9 Minutes To Read

The Entrenched Tatmadaw: Explaining the Dominant Elite in Myanmar’s Political Landscape 

9 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • Yatana Yamahata explores the reasons behind the Tatmadaw’s stronghold over Myanmar politics.

    Having endured more than a half-century of military rule, Myanmar appeared to be the least likely candidate for democratic transition in Southeast Asia. Although the prospects for Myanmar’s democratization resurged with the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 2015 election, this political change has been a top-down transition in the system–-from military rule to electoral authoritarianism–-not in the military’s dominance in politics. The military’s continued dominance was institutionalized by the “roadmap to democracy” engineered by the military regime in 2003. Most notably, this included the drafting of a new constitution in 2008 which allots a quarter of the seats in both houses of Parliament to the military. As the civilian control of the military is a necessary precondition for a democracy, the persistence and entrenchment of Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, has led to a late and limited democratic transition.

    Myanmar’s continued military dominance despite its recent transition is not only a divergent pattern in the world, but also in Southeast Asia, as the Tatmadaw has outlasted its Filipino and Indonesian counterparts. This raises the following question: how can the enduring strength of the Tatmadaw be explained? The essay argues that Tatmadaw’s persistent hold on power results from its continuous elimination of democratic forces, its substantive involvement in the national economy, and its management of longstanding centre-periphery conflicts over the course of a half century of military rule; this has established the Tatmadaw as the country’s predominant political, economic, and even cultural elites, overshadowing any other contending force. Today, other than the Sangha, the military is the most deeply embedded institution in Myanmar’s politics, economy and society.

    Image courtesy of Matthew Venker

    Explaining Military Regimes: The Logic of ‘Seizing Power or Returning to the Barracks’

    A quantitative study by Barbara Geddesuggests that military regimes, on average, survive for nine years, making it the least durable political system among other regime types, such as personalist and single-party regimes. Military regimes have been a rarity in world politics since the end of the Cold War, most of which had been replaced by democratic forms of government. This general pattern raises the following questions: what are the causal explanations of military regimes withdrawing from power? What interests cause them to democratize? According to Geddes, military regimes are unstable and fragile as they “carry within them the seeds of their own disintegration”. This weakness in the endogenous structure of military juntas is explained by the binary logic of “seizing power or returning to the barracks”: when factional differences arise from external and/or internal pressures, the military prioritizes its survival as a cohesive institution. Military regimes tend to recognize that one faction cannot further its own interests at the expense of another, whether in or out of power. Therefore, it is in the best interest of each faction to prioritize maintaining the cohesiveness within the military over holding office, making military regimes more likely to democratize than other kinds of authoritarian regimes.

    Maintaining Military Regimes: Establishing the Tatmadaw as a Dominant Elite

    Lasting from 1962 to 2011, Myanmar’s military regime is an anomaly in Geddes’s study. In fact, Lee Jones has described the Tatmadaw’s coherence to have increased over time. Is there something unique about the structure of the Tatmadaw that explains the durability of the military regime? This question must be understood by analyzing the military through Myanmar’s historical and sociological context, which Geddes’s quantitative study lacks. Myanmar’s military has always taken on a political role since its foundation by a group of patriotic politicians known as the Thirty Comrades. The Tatmadaw’s leadership had been further influenced by the anti-fascist revolution against the Japanese in the 1940s , in which they served as nationalists rather than soldiers, who were committed to protecting the nation from external as well as internal threats. In other words, the Tatmadaw was convinced of its ‘new professionalism’ mentality, defining its duty to not only ensure national defense but also to uphold wider nationalist and political agendas. This tradition united the military when ethnic insurgent groups challenged Myanmar’s sovereignty following the coup d’état; its predominant concern since has been “to maintain territorial integrity and political stability, particularly the threat from ethnic separatism. “[1] Although there are other factors, such as patron-client relations (described below), centralized organization and hegemonic figures[2] that contribute to the cohesion of the military, this overarching ideology of the military as the protector of the nation has been essential to its strength and coherence despite episodes of intra-military factionalism. However, the durability of the Tatmadaw is not sufficiently explained by the endogenous strength of the military. The classical approach to military regimes by Geddes lacks an analysis of the military’s interactions with exogenous factors. The strength of the military is relative to contending forces, such as independent middle classes and political parties, that could force the military to come under civilian oversight. During the decades of military rule, the Tatmadaw has established itself as a dominant political elite by eliminating threats of democratization. In other words, the Tatmadaw secured military durability by building its preferred social and political order. Firstly, its domination of the national economy resulted in the lack of an independent middle class. Secondly, the intervention of the Tatmadaw in centre-periphery conflicts, such as ceasefire agreements and state-building projects weakened ethnic insurgencies. Although Geddes’s approach explains military regime transition in terms of the fragility of its structure when faced with threats, the Tatmadaw has been able to successfully maintain control and secure its corporate interests. As a result, the Tatmadaw had been able to dictate a democratic transition from a position of strength, as it had been able to institutionalize its dominance.

