15 Minutes To Read

The Career Prospects of Sadists: Attrition, Collapse, and Myanmar’s Military (Part 1)

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  • In Part 1 of a 2-part series, Bobby Anderson considers the strengths and weaknesses of Myanmar’s military and its chances of collapse.

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    Starting in 2017, the insurgent Arakan Army (AA) waged war against the Union of Myanmar across the complex topography of Paletwa township in southern Chin State. In January 2024, Paletwa fell to them.

    I had worked in Paletwa with the deposed civilian government’s Department of Rural Development (DRD) before the February 2021 coup. From 2017 onward, in response to the AA’s guerilla actions, the civilian government had constricted my movement across the township; by 2019 I was limited to Paletwa town and the expanse of the Kaladan River stretching south. I still heard small arms fire at night. Back then the river was my only way in or out of town, and it wasn’t safe either: boats transporting soldiers were strafed.

    In what is now a memory steeped in irony, back in 2019 the Myanmar military or Tatmadaw, of late referred to as စစ်တပ် / sit-tat, hosted a ceremony in Paletwa town to commemorate their “re-taking” of the township from AA. They hadn’t re-taken any territory at all, but no matter: the sit-tat has never let reality get in the way of self-adulation. That afternoon I sat obliviously on the side of the road which ran down to the jetty, eating ဝက်သားဟင်း tamin hin (pork curry). I paid and I happened to step outside just as a major general and his entourage passed on foot. He stopped and looked at me, open mouthed, and I did the same to him. My first thought was that he looked like a cut rate scoutmaster: U Baden-Powell. Then I wished I’d paid more attention before I stepped out. None of the soldiers lining the street were there when I’d entered the mess an hour before. I smiled dumbly, hoping for reciprocity. Instead, I got a look of hatred that felt white-hot; an expression that spread across the soldiery. Civilian officials later told me that the major general was vexed that I was in Paletwa. And he was especially vexed because I had permission to be there from the civilian government. I’d passed security checkpoints on the Kaladan with the requisite paperwork and had checked in with the town’s police and immigration officials—in the Union, immigration officials control the internal movement of both foreigners and Myanmar citizens.

    That sour look stayed with me. For a commander, who would have had total control over the township prior to the quasi-democratization that began a decade earlier, back in Paletwa for a victory lap, it must have been a rude shock to be blindsided by a useless, grinning, pale guy. I flatter myself in hindsight by imagining that in some miniscule way I was, to that commander, representative of everything abhorrent about civilian rule.

    This essay considers the possibility for a return to civilian rule in the face of both sit-tat intransigence and stunning recent losses at the hands of the Three Brotherhood Alliance. The alliance – comprised of the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – launched a coordinated offensive against the sit-tat on October 27, 2023, and have since seized much of northern Shan state, while People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and other Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) launch new operations countrywide. This has all served to put down the myth of the sit-tat’s dominance. I consider alternating claims of sit-tat resiliency and fragility, with particular attention to the demographics of both the sit-tat and the resistance; as well as sit-tat coherence, mindset, funding, territorial control, and international relations. I conclude with a few predictions.

    Myanmar’s military

    Myanmar’s military has dominated the country’s political and social landscape since independence. It ruled Myanmar as a dictatorship from 1958 to 1960, then from 1962 until 2011, when a series of political and economic reforms initiated by the sit-tat through their affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) under Thein Sein led to a transition to a semi-democratic system which ultimately saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) win elections in 2015.

    However, prior to this ‘loss’, the sit-tat, learning from the Indonesian military’s post-1998 mis-steps in that country’s abrupt and disorganized transition to civilian rule, had enshrined their dominance through a constitution they drafted. The 2008 Constitution gave the sit-tat undisputed control of key ministries including Home Affairs and Defense, and allocated them 25 percent of seats in the parliament or Hluttaw, making reforms of the aforementioned constitution impossible. The sit-tat’s constitution also provided a legal basis for any future coup d’état. The NLD’s expert on constitutional law, U Ko Ni, believed in a democratic future and noted that what could not be amended could be replaced. In 2017, he received a bullet to the head by way of reply. The sit-tat would remain in control, and any future civilian government would be, for all intents and purposes, window dressing.

    On February 1, 2021, the sit-tat deposed the civilians anyway. Sit-tat head, Min Aung Hlaing, justified his coup by alleging widespread ballot fraud in the November 2020 elections which had seen the NLD accrue a majority of votes. The coup was widely condemned by the international community, bar the sit-tat’s most powerful friends: the People’s Republic of China, which referred to the coup as a ‘cabinet reshuffle,’[1] and Russia.

