Asia Pacific Media Services Asia Analysed
Asian analysis

Latest Articles


An Iron Grip

By Bertil Lintner

Burma's ruling junta has long resisted reform. Mary Callahan's book explains that it will probably keep doing so.

Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma by Mary Callahan. Cornell University Press. $39.95

Burma's Armed Forces: Power Without Glory by Andrew Selth. Eastbridge. $29.95

While Burma's military government presents the outside world with various road maps to democracy and the possibility of a return to civilian rule, Mary Callahan, a professor at the University of Washington, presents in her excellent study, Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma, the reasons why the Burmese generals are so resistant to political reform.

At Burma's independence from Britain in 1948, the army was a small and rather insignificant force consisting of a few thousand former anti-colonial guerrillas, Callahan explains. But a civil war between the post-independence Burmese government and a plethora of ethnic insurgencies transformed the Burmese army into a powerful and largely autonomous force.

The transformation was helped by one of the earliest and most persistent covert Cold War conflicts, involving United States-funded incursions by nationalist Chinese Kuomintang troops based in northeastern Burma across the border into communist-ruled China. The Burmese army was sent into the northeast to rid the area of the Kuomintang intruders. The army was allowed to expand and became very suspicious of outside meddling in the country.

By 1962, the army had grown so strong that its chief, General Ne Win, overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister U Nu and replaced it with a military-dominated revolutionary council. The army has never let go of its power since. It probably never will.

Callahan had unique access to military archives in Burma, and her book covers in detail the rise of the army as a political force, but she was never allowed to see any documents relating to developments after the coup 42 years ago. "You don't need to see the files on what happened after 1962," Col. Ye Htut, a Burmese military researcher, told her. "The Commission for Compiling the True Facts of Myanmar [Burma] History--no, I mean the Authentic Facts of Myanmar History, you know what it's called--is writing that book. You can buy it."

Following a 1988 popular uprising for democracy the Burmese military has stepped up rewriting the country's history to suit present-day policies. The heroes in this version are not the philosophers, Buddhist scholars and intellectuals but the warrior kings who conquered territory from their neighbours. Judging from the official propaganda, Burma has always been a militaristic state ruled by soldiers. Callahan's book is therefore a badly needed counterweight to these attempts at hijacking history.

As the Burma scholar Jan Becka has pointed out, the warrior kings conquered territory from eastern India to western Thailand, but they failed to create an effective administration in those areas. The stability of their conquests rested solely on military might, and the constant wars exhausted the country's human and material resources.

Therefore, one Burmese empire after another fell apart after the death of each ruler. The British built an alien administration dominated by civil servants imported from India. The generals in power today have reverted to the medieval practices of the warrior kings--and that is why Burma still is in such a mess. And why, as the first part of the book's title suggests, it is making enemies everywhere.

The only problem with Callahan's book lies in the "state building" part of the title. Burma's military rulers have always emphasized the importance of the Burmese "state," and many Western academics have uncritically picked up the term as well. But the crux of the matter is that Burma's rulers--from the warrior kings and the British colonial masters to today's junta--have consistently failed to establish a functioning state in the country.

Even if Callahan's work is thin on material about the post-1962 period because of denied access, she describes the mentality of today's military rulers, with its legacy of distrust between them and the population. The Burmese military has never fought any outside forces. The enemies have always been within: ethnic and communist rebels, and, after 1988, the urban-based pro-democracy movement. In other countries such as Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and Indonesia, military rule was always short-lived, and nonmilitary social forces--non-governmental organizations and various advocacy groups--managed to survive periods of repression. In contrast, Callahan points out, there are no reports that anyone inside Burma's armed forces "is questioning the propriety of treating citizens as enemies." Even a compromise with the opposition would be seen as a capitulation, so the army simply manipulates the course of events to perpetuate military rule, not to change the way in which the country is ruled.

Callahan's book should be read together with Burma's Armed Forces: Power Without Glory by Australian Burma scholar Andrew Selth. His study, published in 2002, covers what Callahan's doesn't: the expansion of the military after 1962, and again after 1988. As the title of his book suggests, the military may be in power, but there is little pride attached to its dominant role in Burmese society. Selth writes that "the creation of a privileged caste of military personnel seems designed to ensure the loyalty of those on whom the regime currently depends for its position." It doesn't therefore matter if the armed forces remain despised by their own people and condemned internationally for its abysmal human-rights record. They are determined to remain in power at all costs.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, January 29, 2004

Back to articles