    Economic Domination: The Absence of an Independent Middle Class

    The absence of an independent middle class explains why the Tatmadaw continues to be a persistent and entrenched political institution in Myanmar. Decades of military rule have enabled the Tatmadaw to directly and indirectly manage the national economy. This hindered the emergence of an independent middle class that could demand democratic rule. An independent middle class is an essential determinant in producing socio-political pressures that prompt democratization, as economic development equips middle class citizens with the economic resources necessary to demand their own rights. This is because the increase in income from economic development prompts the middle class to demand a democracy as it is a system that best protects their individual and private property rights.[3] Even in examples of an independent middle class emerging under military rule, such as in Indonesia under the New Order, economic growth has been prioritized over prospects for democracy. The economic domination of the Tatmadaw in Myanmar’s national economy was initially driven by its need for internal control as it perceived foreign economic domination as a potential threat that was looming over postcolonial Myanmar. Following the coup d’état in 1962, General Ne Win proposed The Burmese Way to Socialism, which adopted policies that aimed to promote self-sufficiency through tight state control over economic activities. As a result, this process included the “nationalization of some 15,000 private firms, the establishment of a massive public sector represented by state corporations called SEES (State Economic Enterprises), forcing approximately 200,000 Indian nationals who controlled a large part of the economy to leave the country”. In addition, all of Myanmar’s private banks, around half of which were owned by Indian nationals were nationalized, expelling the population that constituted Myanmar’s middle class. The absent middle class was soon replaced by high-ranking military officials after the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) seized power in 1988. Military-owned conglomerates such as Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) have “controlled some of the largest companies in Myanmar, including sole or joint ventures in mining, gems, jade, banking” and so on. As a result, high-ranking military officials stood at the top of the class pyramid, equipped with the economic resources to start and invest in enterprises. As Myanmar implemented privatization in the 1990s, this class expanded to include owners of domestic conglomerates who shared personal connections with military personal. For example, politically connected conglomerates have been granted special access to licenses and land, allowing them to operate a wide range of business, such as a bank, an airline, construction businesses, among others. Therefore, this state-dependent middle class is unlikely to constitute a democratizing force as its members are connected to the military elite and benefit from dominating the national economy with them. Instead, they are likely to shape democratization processes to suit their corporate interests. The Tatmadaw’s domination of the economy strengthened its control and hindered the emergence and growth of an independent middle class in Myanmar, an important force for democratization.

    Centre-Periphery Conflict: The Weakening of Ethnic Minority Groups

    In addition to the domination of the national economy, the Tatmadaw has exercised the repression of ethnic minorities in order to instill long-term military dominance throughout the country. The mobilization of ethnic organisations, whether in the form of civil society movements or insurgencies, has been a threat to the strength and durability of the military regime; they constitute a quasi-democratizing force as most ethnic minority organizations share aspirations of Myanmar evolving into a federal democracy that would not only safeguard their rights but also redress their long-standing grievances. Such grievances can be traced back to the first Panglong Agreement in 1947, signed before independence between General Aung San, who represented the pre-independence interim government, and Shan, Kachin and Chin leaders to pave the way towards federalism and eventually, autonomy of the ethnic states. The promises for equal representation made in the Panglong Agreement were not only ignored but also reversed by the military regime. From state policies to ceasefire agreements, ethnic minorities have been systematically excluded from the national political arena ever since Myanmar gained independence in 1948, and especially following the military coup d’état in 1962. The military regime’s betrayal of the Panglong Agreement, along with decades of human rights abuses and socio-economic exclusion that came with military repression, prompted ethnic minority groups to rebel. Through the wars it waged against those which challenged their dominance, the Tatmadaw has successfully weakened ethnic organisations, and established their dominance.