    The civilian government reconstituted itself as best it could in non-sit-tat-controlled territories and abroad, forming the National Unity Government (NUG) together with its allies from EAOs, activist groups, and political parties in April 2021. While the coup was historically predictable, as was resistance in non-Bamar, ethnic minority areas, the violent ferocity of the resistance in Bamar areas that came perhaps as a shock to the military. Some civilians began to band together in People’s Defense Forces (PDFs). Some PDFs sheltered in territories controlled by the country’s myriad EAOs, receiving training from them. Some PDFs also aligned themselves with the NUG. And soon, PDFs began killing soldiers in droves. The sit-tat, for their part, responded to resistance predictably, and with increasing sadism, moving from the first days of jailing NLD figures and dispersing protesters to levelling entire communities from the air, recently with the deadliest airstrike thus far in the conflict. The 168 civilians dead in Pa Zi Gyi in April 2023 join untold thousands in graves, while many survivors join two million displaced.

    Many Myanmar-focused academics and journalists have staked positions on the sit-tat’s resiliency or fragility. In 2021, the Center for Strategic and International Studies claimed hopefully that the sit-tat was on their last legs, while in 2023, The Irrawaddy more subtly and intelligently noted that the sit-tat’s implosion is not impossible.


    Before the coup, general estimates of sit-tat personnel ranged from 300,000 to 400,000. These were overblown.

    In the past three years, more sober estimates have emerged. On the low end, in May 2023 Ye Myo Hein estimated 150,000 personnel, of which 70,000 are in combat roles. However, the line between combatant and non-combatant in that structure has essentially been erased due to understaffing and losses, and this attrition in numbers was obvious even before the October offensives. As for police, who serve as auxiliaries to the sit-tat, Andrew Selth suggests 80,000, while Ye Myo Hein estimates 70,000. Police would be less reliable regime enforcers: they are not indoctrinated in the manner of soldiers (see below) and they reside in civilian communities. Border Guard Forces (BGF) and Pyu Saw Htee – newly-created and armed militias[2] – may also be counted, but they are peripheral. BGF loyalties are local and diffuse; as a rule they once fought the state but then switched sides, generally betraying previous ideologies, and so their loyalties can be fluid. They are essentially rural gangs running small fiefdoms with state protection. As for militias in general, their numbers are growing due to an inability for the sit-tat to recruit fast enough to replace their own losses. Such militias- staffed with retirees, criminals and EAO turncoats- are a cheap and collateral interim.


    Even before the October 2023 offensive in northern Shan State, Ye Myo Hein estimated 13,000 sit-tat casualties since the start of the coup, along with 8,000 defections and desertions. He estimated 7,000 police losses, although this police figure is not disaggregated by casualty, or desertion/defection. Nikkei noted that unnamed Yangon diplomats believed that the sit-tat was losing an average of 15 soldiers per day, or roughly 5,500 per year. The NUG claimed nearly 5,000 dead soldiers in the first 10 months following the coup, and prior to the October 27, the 2023 Offensive claimed that the sit-tat had lost half of its combat forces in the last two years, or 30,000 troops. These claims, however, cannot be confirmed, nor can the vast number of changing estimates following the recent offensives, and so sticking with conservative estimates is prudent.

    If we accept Ye Myo Hein’s estimates as accurate – and this author does – then losses estimated by Nikkei of 5,500 per year constituted 3.7 percent of the overall. That is a considerable bleed. To this we need to add desertions and defections: Hein estimated an additional 8,000, while the NUG claimed that roughly 14,000 sit-tat and police left the ranks as part of the civil disobedience movement (CDM) as of March 2023. The NUG claims to offer financial incentives for deserters, but this is unlikely to be a deciding factor in a soldier’s choice. There simply aren’t funds available to create a durable financial incentive to leave; a decision which is complicated by many other factors.

    These numbers have increased since the October 27 offensive, and although the totals are unknown, they are stark. In early January 2024, at the capture of Laukkai alone, 2,389 military personnel, including six brigadier generals, surrendered: “the largest surrender in the history of Myanmar’s military”, according to Ye Myo Hein.

    Which begs the question: even before the October offensive, were sit-tat recruitments keeping pace with losses?

    Not by a long shot. The recent activation of the Conscription law starkly bears this out, but even before the recent offensive, the sit-tat faced ever-growing issues in both recruitment and retention. Their traditional recruiting grounds, such as Sagaing and Chin, are now charnel houses, and many of the young who may have sought sit-tat careers are now rebels instead. The Irrawaddy indicates that applications to the sit-tat’s officer academies are significantly down. While this might constrain talent, talent itself is relative. This sit-tat is hardly a group of innovative tacticians. They throw bodies at problems, including medically unfit ones.

