The Rise of the Military in Myanmar and What Comes Next: The Decline of a Military Machine?

Michael W. Charney | ယခုဆောင်းပါးကို မြန်မာဘာသာဖြင့် ဖတ်ရှုရန် ဤနေရာတွင် နှိပ်ပါ

Cite as: 
Charney, M. W. (2022). The Rise of the Military in Myanmar and What Comes Next: The Decline of a Military Machine? Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship, 1. https://ijbs.online/?page_id=3643

Like many other post-colonial societies, post-independence Myanmar has had a military with an extra-defense role in society that far outweighs the normative position a military might hold in the West or, since World War II, in much of East Asia. Foreign historians and political scientists have long explained the rise and continuing strength of the military in Myanmar in ways that reflected the understandings of their times and global perspectives. The military was a nationalist force against the Japanese towards the end of the Second World War, a revolutionary force against the interference of the United States in the early Cold War, an example of a typically self-serving, military dictatorship that pushed aside civilian governments throughout the Global South in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, a nationalist force stamping out the vestiges of colonialism, largely accepted by the general population by the 1980s, and then an unpopular military junta seeking to hold back the post-Cold War democratic wave that briefly swept Southeast Asia in the late 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. In the author’s own history of the country, written in 2008 and published in 2009, he described the military’s efforts at constitutional reform as a phase of “perpetual delay”.1

Nevertheless, in 2008 a new constitution was promulgated, in 2010 elections were held, and in 2011 a transitional government was put into office, albeit with heavy constitutional provisions maintaining overall military control. Many scholars again revised their views of the country and some praised the military as a reforming force, within limits.2 Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) decided to contest the 2012 by-elections and join in the new, military-validating system. After a sweeping result for the NLD (and thus Aung San Suu Kyi) in the November 2020 general elections, the military launched a coup on 1 February 2021, which led to a civil disobedience campaign beginning on 4 February. The military formed the State Administration Council to run the country, while soldiers were sent through towns and villages and resistance and counter-resistance morphed into civil war. Scholars, journalists, and others have stayed in step and tried to once again portray the military in a new way, looking at these events as the result of an institutional crisis in which the military feared that the NLD had the momentum to remove the existing constitutional checks to civilian power.3 Such a development might possibly allow for key members of the military to be punished for their many past crimes.

Most of the views discussed above have come from foreign or expatriate scholarship because most of the scholars living within the country have had very few opportunities to conduct research openly on the military, and the ten-year window in which military control was supposed to be a ‘lighter touch’ was foregone by the late 2010s when the NLD and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi were intent on controlling the media and suppressing journalists and others critical of both the civilian government and the military. As a result of the many dated and often partisan takes on the Myanmar military, combined with the lack of access to the institution, and a sustained effort by the military to present itself, unrealistically, as a bearer of precolonial royal and military traditions, the military is poorly understood, by scholars as well as by the general public, both national and international. The military is most often depicted as either being stronger than it is or weaker than it is. These mistaken impressions have led to many of the failures today to end military rule in Myanmar, as well as to the international community’s failures to coax the military to change its ways.

One of the remaining obstacles to overcoming the influential, but dated, characterizations of the military is the challenge of doing primary research on the institution. Existing research is elite-centered, focused on the perspectives and recollections of the higher echelons of the military officer corps, often through conversations after they have left their command. They represent a different social milieu than much of the everyday soldiery who are under very close control or observation by their commanders. And their separation from the rest of society means that what the general population feels is no guide at all to how the everyday soldier feels or behaves. One of the unique opportunities of the present special issue of this journal is that interviews with deserting soldiers offers us at least some insights into how some soldiers view their role and that of the military in Myanmar’s society and governance. Of course, this only represents that tiny slice of the military that has chosen to serve no longer and as a result, this can only be one part of a larger picture. Nevertheless, it is a beginning. In the short overview below, the author discusses some key aspects of Myanmar’s military history to attempt to put the institution’s position in contemporary Myanmar into a wider context.

How the Military Came to Control the Country

The military’s exhibitions, such as parades around the statues of renowned Bama conquerors from the past, and the institution’s own official history, widely promulgated, would have the country believe that they are heirs to the precolonial armies and rulers of the past. However, the Myanmar military has nothing to do with these precolonial armies. The constitutional position of the military relative to civilian power and the laws which have backed the security excesses of the military since 1962 are rooted in the example of the colonial military developed under British rule. The British decision in 1928 to ban Bama military service in favor of ethnic minorities (the ‘martial races’) meant the independence-era military was plagued by bias. Bama nationalist parties in the 1930s organized their own paramilitary tats (armies) in response, although they remained unarmed.4 Under Japanese tutelage, independence leader Aung San organized a group of thakins, the Thirty Comrades, into the core of a new Burma Independence Army that would swell as the Japanese pushed out the British in 1942, creating such a large force that it came to concern the Japanese. They demobilized it and formed the smaller Burma Defense Army (BDA). When the Japanese insisted on mobilizing the BDA for their own war effort, the BDA rebelled and sided with the invading Allies. The military, as historian Tharaphi Than observes, was enormously popular at that time and included female soldiers in its ranks.5

