The Tatmadaw | Junta down but not out

Myanmar’s military faces its most formidable challenge in six decades of dominance as opposition fighters and ethnic rebels consolidate in the country’s hinterlands, but it still remains ‘the most effective and best-armed fighting force’ in the country

Updated - December 17, 2023 12:22 pm IST

Published - December 17, 2023 03:05 am IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

In a world and time where absolute rule by a military junta in a country is considered an anachronism, the Tatmadaw, or the military in Myanmar, seeks to maintain such a regime after gaining absolute power through a coup in February 2021. But the backlash against the coup has arguably been the severest that the Tatmadaw has faced in six decades of dominance in Myanmar post independence.

The current iteration of the junta goes by the appellation State Administration Council (SAC), which organised the third major coup in the country’s independent history to oust the elected civilian National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government. To tackle the agitations that followed the coup, the military reverted to its oft-used tactics of repression even as the NLD and other pro-democracy activists went on to form a National Unity Government (NUG) in exile.

Editorial |Changing tide: On democracy and Myanmar’s civil war

This led to the creation of the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), militias across the country that took on the junta using guerilla warfare and inflicted losses in several villages in Myanmar’s rural hinterland, even in places dominated by the majority Bamar ethnicity. Various ethnic armed actors, some of whom have been fighting the Burmese state for decades, also went on to break their prior ceasefire agreements with the Tatmadaw and entered into a loose alliance with the PDF and the NUG, expanding the skirmishes into a full-fledged civil war.

This alliance was enabled by political developments after the coup — members of the deposed NLD and other elected ethnic lawmakers formed a new political body called the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (or National Parliament in Burmese), which, along with other civil society actors and ethnic party representatives later formed the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), a dialogue platform seeking to unite pro-democratic forces.

The NUCC then agreed upon a “federal democratic charter” (FDC) that sought to come up with a future constitution, and a political roadmap to a “federal democratic” country to be led by the NUG that was announced in April 2021. A final publication of the FDC happened in March 2022, after incorporating ethnic demands of recognition of non-Bamar minority identities and equality.

Ethnic armed groups such as the Karen (Karen National Union), Kachin (Kachin Independence Organization), Chin (Chin National Front) and Karenni (Karenni National Progressive Party) supported the NUG, fighting the army and helping forming anti-coup militias. They did so while rejecting an NUG proposal for a single ‘Federal Army’ under a unified NUG command.

Eight groups, including the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) initially joined the NUCC dialogue, but after the junta’s crackdown, decided to retain their ceasefire status with the junta.

The Shan-State based Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), representing the interests of the Palaung people; the Kokang-based Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA); and other northern groups in Shan State, besides the Rakhine State-based AA, used the post-coup situation to strengthen themselves without provoking the junta. These groups are also loosely allied with the United Wa State Army (UWSA), one of the largest ethnic armed forces, which has repudiated any ties with the NUG and retains its pre-coup relationship with the junta.

On October 27, 2023, however, these three groups — the MNDAA, the TNLA and the AA — launched coordinated attacks against military bases across northern Shan State. The attacks, termed ‘Operation 1027’ denoting the date of the operations, October 27, by the Three Brotherhood Alliance, as the three groups called their collective, led to serious setbacks for the junta’s forces.

Scores of military outposts and bases were either abandoned by the junta forces or were captured by the rebels, with the UN stating that 60,000 people in Shan State and 2,00,000 overall in the country have been displaced following the current hostilities taking the total number of civilian displacements to more than two million since the coup.

In the ensuing weeks after the coordinated offensive by the Brotherhood Alliance, other ethnic armed groups besides the PDF were engaged in attacks against military establishments across the country — from Kachin state in the north, Sagaing, Magwe and Bago in the central plains, Chin and Rakhine States in the west, Kayah in the east and the Karen State in the south. As an analyst put it in the news outlet The Irrawaddy, “For the first time in history, the military now faces simultaneous attacks from armed resistance of various types, ranging from conventional warfare to guerrilla tactics and from overt to covert operations, in 12 out of Myanmar’s 14 states and regions. The evidence of a coordinated nationwide offensive by the combined forces opposing the hapless coup regime has become unmistakable”. The Tatmadaw still controls major roads, towns and urban centres but have lost significant territory in the form of outposts in rural areas of large parts of Myanmar.

