The Military and its Roots

The modern military in Burma began as part of the independence struggle in the 1930s. In 1940 the Thakins, the political movement of the students and young intelligentsia, secretly sent one of their leaders, Aung San, to China to seek aid for their revolt. Picked up by the Japanese in Amoy, he was taken to Tokyo. There he met leaders of the Japanese Army command who were aware of the independence aspirations of the Thakins; Aung San entered into an agreement with them: ‘Japan would help Burma to gain her independence by supplying her with necessary arms’ (Ba Than 1962:15; Yoon 1973). At the same time, an underground revolutionary movement began to form inside Burma in preparation for the anticipated uprising against the British.

Aung San returned in 1941 and recruited twenty-nine Burmans to go secretly with him to Hainan Island where they would be given military training by the Japanese. These ‘Thirty Heroes’ formed the nucleus of the present Burma army. When the Pacific War broke out, they returned to Thailand, recruited the first members of the Burma Independence Army and followed the Japanese into Burma. Some of their units fought the British and the experience gave them pride and confidence. During the war the army’s name was changed, first to the Burma Defence Army, then the Burma National Army and at war’s end, to the Patriotic Burmese Forces. On 27 March 1945 it revolted against the Japanese and joined with the Allies in their final phase of the war against the Japanese in Burma.

There was a second strand to the modern Burma military: the ethnic minorities who were recruited and served in the pre-war Burma Defence Forces. During peacetime the colonial rulers recruited very few Burmans. Only in times of emergency – World War I and at the beginning of World War II – were the armed forces open to Burman recruits.

Following the defeat of British forces in Burma in 1942, minority recruits who did not escape to India returned to their villages in the hill areas and, there, were regrouped by British officers who stayed behind or were dropped by parachute to prepare for the return of the British army (Morrison 1947; Mountbatten 1960).

Shortly after the British were driven out of Burma in 1942, there were serious clashes between the Burma Independence Army and Karens living in the delta region. To overcome racial tensions, Aung San and other Burman leaders convinced some Karen leaders of their determination to build racial harmony by recruiting Karens into the new indigenous army and commissioning a few Karen officers. Following independence, a British-trained Karen officer, Smith Dun, was named the first head of the Burma army.

After the war, the Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral Mountbatten, met with Aung San and other Burman leaders in Kandy, Ceylon, where they agreed that the new Burma army would be created out of the two different military groups. It would contain approximately equal numbers from both and would be organised along racial lines on the model of the Indian Army. At the outset, it would employ British officers while Burmese officers were being trained to British standards. The armed force would be limited to approximately 10 000 officers and men.

The two elements brought different values and attitudes to the new army. The Burmans drew upon the ideas of the Thakins – opposition to colonial rule, independence and socialism. From their wartime experiences, they adopted the Japanese military ideas of loyalty, instant obedience to commands from above or punishment for their failures. They also learned to respond unquestioningly to authority and not to act independently in battle, no matter what the conditions. Their experiencelabourbattle against the British and the Japanese gave them a sense of self-confidence, a belief in themselves as the leaders who played an important role in bringing the AFPFL into being, and pride in their patriotism for having fought for the political freedom of Burma.

The minorities brought a different tradition: loyalty to the British monarch, military professionalism, separation between politics and military affairs, and fear of Burman domination.

There was also a third element of the military – private armies. Such forces existed in the 1930s and were nothing new for Burma. Aung San formed the Peoples Volunteer Organisation (PVO) from the Burman soldiers who were not taken into the new army, as a home guard to help maintain law and order in the countryside. But its real mission was political: to give the AFPFL a vehicle by which to intimidate the colonial rulers in the growing struggle for independence. Because PVO members shared the ideas and values of and had close personal ties to the leaders and men in the new army and the rival political parties in and out of the AFPFL – the socialists and communists – doubts were raised in many minds as to whether there was a real separation between the professional army, the political army and the parties. So long as Aung San lived, the PVO remained united and loyal to him and the AFPFL. Aung San’s assassination in 1947 left the PVO leaderless and subject to the persuasions of rival political groups seeking to lead the nation.