    Ye Myo Hein reasonably asserts that the sit-tat is “barely able to sustain itself as a fighting force, much less a government”: they were understaffed even before the coup. However, the sit-tat is used to bleeding, and managing multiple rebellions across both broad topographies and decades. The potential for a sudden collapse has been bandied about, but there is no historical precedent the author is aware of that looks anything like the current situation in Myanmar. However, conscription can be seen to reflect desperation. Other comparable militaries have ‘collapsed’ because they were either miniscule or corrupt or faced overwhelming force, or a combination of the three. The sit-tat maintains a disciplined, hierarchical corruption variant which functions because civilians are the prey, and so this corruption has not yet served to hollow out the institution.

    The culture of the sit-tat supports its longevity. A 2021 Deutsch Welle article claimed that soldiers were being “brainwashed” into buying the army’s worldview”. But they already knew that worldview. The sit-tat always has been a Bamar-supremacist, totalitarian organization.[3] While Theravada Buddhism is a part of this identity, it exists more as a marker to distinguish the sit-tat from non-Buddhists, Muslims especially. The sit-tat’s willingness to kill Buddhist monks when the sangha diverges from the sit-tat shows how disposable this marker can be: indeed, to its officer class, the sit-tat may be a religion that supersedes Buddhism, or at least embodies a ‘purer’ form of Buddhism than the monks who have dedicated their lives to its practice.[4] And while the sit-tat’s lower ranks may contain Rawang, Chin, and other non-Bamar and Christian foot-soldiers, the officer class is entirely Bamar. This doesn’t mean that the lower ranks joined because they prescribe to the worldview: escaping poverty is a more plausible rationale.

    This culture is supported by insularity.[5] Recruitment is multi-generational. Soldiers and their families live apart from civilians and tend to intermarry. They have their own schools and universities, their own health care, their own insurance and pensions, and their own courts. Civilians, to this group, are entirely untrustworthy, occasionally traitorous. The sit-tat has always ‘safeguarded’ the nation and so they believe they own it. The sit-tat’s sadism is also part and parcel of its culture: gore is bonding materiel. The massacres carried out by soldiers and militias forge a palpable hatred of the sit-tat among civilians, and surely give soldiers the feeling that reprisals await, and there is nowhere else to shelter but in the bloody organization that stains them. In the face of this, the security the Tatmadaw offers, financial and otherwise, is a powerful motivation to stay.[6] This motivation may be seen in the sit-tat personnel who recently fled into Mizoram, India; all opted to return.

    With the mitigating circumstance of desperate poverty for many of the rank-and-file, to join this group is to knowingly join a criminal, sadistic, totalitarian endeavor.


    Bodies are one count; cash is another. The sit-tat’s FY 2023-4 budget is US$2.7 billion equivalent –  25 percent of the national budget. The source of their on-budget funding is largely from Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise and revenues linked to extractive industries. The sit-tat has a much larger business structure than the state budget; they directly run two business conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL). MEC and MEHL holdings are vast, expanding across mining, industry, banking, food, and tobacco. Contributions to MEC, MEHL, and associated insurance and pension schemes operated by conglomerate subsidiaries are automatically deducted from soldier’s pay, with select contributions converted to MEC or MEHL shares, further bonding soldiers to the sit-tat.

    Loot for the rank-and-file is also an aspect of economic embeddedness. By way of illustration, much livestock was stolen by soldiers and proxies from fleeing Rohingya during the 2017 expulsions that the price of meat temporarily collapsed in Sittwe.[7] Other illicit local economic opportunities for officers in particular abound, which the aforementioned BGFs and allied militias play an important role in, especially regarding the sit-tat’s need for plausible deniability in such illicit businesses. Indeed, the system of promotion in the sit-tat is based in part on the funds which junior officers can amass and funnel upwards. These opportunities remain a fundraising and control mechanism for regional sit-tat commands and BGFs in particular. Narcotics have been a form of conflict resolution utilized by the sit-tat at least since the 1960s, and this became especially evident after collapse of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1989, when the sit-tat made immediate ceasefires with the CPB’s successor organizations and turned a blind eye to their manufacture and trafficking of heroin, and later, methamphetamine. Bertil Linter, Ko Lin Chin, Tom Kramer and others have described these dynamics extensively. Myanmar recently became, again, the world’s biggest opium producer. In exchange for policing territories as state proxies, the sit-tat has turned a blind eye to such illicit economies at least, and more likely, is engaged in the trade.