    The Tatmadaw has been systematically marginalizing ethnic minorities through cultural as well as economic means that align with the state’s assimilationist policies. U Nu implemented Burmanization in order to create a ‘unified’ nation under the ethnic Bamar and Buddhist majority despite Myanmar being home to many and diverse ethnic groups. Burmanization involved a range of assimilationist policies that suppressed the expression of linguistic, religious and other cultural differences. For example, this included prescribing the teaching in schools to only be in Burmese and establishing Buddhism as the state religion, accumulating ethnic grievances and worsening centre-periphery relations. Decades of cultural repression have undermined ethnic identities, weakened the civil society and even triggered the recent Kachin Independence Army (KIA) rebellion in 2011.

    Furthermore, the Tatmadaw has also employed state-building as a “postwar military strategy to govern land and populations to produce regulated, legible, militarized territory”. For example, the Tatmadaw granted logging concessions to its close business partners, strengthening its hold over the major source of revenue for ethnic armed groups in the resource-rich Kachin State. Other counterinsurgency strategies include the military’s engagement in ceasefire capitalism, which “offers to include ethnic armed group elites in the proceeds of military capitalism in exchange for them signing ceasefire agreements”. Such ceasefire agreements not only co-opted the ethnic minority groups into patronage networks, but also strengthened the Tatmadaw by extending its power in politically contested ethnic lands. Moreover, the military regime’s resource extraction projects, such as the Sino-Burmese gas and oil pipelines and the Myitsone Dam project have resulted in heightened tensions between the Tatmadaw and ethnic organisations, such as the breakdown of the ceasefire with KIA . Although these projects promised economic development, in reality, they prompted heightened militarization around project areas, loss of livelihood and increased vulnerabilities of the ethnic population. The violent dispossession of ethnic lands was also followed by the Tatmadaw’s infrastructure construction (e.g. roads) to aid these projects, enabling the expansion of its sphere of influence into previously inaccessible ethnic territories at the periphery.


    Military regimes do not have to choose between “returning to the barracks or seizing power” as long as they have the power to continue ruling. This essay shows that military strength and coherence does not only come from internal cohesion but also from external dominance. Firstly, the essay suggests that Barbara Geddes’s literature on military regimes does not explain the case of Myanmar; it is oblivious to the specific historical and sociological contexts as well as the exogenous forces that contribute to the Tatmadaw’s durability. Secondly, the essay analyzes the process in which the Tatmadaw had evolved to become a dominant elite, effectively eliminating democratic forces. An independent middle class in Myanmar has become non-existent due to the expulsion of the Indian business class, followed by the military domination of the national economy. Successful businessmen have also been closely connected to high-ranking military officials, enjoying the benefits of their economic dominance. The Tatmadaw’s intervention in the ongoing centre-periphery conflict has involved the suppression of ethnic identities as well as the co-optation of ethnic elites through ceasefire agreements. Furthermore, other counterinsurgency strategies, such as state-building projects, have enabled the military to expand their dominance in peripheral areas that they were previously unable to access.

    After decades of military rule, the Tatmadaw has become the dominant elite by establishing its preferred social and political order. As a result of securing its hegemonic dominance, the military has been able to pursue “an orderly transition to civilian rule that would safeguard Myanmar’s integrity, restrain civilian political conflict, contain centrifugal forces, and defend the military’s individual and corporate interests”. Myanmar’s democratization is divergent from other cases in the world and in Southeast Asia as the military continues to be persistent and entrenched in the country’s politics, economy and society; the Tatmadaw is able to influence important decisions without the need for direct rule.

    Yatana Yamahata is an MSc candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her interests lie in democracy and democratization processes in the Global South, especially in Myanmar.

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