UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Tatmadaw - Defense Services / Armed Forces

Burma's armed forces have dominated all aspects of Burmese life since General Ne Win's military coup of March 1962. In recent years, however, greater emphasis has been given to more conventional defense roles. Strategy is based on the preservation of unity, the protection of sovereignty, and the defense of Burma against external threats.

The Ministry of Home Affairs, led by an active-duty military general who is nominated by the armed forces commander-in-chief in accordance with the constitution, oversees the Myanmar Police Force (MPF), which is largely responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order, although the Defense Services Office of the Chief of Military Security Affairs also plays a significant role in the maintenance of law and order, particularly in conflict areas. As such, lines of authority for internal security may be blurred. For example, during the operations in Rakhine State beginning in August 2017, military commanders assumed primary control over all security arrangements and appeared to wield considerable operational influence over the Border Guard Police, which are also overseen by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

If called upon to do so, the army would fight hard and well to defend the country but would be unable to cope with a well-prepared enemy armed with modern weapon systems. The army has scored a number of significant military successes against insurgents since 1988 but would still find it difficult to defeat a committed rebel group which was well established in the rugged border areas of the country. On numerous occasions since the 1962 coup, the Burmese Army has shown ruthless efficiency in crushing political dissent. Any unrest within its own ranks has also met with the same result.

The Myanmar Armed Forces, officially known as Tatmadaw, is the military organization of Myanmar. The Tatmadaw has dominated Burma's politics since the Japanese and British occupation of Burma until today. The armed forces are administered by the Ministry of Defence and are composed of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. Auxiliary services include Myanmar Police Force, People Militia Units and Frontier Forces, locally known as Na Sa Kha.

Although the nation took pride in its precolonial military traditions, the roots of the modern defense establishment lay in two very different military organizations, the British colonial army during the colonial period, and the Burma Independence Army (BIA) and its successors. The former, organized to serve British colonial interests, was manned primarily by Indians and by Burmese ethnic minorities. Widely resented by ethnic Burmans during the colonial period, the Burma Army was thoroughly discredited in the eyes of most Burmese by its hasty retreat before advancing Japanese forces in 1942.

When the British attempted to reestablish colonial rule in 1945, a new Burma Army was formed from a merger of the old colonial forces and the Patriotic Burmese Forces (PBF). Under the terms of an agreement between General Aung San and the British, the PBF was disbanded, some of its members entering the new army as part of five battalions of the Burma Rifles. Only an estimated 200 PBF officers were incorporated into the new structure, the top leadership of which remained in British hands. In theory, the Burman units differed only in name from Shan, Chin, Kachin, and Karen battalions that had been established at the same time in recognition of wartime contributions to the British cause. In practice, however, the four minority ethnic battalions and the five Burman ones, including the Fourth Burma Rifles led by Brigadier Ne Win, were clearly separated by ethnic cleavages and by differing military traditions and experiences.

The underlying defects in both the merger solution and the structure of the army itself quickly became apparent. The surplus of PBF members entered a private army, called the People's Volunteer Organization (PVO), which was allied with AFPFL. PVO branches were soon established in most districts and townships and came to represent a parallel and sometimes competing authority within the state. These problems were compounded by political disagreements among nationalist leaders who, though unified under the AFPFL rubric, represented a wide spectrum of ideologies and beliefs.Their differences were transmitted to PVO units and to the component battalions of the Burma Army, whcrc many leaders served or maintained close contacts.

After General Aung San's assassination in July 1947, no nationalist leader had the requisite authority and prestige to stem the growing political chaos or to compel unity in the military. Immediately after independence, civil war erupted, and the new national army, which contained small naval and air elements, was wracked by mutinies in the ranks of some minority ethnic battal- ions and by widespread defections to the communist underground in the Burman ones.

The army emerged from these crises shorn of most of its ideological extremes, its leadership united in experience and firmly committed to establishing a unified and oderly socialist nation and to developing defense forces better able to perform those tasks. During the early and mid-1950s, the military continued to press against rebel forces and consolidate its own organization. Under the direction of the army commander, General Ne Win, the number of ground force battalions was greatly expanded. More importantly, all units were ethnically integrated, eliminating what had been a serious source of internal friction in the defense services. The army and navy were also confirmed as separate branches.

Since 1948 the Burmese armed forces have been committed almost entirely to the restoration of internal security. During the three years 1980-1983 alone, Burmese armed strength increased from about 60,000 to about 78,000 men (including an estimated 60,000 in the army, 14,000 in the National Union Military Police, about 2,200 in the navy,and 1,900 in the air force), but the army still lacked sufficient strength to mount simultaneous offensives against all the insurgent forces in Burma.

While charged with civil policing functions, the Paramilitary Forces Police - numbering some 50,000 by 1997 - is armed and essentially functions as an adjunct to the army, particularly in the control of political dissent. Many senior police officers have either been seconded from the army or have had military service. There are police stations in all major population centers.

Burma is the only country in Southeast Asia to be steadily increasing the size of its armed forces. Dominated by the Army, a strong and increasingly well-armed force, the military is now double the size of what it was in 1988. After the coup in 1988, the SLORC immediately arranged for the importation of a range of small arms, support weapons, and ammunition to replenish the army's depleted supply and to help guard against further challenges to military rule. Next the SLORC began a massive build-up and modernization program. This also included expanding the domestic arms industry. To best utilize and manage this massive expansion, build-up, and modernization a new command and control, communications, intelligence, and training structure has been instituted.

In mid-1988, Burma's armed forces personnel numbered approximately 186,000. The army was the largest at 170,000, air force 9,000, and the navy 7,000. There were an additional 73,000 personnel in the paramilitary People's Police Force and People's Militia who might have been able to perform a limited combat role. After the SLORC's expansion program, these numbers increased to 270,000-300,000 personnel (army-275,000; air force-10,000; navy-15,000) to date. It is reported that the goal was to have 500,000 well equipped personnel by 2000. Currently, after Vietnam, Burma has the next largest army in South East Asia and may become the largest if Vietnam continues its troop reductions.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 29-06-2018 19:56:41 ZULU