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The fascist and feudal Than Shwe

Dr Zarni

Dec 21, 2009 (DVB), In his doctrine, 'The Art of War', Sun Zi, the master Chinese strategist, stressed that "all warfare is based on deception." No one in Burma politics appears to appreciate this principle more than Than Shwe.

The element of Than Shwe's leadership that has escaped serious scrutiny is not how he has, so far, successfully met internal and external challenges to his despotic rule. This has been well documented. It is how he is forging ahead, largely unobstructed, with his personal vision of Burma as a semi-feudal economic and political system, deceiving both the army and the domestic commercial and political elite, both of which are desperate for change.

In his plan to safeguard his own future and that of his extended family, the aging despot cleverly and sinisterly strings the entire class of warriors along, who perceive themselves as the sole guardians of Burma's sovereignty, territorial integrity and civilization.

Specifically, the aging despot is deceiving his own officer corps while confusing the opposition and its international supporters by promising the supposedly more liberal political process under the banner of the "Roadmap for Democracy."

To explain further, it is under Than Shwe's leadership that the Tatmadaw [Burmese army] officer corps has suffered enormous reputational damage to themselves and their once venerable institution.

While material gains for the historically respected warrior-administrators may have increased since Than Shwe assumed power in 1992, the loss in their social standing is incalculable. With every callous order from Than Shwe that the Tatmadaw officer corps tragically executes, its social and global standing descends further into the abyss. Blinded by rabid nationalism and personal gains, the officer corps appears not to understand that its material gains and professional advancement today are not adequate compensation for its loss of corporate honor in the eyes of the public in whose name it justifies its existence.

To be sure, it was Than Shwe's late boss, General Ne Win, who in his capacity as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and later Defense Minister, arrested the military's evolutionary course from a Fascist-trained, anti-British organization to a modern, multi-ethnic national defense institution which valiantly defended from multi-color insurgencies a nascent, if struggling, parliamentary democracy following independence in 1948.

But for the past 20 years, starting from his position as the Chief of Staff of the Army, and having directly overseen the massacres of protestors during the 1988 popular uprisings, Than Shwe has sped up the process of reviving and reinforcing the less honorable fascist-militarist ethos and practices of the Tatmadaw.

Most dangerously, under his leadership the people are increasingly alienated from their own defense force. For Than Shwe's reign depends and thrives on sowing the bad blood between the people and their soldiers. In place of civil-military reconciliation, Than Shwe calls for the consolidation of this divide which he dangerously exploits.

Regressive army

By encouraging commanders at different levels to "eat" revenues, human and natural resources and land in their respective military-administrative areas, Than Shwe is taking the Tatmadaw back in time: this was a key feudal practice which sustained pre-colonial Burma's warrior-monarchs and their imperial systems.

The fact that the Tatmadaw's officer corps has failed to make any significant move against Senior General Than Shwe, in spite of the latter's cold-blooded decision to bloodily crackdown on peaceful monk protestors and further launch military-style raids on hundreds of monasteries during the Saffron Revolution in 2007, and his callous attempts to delay the provision of aid to a few million cyclone victims in 2008, is testament to the revival of the fascist ethos of "One Voice, One Nation" within the officer corps.

I attribute all these worrying psychological trends and institutional practices to Than Shwe's brilliant ability to deceive his own officers and manipulate their patrioism.

While, under his leadership, the Tatmadaw is being dragged back to its less-than-honorable fascist institutional and ideological roots, its rank and file members are generally made to believe that they and their beloved institution are marching the country towards "discipline-flourishing democracy," economic development and political stability. In their view, it is Western sanctions and Aung San Suu Kyi-led Burmese opposition that stand in the way of realizing this grand vision. The economic and social ills in the country are attributable to these two non-Tatmadaw factors, or so the rank and file members and the officer corps generally feel.

Here "Than Shwe's soldiers" born and bred in cultural and intellectual isolation, away from the modernizing currents of globalization, may be excused for thinking that theirs is a march forward into the future.

But how do we explain the fact that Burmese intellectual and commercial elites, for their part have failed to grasp the alarming ascendency of the semi-feudal and fascist behavior of the military leadership? Further, what of pro-election Western Burma experts, policy makers and advisors who have so far overlooked these features of the country's emerging political economic system?

The regime has repeatedly violated key foundational principles on which the centuries-old Burmese society rests , such as universal reverence towards the Buddhist Order or acting with compassion to those who suffer from war, disaster and other calamities.

The much-anticipated political space or complex institutional structures which are to emerge post-2010 election have little or no potential to either facilitate the gradual evolution of the militarized polity and military-controlled economy, or undermine the current military's monopoly over political and economic domains. For the power-holders, Senior General Than Shwe or his successors, and their institution are determined not to allow the emergence of any real alternative organizations or powers to emerge within their system of governance. To paraphrase the famous lyricist and singer Audrey Lorde, the master's tools will not dismantle the master's house.

To my dismay, both Western liberal governments and the Western-inspired opposition leadership have somehow failed to come to terms with the empirical reality that Than Shwe is succeeding in turning the Tatmadaw into a semi-feudal armed organization, with revived fascist ideological views. As a result of this analytical failure, they are deceived by Than Shwe into thinking that the aging despot will potentially retire or that dialogue with fascist leadership is either conceivable or desirable.

A quick historical glance at how fascist and feudal regimes rose and fell may offer a clue as to what it will take for the Burmese people to liberate themselves from such a dark force in history. Fascist, feudal, colonial and other parasitical regimes entrench themselves in power at all costs to society and live off the back of the population. While they are in power, no domestic social and political force alone is capable or should be expected to be able to overthrow or otherwise change fascist rule, unaided by external factors.

For the Burmese, both Bama and non-Bama, the ways in which the Burmese feudal rule, the British colonial rule and the Japanese occupation were ended, offer a more realistic model of how these socio-pathological systems of control, exploitation and domination are forced to end, than current liberal theories of democratic transition. Indeed Burma's problems can be effectively addressed through the Burmese Way, and it may not necessarily take a fundamentally liberal or evolutionary route.

Dr Zarni is founder of the Free Burma Coalition and Research Fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


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