The Built-In Brutality of Myanmar’s Military

Ignoring what everyone else thinks is part of the junta’s mindset.

By , a former intern at Foreign Policy.
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, leader of Myanmar’s junta, attends a ceremony to mark the 71st anniversary of Martyrs’ Day in Yangon on July 19, 2018.
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, leader of Myanmar’s junta, attends a ceremony to mark the 71st anniversary of Martyrs’ Day in Yangon on July 19, 2018.
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, leader of Myanmar’s junta, attends a ceremony to mark the 71st anniversary of Martyrs’ Day in Yangon on July 19, 2018. YE AUNG THU/AFP via Getty Images

Myanmar’s ruling military junta executed four pro-democracy activists last week in an effort to deter the resistance movement before launching stronger military offensives this fall, but the scare tactic has had the opposite effect, according to longtime Myanmar watchers and human rights advocates.

The killings were likely aimed at sending a message to ethnic minorities and other members of the resistance, which the military will fight head-to-head as the rain stops and roads harden. But the surge in violence by the military, which has been increasingly strapped for arms, manpower, and cash, has only emboldened rebel guerrillas as the country’s monsoon season comes to a close and both sides prepare for heavier fighting in the dry fall. 

Immediately following the executions, the Arakan Army, one of Myanmar’s most powerful armed ethnic organizations, issued a statement denouncing the killings and declaring peace impossible. That night, civilians in Yangon took to the streets in protest, banging on pots and pans and risking arrest, reported the Guardian.

Myanmar’s ruling military junta executed four pro-democracy activists last week in an effort to deter the resistance movement before launching stronger military offensives this fall, but the scare tactic has had the opposite effect, according to longtime Myanmar watchers and human rights advocates.

The killings were likely aimed at sending a message to ethnic minorities and other members of the resistance, which the military will fight head-to-head as the rain stops and roads harden. But the surge in violence by the military, which has been increasingly strapped for arms, manpower, and cash, has only emboldened rebel guerrillas as the country’s monsoon season comes to a close and both sides prepare for heavier fighting in the dry fall. 

Immediately following the executions, the Arakan Army, one of Myanmar’s most powerful armed ethnic organizations, issued a statement denouncing the killings and declaring peace impossible. That night, civilians in Yangon took to the streets in protest, banging on pots and pans and risking arrest, reported the Guardian.

The junta, led by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, grabbed power in an illegal coup last February, ousting the country’s de facto democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and ending a decade-long period of semi-democratic rule. 

Typically, the junta draws back during the wetter months of May through October, when muddy roads make moving around troops and weapons a challenge. But this year, violence has not ceased, as the military has continued to carry out attacks, including placing illegal landmines in villages and rice paddies, Amnesty International documented in July. Multiple meetings with Russian defense officials over the last month discussing security and energy have also signaled that the junta is gearing up for more aggressive actions in the fall.

The killings of the four activists, which were the first state-sanctioned executions to take place in decades, came ahead of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting of foreign ministers this week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also attended multilateral sessions hosted by the 10-member grouping. On Wednesday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, the current chair of ASEAN, warned that if Myanmar’s military carried out more executions, the grouping would rethink its commitment to the Five-Point Consensus, a set of requirements for Myanmar’s reacceptance into ASEAN as a full-fledged member, but experts and advocates have already deemed it futile.

The junta—which declined an invitation to the ministers’ meeting with the condition that it send a non-junta representative—isn’t concerned about what its neighbors think. 

“It’s not easily pushed around by anyone—even Russia and China,” said Kim Jolliffe, an independent researcher on Myanmar. The only reason the military works with Russia is because it feels it can do business with no strings attached, he said.

Before traveling to Cambodia to meet with ASEAN, Lavrov made a pit stop in Myanmar to discuss security and economic issues, according to the Russian news agency TASS. Russia has a long-standing business relationship of selling arms to Myanmar, and that is one it is very happy to uphold, said Derek Mitchell, the president of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar. “The Russians are like vultures,” Mitchell said. “They see opportunity where there is disarray and division and violence.”