The communist uprising in 1948 split the PVO, with members divided between the government and its opposition. The PVO eventually faded as a military and political force, but not before its involvement in the civil war nearly tipped the scale on the side of those in revolt.

During this same period the minorities, too, were torn between loyalty to the new state and loyalty to their ethnic groups. The Karens, in particular, experienced a sense of abandonment by the British to their historic oppressors, the Burmans. This helped raise their ethnic consciousness at the expense of full identity with the new national army. In 1947 the Karens formed a paramilitary group, the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO) to defend their villages. At the same time, the other large minorities, the Shans, Kachins and Chins, gave their full loyalty to independent Burma. In the early phases of the rebellions their loyalty to the Union of Burma and their unwillingness to join the Karens and others in revolt was a major factor in saving the union.

The Kandy Agreement, which emphasised federation rather than full integration, had a second defect. It took no account of the political divisions and competing ideologies amongst the member groups in the AFPFL and their reflection in the new army. Thus, when the Communist Party went into revolt on 28 March 1948, less than three months after independence, the army began to come apart. The 1st and 3rd Burma Rifles – two Burman battalions – deserted with their weapons and joined forces with the revolutionaries. Two months later the PVO split, one part joining the communists in revolt and the other remaining loyal to the government.

Following independence and the failure of the constituent assembly to solve the problem of the Karens’ place in the new union, communal violence erupted be- tween Burmans and Karens. As the violence increased, in January 1949 the KNDO went into revolt. Three battalions of Karen Rifles deserted and joined the KNDO.

These events brought a change in military command; Smith Dun was placed on indefinite leave and Ne Win was placed in charge of the army. The government authorised the recruitment of PVOs loyal to the state, and other former World War II soldiers to form territorial units (Sitwundans) to buttress the depleted army (Tinker 1961:38). Under Ne Win’s leadership, a process of Burman domination in the army began. Despite the loyal support given by Kachin, Chin and Shan battalions, their units gradually were reformed with Burman officers in command and Burman soldiers in their ranks. Aung San’s federated army gave way to Ne Win’s Burman-dominated and integrated army. The new army became more professional with the establishment of a military academy in 1954, and later a National Defence College. As its size grew, so too did its strength in arms.

In the midst of the political turmoil caused by the 1958 split in the AFPFL, the military feared that the primary loyalty of the Union Military Police (UMP) and paramilitary forces was to political parties rather than the state and that UMP units might take sides and even displace the army as the nation’s defender. It also was alarmed at the divisions in the ranks of the nation’s leaders. In this deteriorating environment the army saw itself as the only national institution ready to sacrifice itself to preserve the union and protect the constitution.

On the eve of the formation of the caretaker government the military leaders held a conference at which they defined the national ideology, as they understood it, and their role in upholding it (Director of Information 1960: Appendix I), declaring that so long as their strength remained, ‘the Constitution shall remain inviolate’. They held that the nation’s goal was to build a political-economic system on the principles of justice, liberty and equality. To gain that end, they set three priorities: first, to restore peace and the rule of law; second, to construct a democratic society, and third, to create a socialist economy. They pledged to pursue the aims of national politics as distinct from party politics. When Ne Win presented himself to parliament as candidate for the office of prime minister on 3 October 1958, he said:

I wish deeply that all Members of Parliament would hold as much belief in the Constitution and democracy as I do. I wish deeply that all Members of Parliament would sacrifice their lives to defend the constitution as I would do in my capacity of Prime Minister, as a citizen and as a soldier (Director of Information 1960:547).

The caretaker government gave Ne Win a chance to put the army’s ideology and theories into practice; and as discussed earlier, while he followed the letter of the constitution, he violated its spirit.