By bullet and Buddhism

Making Enemies
May 21, 2004

Asked by the BBC's World Service his opinion of the current military rulers of Burma, a retired Burmese army officer said: "They are all thieves now." The officer was none other than Colonel Maung Maung, one of the military leaders responsible for the restructuring and strengthening of the Burmese army after General Aung San, its founder, was assassinated in 1947.

Maung Maung's embittered tone reveals more than anger at what has become of his beloved army, which is now a machine for killing the soul of Burma. Some of his comrades who fought against the British colonial power even suggested that it was a mistake for Burma to have gained independence in 1948.

Post-Second-World-War Burmese politics is full of violence and betrayals by politicians who have turned army officer and vice versa. Despite attempts by historians to understand Burmese politics, they find it difficult to explain rationally the course of events in Burma since 1948. Some blame the British for divide-and-rule tactics; others the weak civilian government of U Nu before the army seized power in 1962; still others Ne Win's junta; while the junta blames all who do not support its half-baked ideas.

Making Enemies is a study of the birth and growth of the modern Burmese army, known as the Myanmar Tatmadaw, from its origin as a liberating force in the 1940s to its role as a ruthless oppressor with the excuse of nation building. Mary Callahan gives a period-by-period account of its rise and its relationship with the society it rules. She examines factors underlying decisive moments with the help of interviews and documents from several sources, including the army's archives, making this book the most comprehensive on the Tatmadaw available.

Although she does clarify the events that led to the army coup of 1962, she fails to give a more satisfactory account of the main player, Ne Win, who subsequently ruled more or less single-handedly into the 1990s. Little is said about Ne Win before he became a powerful figure in the late 1950s. It is hard to understand fully the rise of the Tatmadaw without grasping his influence. But there are tantalising insights into crucial incidents and subjects that are not discussed elsewhere. For example, we are told that some of the early documents on the Tatmadaw were destroyed during rebel attacks on the military headquarters in the early 1950s; and one is intrigued to know how they were destroyed, what was destroyed and who did it.

Callahan says the Tatmadaw is not a "political movement in military garb" - but the more I read the book, the more convinced I became that the opposite was true. Since the early 20th century, the leaders she discusses have used armed groups to consolidate their power base and increase their political clout.

Yet she rightly points out that the junta's unyielding behaviour is due to weakness rather than strength. To understand it, one has to go back about 1,000 years. It is clear that despotic rulers of Burma have always had the urge to rewrite history to justify their rules. The irony is that the current rulers are defending a political entity that emerged only when its boundary was drawn by the British after they became the rulers in 1885. The insecurity of the generals is indicated by the way Burmese schoolbooks portray the destruction of the old Thai kingdom of Ayudaya by the Burmese as a glorious conquest but the conquest of Burma by the British as an illegal invasion.

As painted by Callahan, the Tatmadaw is commanded by Macbeth-like leaders unable to tolerate the unbearable lightness of normality and humanity once they have gone through certain traumatic experiences including bloody battles and the reality of power. Their mixture of machine guns with old Buddhist ideas expresses the generals' inability to adopt the mindset required to be modern. In Burmese politics, the wrong people always seem to do the wrong jobs even if they have the right intentions.

Making Enemies tackles uncomfortable topics such as tax collection and autonomy for ethnic nationals, which are rarely discussed properly by the junta or ethnic nationals. There is no doubt that some generals want to mould the different peoples of Burma into the "disciplined, dependable citizenry of a modern nation-state"; but have been unable to lead because they lack understanding of society, which makes them feel like outsiders and feeds their insecurity.

The question remains: do the international community and the Burmese civilian leaders have enough political will to convince the generals to return to their barracks?

Pascal Khoo Thwe is the author of From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey .

Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma

Author - Mary P. Callahan
Publisher - Cornell University Press
Pages - 268
Price - £22.95
ISBN - 0 8014 4125 0

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