Especially right now, Russia needs all the friends it can get, Jolliffe said. Myanmar has long been an attractive buyer for Russian weapons companies; the military actually uses the machinery, giving Russian arms testing and marketing value, Jolliffe said. Russia is the military’s primary supplier of fighter jets and helicopters, which the junta has used to carry out attacks and move around troops during the wetter summer months.

As for China, Beijing has corporate investments in Myanmar and wants to protect them, so there is an advantage to half-siding with the junta, Mitchell said. But neither side is fond of the other.

At the moment, the conflict sits at a standstill. Ethnic minorities have united with the majority Bamar population, also fighting back against the junta, said De Wi, a Burmese graduate student currently living in the United States who used a pseudonym to guard against any reprisals. The opposition will not accept a reality where the military is allowed to have any political power. “Our ultimate goal is to get federalism,” De Wi said. “We need federal democracy. We need everyone’s freedom.”

But the military is unwilling to cede power, Mitchell said. Myanmar’s military does not consider how its actions will affect the world beyond the country’s borders, while there has always been one goal, which is to crush the opposition, he said.

Other Southeast Asian countries, by maintaining a commitment of noninterference and to neutrality, have been able to enter the global economy and play great powers against one another to their advantage. For example, though Thailand has long been a U.S. partner in Southeast Asia, Bangkok has inched increasingly toward Beijing. Vietnam has had plenty of outreach to the United States in recent years but voted against suspending Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, along with China. Thus, the Myanmar military’s turn against a semi-democratic government and pursuit of violence have been “deeply unstrategic,” Jolliffe said.

During its decade of semi-democratic rule, the door was wide open for Myanmar to do as Thailand and Vietnam and others have done. Beginning in 2011, the United States and other Western countries started easing off decades of sanctions and urging much-needed foreign investment. But the junta has chosen not to walk through, Jolliffe said. 

On Monday, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing announced in a speech that the military would extend Myanmar’s state of emergency by six months for a second time. This came as no surprise as the military must hold on to power until sham elections next August.

The Myanmar military has become a “parody of itself,” Jolliffe said. “It’s just targeting huge, widespread areas from every single settlement.” The military has historically adhered to a “four cuts” strategy, developed in the 1960s, cutting off insurgents from funding, food, intelligence, and recruits. Now, the military is directly targeting communities it believes are supporting insurgent groups, making it impossible for civilians to live stably and destroying food, livestock, and farming and milling equipment.

“We know that they are cruel. But we don’t expect that they will be cruel like this,” said Kyaw Win, the London-based founder and executive director of the Burma Human Rights Network. 

Plus, ASEAN is unlikely to abandon Myanmar, which sits at the heart of Southeast Asia and borders China, at once a partner and a threat.

ASEAN operates on a consensus system: Nothing happens unless everyone agrees. A decision to expel Myanmar from the grouping would require all members to sign on. For example, a conservative Vietnam would find it much less appealing to decry the junta’s crackdown for fear of inviting criticism of its own strict leadership. 

There’s a huge cultural adherence to an unwritten rule: Don’t go poking around in other people’s business, Jolliffe said. Since ASEAN’s formation in 1967—with some important exceptions, such as Vietnam’s 1978-79 invasion of Cambodia to oust the brutal dictator Pol Pot—the amount of large-scale interstate conflict has been relatively tame within a historically tumultuous region, and members are wary of disrupting that peace.

At its core, the Myanmar military has a deeply embedded culture of its own, and there’s a long-existing internal culture of hazing and isolation, Jolliffe said. Criticism from the outside world drives the domestically focused junta to hold even tighter to the core. “It’s an echo chamber,” Jolliffe said.

Following last week’s executions, the United States is considering new sanctions on Myanmar’s energy sector, a crucial source of revenue for the junta. But human rights advocates are asking for more, calling on ASEAN to trash the Five-Point Consensus and demanding from the rest of the world a total arms embargo.

“People in Burma had high expectations in the West, and after more than a year, people are losing hope,” Kyaw Win said.

Mary Yang is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

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