The assassination of Aung San, the achievement of independence in 1948, and the outbreak of civil war soon after would set the template for the modern Myanmar military. Military leadership was given to a senior Karen officer named Smith-Dun. With the outbreak of ethnic insurgencies from 1949, Smith-Dun’s ethnicity became a political issue, and when fired, Ne Win took his place as commander of the military.6 Ne Win collected a group of officers around him who would go on to dominate the military for decades. As historian Maung Bo Bo has shown, these officers were interlinked through family connections and intellectual networks that favored a stronger, authoritarian form of government in the country, waging a struggle through politics and the media against the liberal press and intellectuals.7 At the same time, the military was developing fiscal autonomy through control of certain resources as well as a strongly autonomous command hierarchy that made it a threat to the elected, civilian leadership of the country.8

General Ne Win’s legacy is that of initiating a half century of overt military control over the country. In the context of civil war and an election crisis, Ne Win first took over control from Prime Minister U Nu to run a military caretaker government, ultimately from 1958-1960, in which major military officers were appointed parallel to ministers throughout the bureaucracy to introduce supposed military efficiency. However, the political crisis abated, the economy recovered, and elections were held again, leading to the victory of a resurgent U Nu. But not for long. In 1962, Ne Win and the military took complete control and arrested the sitting civilian leaders, who were duly elected. He declared a revolutionary government, created a cadre party, restricted civil liberties, took the economy to the left with the “Burmese Way to Socialism”, drafted a new constitution, and created a new ‘civilian’ government with a one-party state, which he led as head of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), leaving the military with a few of his key officers in powerful positions.9 The economy soured, protests erupted in 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi and others, including U Nu once more, came to the fore, and Ne Win resigned, leading to the collapse of the government. Although rumored to continue to be running the country behind the scenes, Ne Win and his family were ultimately brushed aside a decade later.10

The military intervened in September 1988, with the justification of reestablishing law and order and preparing for elections to determine the future government of the country. They set up military tribunals at various levels of administration known as State Law and Order Restoration Councils (SLORCs), including one SLORC to rule them all, while former anti-government protesters organized new political parties, such as the NLD. The military also organized a front party and very soon began to arrest opponents. Nevertheless, two years later, the NLD swept to victory in the election. The military quickly annulled the results, fired upon protesters, and threw the country into disarray, feeding further fuel to the ongoing civil war. The military ruled the country under the national SLORC until adopting the less intimidating title of State Peace and Development Council in 1997.

From 1988 the military had opened parts of the economy to foreign investors on terms that enriched the top generals and many military families. In the early 1990s, however, international boycotts hurt the economic image of the country, and the generals were faced with the problem of finding a way to win the civil war, ensure they were not punished for their atrocities by a potential future non-military government, and make their fortunes foolproof from scrutiny. Negotiations with EAOs led to a pause to the civil war, on the whole.11 A constitution-writing process produced a constitution that ensured that the military were immune from prosecutions for past crimes. Constitutional provisions that ensured a military veto and that certain powers were kept by the military meant that if any future government tried to challenge the hidden hands of the military leadership in the economy it could be terminated. All seemed to go well under the leadership of the first prime minister in the new system, former general Thein Sein, and, even after Aung San Suu Kyi became de facto leader a few years later, she attempted to demonstrate to the military that she was no threat to them.

The 2015-2020 NLD government garnered international criticism and condemnation for its stance on the military’s attacks against the Rohingya population in September 2017, and for many other reasons. But the domestic popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi helped the NLD to sweep the November 2020 general elections, worrying military leader General Min Aung Hlaing that the constitutional safeguards would be removed and generals both past and present would be vulnerable to a power grab by elected, civilian politicians, and eventually face prosecution for corruption and war crimes. Min Aung Hlaing contested the result, but negotiations between the military and NLD failed, and in February 2021, the military launched its coup. They arrested and later prosecuted the civilian NLD leaders on corruption and other charges and have promised a new ‘election’ in the future. Faced with widespread public discontent in the form of a civil disobedience campaign, the military employed mass violence, leading to an extension of civil war in the country. It is this new civil war that the defectors whose interviews are included in this special issue fled from.

