On the Unity of the Army, 1948–1988

It often has been noted that throughout the period of military rule the army remained united and intact. Ne Win could appoint and dismiss leaders with no fear of army resistance. He could call upon it to carry out the most brutal suppression of the people without fear that it would reject his command.

The officers in the Burma army have come from three sources: from the ranks; from students and graduates of the universities of Rangoon and Mandalay, who were given ROTC training and after entering the armed forces completed the Officers Training School (OTS) course. Under Ne Win, the first category were the most trusted, especially if they had served under him in his first postwar command, the 4th Burma Rifles. They formed a close camaraderie, and such men as Aung Gyi, Tin Pe, San Yu and Sein Lwin rose to leadership this way. The academy graduates were intended to be the army elite; they were carefully selected and given an education comparable to that offered at the universities. The ROTC produced engineers and doctors mainly; however, some, upon entering the armed forces, became line officers and they represent the best educated amongst the senior command. Enlisted men have been drawn almost exclusively from amongst the rural population. They have had less education generally than urban youth and the military has offered an opportunity to live better and earn more than if they remained peasants. They have proven to be very loyal soldiers who respond faithfully to command. The army has also recruited soldiers from amongst some of the minorities who were thought to be less political and most loyal to the national government. The Chins are believed to be the most numerous at the present time.

The persistent unity within the army can be traced to three sources: training, ideology, and its self-declared special position in society. As noted earlier, the initial Burman component of the army was trained by the Japanese and absorbed its traditions of absolute authority, brutalisation of the troops and officers who delayed or questioned orders, and centralisation of command. This was the glue that held the units together and punishment for individual initiative ensured that no deviation occurred.

The special position in society was a by-product of the army’s central ideology. It saw itself as the most patriotic and loyal body in the nation. It had fought for independence and was in the front line of defence against both external and internal enemies. Because of its willingness to sacrifice everything for the people and the state, it saw itself as entitled to good housing, pay and benefits. During the democratic period, a two-class society emerged, with the army bases better built and cared for than the housing of the ordinary people. Through the Defence Services Institute the army expanded into the economic realm, where eventually, during the caretaker government, it organised and ran several large economic enterprises. From this period, the army argued that it not only defended the nation from its enemies but was the friend and helpmate of the farmer and worker, sharing in the harvesting and in building roads and dams. Throughout the period of the constitutional dictatorship this theme of friendship and partnership dominated in the press and at public events.

For all the apparent internal unity in the army, there was dissent in its officer ranks. In 1976, a coup against Ne Win was launched by more than a dozen junior officers. They were intent upon returning civilian leaders to power and the military to professional tasks. In court, the accused argued that they were dissatisfied with the political and economic system imposed on Burma by their leaders and with the corrupting influence of politics in the army. The failure of the coup and the conviction of the accused placed Academy graduates under suspicion, and many were diverted to administrative and party duties. Until 1988, military leadership remained in the hands of officers who rose from the ranks, from the OTS and from close association with Ne Win (Silverstein 1977); since then, Academy graduates have risen to leadership in SLORC, and General Maung Aye, a member of the first class at the Academy, is the second-highest ranking officer in the army.