I never thought I’d write this essay, and publicly call for a regime change in Myanmar. If my reading of the pulse of Myanmar society is correct, regime change is what the people want. In 2005, two years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I returned home to resolve my internal cognitive dissonance of feeling utterly repulsed by the “illegal and wholly unjustified” invasion and “fake news” of Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs. I enjoyed the rights and privileges of being a political asylee.
[Incidentally, former U.S. President George W. Bush confessed this much last year – that his war against Iraq was “illegal and wholly unjustified”, albeit in a Freudian slip in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine].
As worrying as it may sound, regime change is not necessarily a bad thing in a situation where people are pauperised and savagely repressed by corrupt, irreformable and incompetent regimes. In fact, regime change tends to be the only viable mission or a course of action when peaceful change is made impossible by those who preside over a large killing machine, whatever its name – national armed forces, People’s Revolutionary Army, etc.
Think of the storied regime changes in history which scholars, histories and novelists consider worth their while to study and write about.
Enter the French Revolution and the theatrical troupe of Les Miserables. Or the 4th of July and the revolt of 1776 in New York, Boston and Philadelphia where the 13 American Colonies waged their liberation struggle against the British Crown that taxed them from across the Atlantic without representation. Then there is – more frighteningly to global capitalism and feudalism –, the Marxist Revolution of 1917 led by Vladimir Ilych Lenin. And also, more glamorously, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, that ended the despotic rule of Havana’s puppet of U.S. corporations in the 1950’s.
Likewise, World War II triggered a process which resulted in changes of regimes in the non-European world. Dozens of newly independent republics and kingdoms emerged out of the ashes of the European and Asian empires, through armed and peaceful rebellions. They just bear a different label – national liberation struggles.
When Indonesia was trying to get rid of the Dutch coloniser, who for over 300 years leeched the archipelago of 20,000 islands of its natural riches, the Burmese nationalist leadership of Prime Minister U Nu gave the Indonesian regime-changers “rice and guns”. That’s how my Indonesian friends in Jakarta would put it: rice and guns.
Not unlike the wretchedness of European colonies in the bygone era of the White Man’s rule, Myanmar people of all ethnicities have been trying to liberate themselves from the 60 years of repression and domination by the atrocious regimes. They have tried “People Power” protests. They have waged different armed struggles. They have used ballots. They have tried assassinations.
The only difference between the old European colonists who repressed the population and sucked their societies and today’s Myanmar military regime is their exterior. In place of the White Man doing the exploitation, repression and divide-and-rule, Myanmar today is internally colonised by its own national armed forces led and manned by the brown faces.
Both the British coloniser and successive Myanmar military regimes deploy the following strategies to keep the population firmly under their boot: ethnic and religious divide-and-rule, the scorched-earth strategies, the use of the “rule of law”, the savage beheadings and the systematic land and resource grab. As a matter of fact, the Myanmar coup regime has gone one step further than the British: it now routinely bombs civilian communities, irrespective of their ethnicity or faith. The most infamous incident of airstrikes at the Burmese ethnic heartlands called Sagaing Region on 11 April – which killed 168 civilians, including 3 dozen children – was preceded by an airstrike in Thantlang, Chin State, Western Myanmar, having killed a dozen ethnic Chin civilians.
So, yes, echoing the popular desire commonly shared against all classes and all ethnic and religious communities in Myanmar, I will unequivocally support the change of regime in Naypyidaw. The leaders of the regime – starting with Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and his senior deputies who plan and coordinate the military and security operations, against the public – are undoubtedly potential international criminals, should there be an international tribunal on Myanmar. And their instrument of terror and crimes is the Tatmadaw, with all three branches, namely the army, the air force and the navy. These men have been named as state criminals responsible for “gravest crimes in international law”, to use the language of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission in their report of September 2018, which recommended further investigation of their crimes against humanity as genocide.
Currently the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the original judicial body of the U.N., set up to deal with legal issues between U.N. member states, is proceeding with the Merit Phase of the case of The Gambia vs. Myanmar which alleges the State of Myanmar had breached the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
With their coup of 2021, the same military leaders, who reportedly and allegedly presided over the genocide and other atrocities against Rohingya effectively ended any pretence of democratic checks and balances in Myanmar. They had come forward as “the sole representative” of the State of Myanmar in the genocide case at ICJ since Aung San Suu Kyi and her deputy Kyaw Tint Swe, both of whom served as representatives (or “Agents”) of the State at the legal proceedings.
However, judging from the violent turn of events in Myanmar which the coup has precipitated, Myanmar military’s play-acting as “state actor” needs to be re-assessed.