    The application of outside theories upon the sit-tat leadership is a type of anthropomorphism. This includes economics. Myanmar’s GDP growth fell to a negative 18% in the year following the coup, although it did eventually recover to 1%. Before the coup, it averaged a positive 6% per annum. In discarding or being ignorant of economic theories, the sit-tat has demonstrated that it is not as subject to them as N. Gregory Mankiw and other Economics 101 textbook authors would imagine. This also applies benefit to us outsiders in that it demonstrates that economics, for all the ambition of its proselytizers, is a social science, not a hard one. How many times, according to economic predictions, should the country have collapsed under Ne Win or Than Shwe?

    Although Myanmar is not experiencing hyperinflation, it is worth comparing it to an extreme example: the hyperinflation in rump Yugoslavia in 1993. In August 1993, inflation climbed to 1,880 percent; at an annualised rate, this totaled 363 quadrillion percent. By December of 1993, 500 billion Dinar notes were printed. At the time, I was a teen blissfully unaware of economics. But I did note while I was there that, in bars, the prices of drinks would change between rounds. And yet Yugoslavia kept going – with no friends save a weak Russia, no natural resources worth mention, no China. The country’s institutions continued under a much more effective sanctions regime than is currently imposed on Myanmar, under what were effectively new “rules of the game” only seen clearly in the rear-view mirror. And so the sit-tat also stumbles onward, economics be damned.

    The sit-tat often displays a rawer understanding of how money works than many an economist who would have bet on collapse. The trend of cronyism displays this understanding all too well: the mutuality of oligarchy and junta is a support mechanism that proves durable for all parties, and I hope someday Joe Studwell, former editor of the Far East Economic Review and author of Asian Godfathers and How Asia Works, chooses to write about this interrelation in Myanmar.

    That said, Min Aung Hlaing’s recent complaints about finances indicate that even he senses something is economically amiss. But the leadership’s short-sightedness limits their response to inflation to targeting cooking oil producers, threatening local banks that Min Aung Hlaing labels traitorous, and most revolting of all, attempting to rob Myanmar’s migrant workers by demanding they remit 25 percent of their wages home at the regime’s ‘official’ (i.e. fake) exchange rate, in addition to imposing a ten percent tax rate on earnings abroad. Meanwhile the price of rice has doubled, and the military’s answer in the form of price caps will hurt farmers immensely.

    Sean Turnell uses the word ‘catastrophe’ in his review of Myanmar’s current economy, but it is only that if one cares about people. It is not a catastrophe if it is seen through the prism of organized crime. Surely demonetization, a tool used by the much-hated Ne Win, and which wiped out the kyat savings of civilians countrywide in 1964, 1985 and 1987, is around the corner, even though it is expressly forbidden in the 2008 constitution.


    Sit-tat culture and economic interconnectedness restrict the possibilities of factionalism. The coup and the subsequent crackdown, it is alleged, have led to tensions and divisions within the sit-tat. Terence Lee and Gerard McCarthy evaluate this in the forthcoming “Fracturing the Monolith: Could Military Defections End the Dictatorship in Myanmar?”, while Anders Kirstein Moeller did so in “Peering under the hood: Coup narratives and Tatmadaw Factionalism”. Both attempt to discern the contours of factionalism within the sit-tat. However, it bears reminding that, for all our knowledge of the sit-tat, we do not know what’s happening inside the ranks. Reports of low morale among troops deployed to areas of armed resistance means that the sit-tat deals with the same issues as every other occupying force in history. Low morale in the face of the latest offensive is resulting in surrender, but it has yet to lead to revolt.

    It’s fair to assert that any factionalism happening within that olive drab opacity is limited to the point where said factionalism does not threaten to change the organizational philosophy of the group, nor the core beliefs it holds. An intra-sit-tat revolt against Min Aung Hlaing will not occur because he is a Bamar supremacist fascist. Rather, it will happen because he is a Bamar supremacist fascist who is losing. Nor will the sit-tat compete against civilians in a game that they haven’t already fixed in their favor. The system remains totalitarian, supremacist, and monolithic. For those arguing that factionalism is possible, I hope for the same, but we simply don’t know. Nevertheless, these hopes of factionalism within limits have precedent. The previous junta’s ‘opening’ in 2010 dated as far back as 2004 with the arrest of Military Intelligence Commander Khin Nyunt and the deposing of his ‘pro-China’ clique.

    Despite the sit-tat’s overarching ideology, there may be a minute amount of pro-NUG elements within it. Select PDF attacks, according to Ye Myo Hein, “were likely only possible with the collaboration of military insiders, and they have aroused anxiety within the military’s leadership.”

