalions, or 3,000 troops – was thrown directly into counterinsurgency campaigns against communist and ethnic Karen rebels in the heartlands of central Myanmar.

From the mid-1970s, the focus of operations of a larger, more confident military shifted to the mountains and jungles around the nation’s rugged borderlands where an array of ethnic minority pocket-armies – Shan, Karen, Mon, Kachin and Rakhine — fought for independence or autonomy from centralizing military rule.

The Tatmadaw’s “small wars” were conducted by ill-equipped and always under-manned infantry battalions operating with only occasional artillery support at the end of shoe-string logistics lines reliant mainly on pack animals and human porters. Casualty evacuation was rare and the strain on morale a constant, corrosive challenge.

A Myanmar border guard stands in Buthidaung township village in the country’s restive Rakhine state, January 25, 2019. Photo: Richard Sargent/AFP

Despite modernization of equipment and increasing air support, sharply escalating hostilities in northern Myanmar since 2011, and in Rakhine state since late 2018, have only exacerbated front-line problems of high casualties, extended rotations and low morale.

Army losses are never publicized, but broad estimates by foreign analysts suggest that at least 3,000 troops have been killed in combat operations since 2011, with many more wounded.

The bulk of these casualties have been suffered by battalions from the army’s mobile reserve of Light Infantry Divisions (LID), ferried continually from one front to another as Nawpyidaw’s military headquarters struggles to respond to upsurges of insurgent activity across wide geographies.

Reports in 2015 from the bitterly contested Kokang region of Shan state indicated the 33rd LID – one of several airlifted into the region – had suffered casualties of over 20% in some actions. By 2016, the division had been re-deployed to northern Kachin state

Indeed, a case could be made that many LID battalions are less battle-hardened than systematically dehumanized. It was perhaps no coincidence then that in August 2017 elements of the 33rd LID clawed their way to infamy with some of the savagery inflicted on the Rohingya.

At another level, the pathology of Tatmadaw behavior has also been conditioned by a deep-rooted ethnic chauvinism. Despite persistent problems of under-manning and a history of press-ganging under-age soldiers, the army has remained a volunteer force overwhelmingly recruited from among the country’s majority Buddhist Bamar community, representing some 68% of a population of 52 million, according to official census counts.

The Tatmadaw is led by an almost exclusively ethnic Bamar officer corps, elite representatives of the national master-race who enjoy a relatively guaranteed path to social and economic privilege.

Myanmar's military parade to mark the 72nd Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
Myanmar’s military parade to mark the 72nd Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 27, 2017. Photo: Facebook

Against this ethnic backdrop, Tatmadaw wars have been waged essentially as campaigns of internal colonial pacification driven by a centralizing vision of a Burmanized Myanmar. Targeted on ethnic minority insurgents and their civilian support bases, army operations and the attitudes behind them are infused with a powerful sense of Bamar cultural, linguistic and ethnic superiority. The flip side is contempt for and abuse of minorities.

Since the 1980s, operations against Karen, Shan and Kachin insurgents have involved well-documented recourse to the burning of villages, rape of women, forced recruitment of men as porters and human mine-sweepers, and the driving of tens, and then hundreds, of thousands of refugees across borders into Thailand and China.

But the worst of the army’s racist animus was undoubtedly reserved for the Rohingya, systematically dehumanized both as “Bengali” interlopers with no claim to Myanmar citizenship rights and, at a more visceral level, as the imagined vanguard of a Muslim conspiracy to topple Myanmar’s Buddhist heritage.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Tatmadaw has developed an unwavering sense of its own indispensability as the guardian of
Myanmar’s territorial integrity and national destiny.

In this regard it is hardly unique: in the Asian region a similar sense of mission inspires the militaries of Thailand and, further afield, Pakistan, original home of the quip that “sometimes an army has a country, rather than that country having an army.”

Myanmar’s military has faced far fewer civilian challenges than either its Thai or Pakistani counterparts, however, and been ready to respond with far greater ruthlessness when it has. Since the coup of 1962, when the Tatmadaw first seized control of government, the military has existed as a caste apart, disdainful of politicians, dismissive of minorities and jealously possessive of its own economic and social prerogatives.

Socially, the status of the military as an exclusive caste has been reinforced by its understandable unwillingness to turn to a conscription regime that would require the short-term induction of large numbers of Bamar civilians, as well as potentially unreliable troops from ethnic minority communities.

Politically, meanwhile, behind the fig-leaf of elections and quasi-civilian rule, the military-scripted constitution of 2008 ensures the Tatmadaw an indefinite lock-grip on real power that has been challenged only recently and timidly by Suu Kyi’s governing National League for Democracy (NLD).

The traditional monopoly on political power and social privilege has translated predictably into a pervasive culture of impunity on the battlefield and well beyond. As demonstrated during the ruthless crushing of pro-democracy protests in 1988 and 2007, the army has not hesitated to turn its guns on ethnic Bamar civilians on the streets of Myanmar’s main cities.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Photo: AFP Forum via EPA

It remains an open question whether the indignity of having their honor defended in a foreign land by a now suddenly popular politician they have long viewed with deep suspicion will prompt much introspection in the upper echelons of the Tatmadaw.

Suu Kyi’s reference to a process of military justice coupled with a need to find low-ranking scapegoats may see some acceleration of the few investigations and courts martial currently being conducted in Myanmar. More broadly, however, the legacy of seven decades of war and a powerful culture of military exceptionalism militate against substantive reform in the near or even medium-term future.

In due course, the ICJ will pass judgment on whether the atrocities inflicted on the Rohingya amounted to genocide. What in the meantime is not in doubt is that, while unprecedented in its scale and savagery, the campaign of Tatmadaw violence in Rakhine emerged from institutional reflexes ingrained over decades.

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