I would argue that the Tatmadaw, as the largest military force in Myanmar is officially referred to, is no longer a state actor, as such, despite the ICJ’s intellectually flawed, morally repugnant and empirically incorrect acceptance of the State Administration Council’s bogus claim to act as Myanmar state’s representative.
First, the Seoul-based Strategic Advisory Council – Myanmar – released their report arguing that the coup regime has lost control over more than 60 percent of the administrative territories. This council is made up of two former members of the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, on whose report the ICJ drew heavily to proceed to this merit phase.
The ICJ must cherry-pick the findings of these credible former U.N. Fact-Finders, Christopher Sidoti and Mazuki Darusman. And their reports are in the public domain for the ICJ judges and legal associates and researchers to access. A few days ago, the coup regime spokesperson Zaw Min Tun publicly admitted that his regime has control over only 60 percent (187 townships out of a total of 330) of the administrative territories.
Whatever the exactitude of these respective claims and counter-claims by the coup regime and its critics, it is now an established fact that no single armed and/or political organisation has the control of the administration and territories of Myanmar as a U.N. member state.
This is in fact the official position, at this moment, of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as reportedly spelled out by senior government officials of Indonesia, in my private conversations, as well as in the media.
Second, and worryingly, in the tweet that came across to Myanmar people as completely unhinged (that is, devoid of corresponding realities on the ground), Philippines former Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teddy Locsin Jr., spelled out its “full regard for the role of the Army in keeping an ethnically fractious country together …”. To many of us Myanmar scholars and dissidents, Myanmar is a country that is in a slow process of Balkanization or disintegration, although its external boundaries still remain intact.
When the first military regime was established in 1962 by the late General Ne Win who staged the coup against the democratic government of Prime Minister U Nu, there were less than six armed organisations, including the Burmese Communist Party, in open revolt against the Rangoon-based civilian government. Under the last six decades under the same military, the number of ethnic armed organisations have quadrupled – from six to roughly 24. Since the coup two years ago, local community-based militia groups – named People’s Defence Forces, or PDF – have mushroomed all throughout the country, with the estimate running around 600, loosely linked with the common mission of, well, regime change.
Undoubtedly, there are ethnic tensions among different communities with overlapping geographies and claims for territories. In some cases, there are armed clashes among intra-minority groups, in places such as Shan State in eastern Myanmar.
Contrary to the delusional tweet by the senior-most diplomat and cabinet member in Manila, the Army is not the stabiliser. Quite the opposite. Like the European colonial powers, Myanmar’s largest military force encourages and supports such internecine intra-minority armed conflicts. In fact, it supplies some of the groups such as the Karen Border Guard Force with arms.
However, since it was fast-tracked into ASEAN in 1997, the military officials who have travelled to various regional capitals and attend ministerial level meetings and annual summits have peddled the lie that Myanmar will Balkanize or disintegrate, without the firm hand of the military. Myanmar with its 135 national races – the number itself is a verifiable lie.
Last fall, I took a delegation of the leaders of the ethnic revolutionary organisations including the Karen National Union, the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Chin National Front to Kuala Lumpur to meet the former Malaysia Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in order to seek his strategic advice and support for our liberation struggle. [Dr. Mahathir played a crucial role in fast-tracking Myanmar’s ASEAN membership in the face of the mounting economic sanctions and Western political and diplomatic isolation].
The elder statesman of Malaysia was totally surprised when we told him emphatically that he was wrong in thinking that Myanmar’s national minorities were fighting for secession and their struggles would break up Myanmar. Finally, there is something much more disturbing than the predominantly ethnic Bamar or the Myanmar military and its ethnic Bamar leadership. Despite its insignia as a proper military organisation, the Myanmar military has long ceased to be a national armed forces who protects the national population and promotes public welfare.
For all intents and practical purposes, Myanmar’s Tatmadaw today resembles more of a drug cartel which engages in bloodbath over vast territories and lucrative trade and trading routes, than a national armed force operating under certain established rules of engagement, or an honour code of conduct informed by patriotic concerns.
I come from a large extended military family, and my close relatives have served in this institution – once a source of pride for the ethnic Bamar, despite its fascist patronage of WWII Japan. The younger brother of my maternal grandfather was the commander of a brigade under whom the former dictator Senior General Than Shwe served as a young lieutenant. My mother’s younger brother was an air force VIP pilot who flew the late dictator Ne Win’s plane for a quarter of a century. One other uncle served as a military intelligence colonel under General Khin Nyunt until he was sacked and jailed and the military intelligence services dismantled. In 1980, I myself was admitted to the military officers’ corps at the age of 17, something I declined.