Stretched thin

This situation where the Tatmadaw has been stretched thin by the coordinated attacks from different armed groups, and to its alarm, even in its Bamar strongholds, has led to some analysts excitedly suggesting that the military has finally received an existential threat to its dominance. But other seasoned observers of Myanmar have taken a cautionary stance. One such observer, veteran journalist Bertil Lintner, argues that the Myanmar army remains the “most effective and best-armed fighting force in the country”.

A UN report in May 2023 said arms worth $1 billion were used by the military against the people of Myanmar with the bulk of them (more than 90%) from entities from three countries (Russia 41%; China 27%; and Singapore 25%). Supplies from India amounted to $51 million. The war crimes-committing junta has used fighter planes and artillery to bomb its own rural people using scorched-earth methods to deter the rebels.

The PDFs, meanwhile, were using locally sourced arms and Mr. Lintner also argues that there was significant lack of cohesion among the ethnic armies. More vitally, he says, the “everlasting unity of Myanmar’s armed forces” and the fact that the Tatmadaw has “become a powerful state within a state with its own institutions and privileges for its members” has made it a formidable organisation, which has weathered many crises and storms since Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948.

The Tatmadaw’s recent history can be traced to the formation of the Burma Independence Army (BIA) that was founded in 1941 by a group of activists along with Japanese help to take on the British. Led by Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the BIA initially fought in the Second World War against the British alongside the Japanese and renamed itself as the Burma Defence Army which later on joined the Allied forces against Japanese occupation by 1945.

After substantive reorganisation in a period marked with conflict with ethnic insurgent groups, the military led by General Ne Win led a coup against the civilian government (then led by U Nu) in 1962 to form a unitary state led by the military and that espoused a “Burmese socialist” regime based on dirigiste principles. The unitary state allowed for only a single party that was dominated by the military and this ruled the country for 26 years, pursuing policies of international isolation, autarky and rule by dictatorial fiat.

With Myanmar’s economy rapidly deteriorating, a massive civilian uprising occurred in 1988 against the military rule. It was put down with force and by September 1988, martial law was declared. The military now ruled through a new regime called the State Law and Order Restoration Council that metamorphosed into the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997. The SPDC, with senior general Than Shwe at the helm, consisted of 11 senior military officials and effectively controlled the reins of government till 2011, when following a new Constitution in 2010, power was handed over in the form of a sequence of steps to a hybrid civilian-military regime led by former general Thein Sein.

NLD victory

In 2015, the NLD won a supermajority of seats in the combined national Parliament and sought to restrict the military’s overarching powers gradually but was rebuffed by military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who went on to become chairman of the SAC, the new iteration of the Tatmadaw regime that captured absolute power in 2021.

The Tatmadaw’s decades’ long organisation as a professional force that draws from the Bamar ethnicity, its untrammelled use of resources by setting up and controlling corporate firms and business interests, its insulation from any civilian scrutiny or oversight, besides its utilisation of geopolitical ties with Myanmar’s neighbours, China in particular, has allowed it to remain a formidable force.

While international sanctions against its leaders, the wrath of the Myanmar diaspora due to its failures and excesses as the ruler of the country, which include the genocidal policies against minorities such as the Rohingya, and support for the NUG have thrown up a strong challenge, its successful use of ethnic divisions, besides its resourcefulness has ensured its hegemony despite lack of popular support in Myanmar.

This is perhaps why observers like Mr. Lintner argue that Myanmar is in for a prolonged war of attrition unless there is an internal split within the Tatmadaw for the pro-democracy and pro-federal forces to exploit for a decisive military win. And even then, the task to build a post-junta, federal and democratic Myanmar will be enormously complicated.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.