    Territorial control

    The sit-tat has been able to maintain control in all major cities and many of the roads connecting them, but even prior to the Three Brotherhood Alliance’s October 27 offensive, the sit-tat controlled less territory and faced more complex and violent resistance than at any time in their history. Shona Loong starkly illustrates this in Post-coup Myanmar in Six Warscapes.

    Back in February 2023, Min Aung Hlaing stated that only 198 out of over 330 townships in Myanmar were ‘100 percent stable’. If we take ‘stable’ as code for ‘under control,’ Min Aung Hlaing was implying that 40 percent of the country’s townships were ‘out of control’. By July 2023, the sit-tat had imposed martial law in 37 townships, including resistance strongholds in Sagaing, Magwe, Chin and Kayah. Prior to the October 27, 2023 offensive, most of Chin state was already under resistance control, as was much of Kayah. The same for Rakhine, which was largely run by the Arakan Army (see below). In Sagaing, Magwe, Chin and Kayah, the sit-tat was forced to rely on air power and artillery. It also faced difficulties in maintaining supply lines and, apparently, ensuring the loyalty of troops deployed in these areas. To shore up its own defense, the sit-tat made changes to the Arms Act to arm pro-junta militias and security organizations. As of August 2023, they began conscripting civil servants into militias in southern Shan and Kayah state, including health and education staff – a telling indicator of the effect of the bleed the PDFs were subjecting the sit-tat to. Other proxies were being mobilized to guard foreign investments the sit-tat could not commit numbers to. In a repeat of the practice of previous juntas, the sit-tat also conscripted criminals. Implicitly, then, recruitment was not keeping up with losses. And territories continued to be lost.

    And then came the October 27, 2023 offensive, in which the Three Brotherhood Alliance overran dozens of towns across Northern Shan State, and the garrisons which supposedly were there to defend them. Most of Northern Shan, and within it, the entirety of Kokang, was lost. Offensives began simultaneously in Rakhine, Chin, and Kayah, effecting the loss of nearly all the remaining territory in the latter two, while much of Western Rakhine is also lost to the sit-tat, and where even distant Ramree island is hosting fighting between the AA and the sit-tat. The coordination was not limited to EAOs: PDFs ramped up operations in Sagaing and elsewhere, and the Pa’O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) is now fighting the sit-tat as well. Even the criminal Karen BGF, guardians of Shwe Kokko, has apparently gone over to the resistance. This was a signature moment, and one that the sit-tat, with its decades of successful ‘musical chairs ceasefires’ in which an offensive against one EAO gives another breathing space, could not have imagined. Nor could they have imagined that, in another signature event, the United Wa State Army would assume administrative control of areas the alliance had seized from sit-tat control.  

    Despite this stunning set of losses, sit-tat tactics are not deviating from past practice. This includes asking China to broker ceasefires which they then speedily violate. This criminal, totalitarian endeavor holds such a supremacist belief in itself that it cannot comprehend battlefield realities.

    Bobby Anderson was an advisor to the Union of Myanmar’s Department of Rural Development prior to the 2021 coup. From 2016 to 2020 he worked and travelled widely in Chin, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan, and other areas. He is currently a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University’s School of Public Policy, where he studies the long-term impact of opium eradication and alternative development projects on hill tribe communities.

    (Social media: X and Instagram)


    [1] The PRC isn’t the first state to engage in such distortion. In Thailand, after General Sarit Thanarat overthrew Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram in 1957, the US State Department, pleased with the rightward shift, declared that what occurred, rather than a coup d’état, was ‘an orderly attempt by the present ruling group to solidify its position’. In Baker, Chris, and Pasuk Phongpaichit. 2014. A History of Thailand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    [2] Pyu Saw Htee (ပျူစောထီး), first created in the U Nu era, have been formed and disbanded in rural and urban areas of Myanmar ever since. The term also refers to pro-military civilian groups from the NLD era.
    [3] Selth, Andrew. 2021. Myanmar’s military mindset: an Exploratory Survey. Griffith Asia Institute Research Paper.
    [4] For more information on this tension, see Gravers, Mikael. 2012. Monks, morality and military. The struggle for moral power in Burma—and Buddhism’s uneasy relation with lay power, Contemporary Buddhism 13/1, 1-33
    [5] For more information, refer to Slow, Jonathan. Return of the Junta.
    [6] Kyed, Helene Maria, and Ah Lynn. 2021. Soldier defections in Myanmar: Motivations and obstacles following the 2021 military coup. Copenhagen:  Danish Institute for International Studies.
    [7] I saw this price collapse unfold in Sittwe.

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