I saw with my own eyes how extortionist and corrupt the national military was, an embryonic mafia – even in the dying days of General Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party dictatorship where every citizen was more or less poor. In those economically hard decades of the 1970’s and 80’s, we did not have such things as Direct Foreign Investment or the presence of multinational corporations. There were a tiny number of oil and mineral exploration projects which had not borne any economic fruit.
When the Burma Socialist Programme Party dictatorship dissolved itself under nationwide revolt in 1988, the country’s foreign reserves were only about $20 million, according to the head of military intelligence general Khin Nyunt. His post-Ne Win military government was forced to sell part of the Burmese Embassy real estate to the tune of $120 million to pay for foreign imports needed to run the government.
Today, Myanmar’s military force runs massive conglomerates, from gold and rare-earth mining, shipping, logging and gas and oil export, tourism and real estate, and consumer items to telecommunication and public transport services.
According to Justice for Myanmar, a credible Myanmar activist-run economic research organisation that monitors the military’s economic and commercial transactions with global investors and corporations, the coup regime was paid $27 million in sales taxes alone by Carlsberg Beer Group. That amount is only the last quarter of last year.
Imagine the billions of dollars it has been raking in, since the generals decided to open up the country’s economy – and resources – to the highest foreign bidders while putting on the charade of democratic reforms. That charade apparently ended with the violent coup two years ago.
In the last 60 odd years since General Ne Win instituted military rule, the military leaders have periodically reinvented their regimes: the Revolutionary Council Government (1962-74), the Burma Socialist Programme Party Government (1974-88), the State Law and Order Restoration Council (1988-1990), the State Peace and Development Council (1990-2010), and, after a pseudo-democratic interval, the State Administration Council (2020-?). There have also been the military-adopted Constitutions and the military-held elections.
Whatever the facades, it is crucial for the international observers – foreign government officials, the U.N., NGO experts and journalists – to understand that Myanmar no longer has a national military. The national military represents and protects a nation, a self-identified people, an ethnic group, with full control over clearly demarcated national territories.
Min Aung Hlaing’s military force – the largest and best armed it may be – no longer has a country or a people that can call its own. The State Administration Council is nothing more than a full-blown mafia or a cartel bent on protecting its economic and strategic corridors in partnership with external geopolitical and economic actors such as China, Russia or India.
I no longer feel any emotional bond or a sense of nationalistic pride about this mass-murderous organisation. Like millions of my fellow Myanmar Buddhists, I do not even consider the Tatmadaw a legitimate stakeholder who should be included in any national dialogue.
Society is in revolt – both peaceful and armed, anarchistic and organised. It is soaked in blood, the blood of civilians. The people are despondent. Nearly 35 percent of the country’s population are in dire need of some form of survival assistance, euphemistically called “humanitarian aid”. Almost two million people are displaced, throughout the country, besides the one million Rohingyas violently driven out over the border to Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s economy is in ruins. Only those who find their niche in “ceasefire capitalism” live well. Millions live off income remitted informally by their relatives working in foreign labour markets across Southeast Asia’s middle income countries such as Malaysia and Thailand. Most Myanmar people cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Pervasive and grinding poverty, the trademark of the first military dictatorship of General Ne Win (1962-88), has returned. But the full-blown civil war – and the thousands of incidents of looting, mugging, daylight robbery, murder and political assassination just add to the economic woes of the general public. There is a complete absence of what academics call “human security”, that is, the safety of human persons, irrespective of their backgrounds.
Some of my dissident colleagues talk of “system change”. We all wish to see the end of the existing system. Myanmar’s once national armed forces, or the Tatmadaw is undeniably genocidal without remorse, mass-murderous with impunity, ecologically extractive, commercially extortionist, ethnically divisive and economically mafia-like.
This system will NOT change without the change of regime. Now the leadership calls itself the State Administration Council, but the military remains the sole instrument of repression and mafia-like economic exploitation. Both the regime and such a mafia-like organisation need to go.
Remember the U.S. left a bitter taste in the world’s mouth with their illegal and unjustified invasion of Iraq, without the real popular demand for their imposed “liberation”. In sharp contrast, millions of Myanmar people support regime change – at least morally. Thousands of young people have taken up arms. There are no good options for the country. But for the people to have a future the six-decade-old military-mafia must die.
History is full of successful regime change – violent and some, drawn-out. It is cliche to say those who make peaceful change impossible are making violent revolutions inevitable. Myanmar’s people’s demand for regime change will only increase when the country’s largest military force has utterly and irreversibly lost the affection, acceptance and respect of the population in whose name it justifies its existence.
Maung Zarni is the co-author of Essays on Myanmar’s Genocide of Rohingyas (2012-18). He is a UK-based Burmese exile with over 30-years of first-hand involvement and scholarship in Burma affairs.
DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]