The Military Imaginary

Myanmar’s military generals function in the context of a national imaginary12 that most citizens are obligated to pay lip service to, even if they do not actually accept this imaginary in private. This is common in any organized society. When those who have power look at the world and their place in it, they frame it in different imaginaries. Although the Western construction of knowledge purports that there is one world, the one we see, the real one, and anything else is a fantasy, everyone really sees the world in two ways simultaneously, which shape their interactions with other people daily.

First, there is the mundane way that actors see their daily life as people, their biological functions, their physical needs, their individual survival, which we can call their “mundane reality”, and then there is the larger, social fiction that shapes the way we all view the world around us. For example, when you or I look at a street in Bangkok or Oxford, we see restaurants with food, stores with clothes, hundreds of people: men, women, children, young, old, and so on. We think about our salaries, what time to take our prescription medicines, whether we owe taxes, who we date, marry, when we will retire. This is the world of ourselves. It is our realm of personal, intimate human interactions: this is our “mundane reality”.

Second, there is also what Charles Taylor calls our “social imaginary”. This is the socially organized, institutional view we have of the world and how we fit in with others: “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations”.13 This is just as much part of our personal reality and we simultaneously walk both the mundane reality and the social imaginary. Their overlap requires constant negotiation to survive in daily life.14 That same person is both a human and a doctor, a human and a student, a human and a general, but normally they must decide which identity, their ‘personal self’ or their ‘social self’ will structure how they act at any given moment.

The highly peculiar and unique interaction that results from these choices eventually synchronizes into a perception of the world operating according to its own logic. The mind has unconsciously shaped through a million small negotiations how that person views the world. The present author refers to this result as a ‘mindscape’. Put the same people through the same experiences, with the same roles, and a group of mindscapes may be very similar, but at some level each is unique. The key is that every individual mind produces a view of the world that combines personal needs with social roles in way that seems ‘right’ and makes sense. In this way, the generals can fill their pockets with the nation’s resources and yet still see themselves as true defenders of the nation. Yes, they have built up personal fortunes at the expense of many others, but they see themselves as the protectors of their country.

The royal imaginary of the precolonial period probably operated in very similar ways. Sanctified by court ritual and Brahman priests, etched into the royal histories and temple iconography as well as the mythologies behind royal paraphernalia, the royal imaginary posited the king as the protector of the sasana (the Buddhist religion) on earth as was Indra in the heavens. But men were not born kings, even if they were born heirs, and princely rivalry, subterfuge, usurpation, and outright civil wars demonstrated that those who became monarchs were also men (or, sometimes, women). So long as nothing overtly challenged the royal imaginary in which the king ruled according to the Dharma, kept harmony and prosperity in the land and the sangha, and had victory in war, he or she could feel secure.15 Unfortunately, Aung San Suu Kyi’s realpolitik approach of praising the generals and the military, thus reinforcing the claims of their imaginary, helped to further legitimate it.16 In fact, the 2017-2021 period may have seen, for the first time since 1962, widespread popular acceptance in the lowlands of some of the chief claims of the military imaginary as legitimate, at least regarding the protection of the ‘Buddhist homeland’ from the threat of those presented in the country as being aggressively anti-Buddhist (Muslims). When the military moved against Rohingya civilians in August 2017, killing and raping tens of thousands, and driving 800,000 as refugees across the border into Bangladesh, they were defended by Aung San Suu Kyi and her government. The State Counsellor even traveled to defend the military’s actions before the International Court of Justice.17

In the precolonial royal imaginary, the administrators who were sent out to the outlying provinces understood how little currency that imaginary had with the local populace. In such places spectacular violence, whether rape, murder, or torture, was delivered on a regular basis to achieve the court’s goals, including resource extraction.18 This local, “invisible” violence conducted by everyday administrators has been paralleled in independent Myanmar by the actions of local military officers, particularly in ethnic minority areas. This explains how the Rohingya in Rakhine State, prior to August 2017, had already lived for decades in conditions that met the criteria for genocide.19

It was also possible in the precolonial period for the royal imaginary to crack at the center. A major military defeat, failed crops, pestilence and the like, reminded kings that they were not ruling in the clouds. In a similar way, for today’s generals, their imaginary became increasingly threatened by the impending change of government after the November 2020 elections. They were unable to forestall the inevitable, leading to the events from 1 February 2022—a constitutional coup followed by a civil disobedience campaign and then a harsh crackdown, and a civil war on entirely new fronts. These have certainly revealed cracks in the military’s imaginary. Critics both domestic and abroad have maintained that they do not countenance, cannot countenance, and will not countenance, anything the generals do. In threatening the military’s imaginary, these critics, in the view of the military, are a threat to their protection of the nation and are therefore ‘terrorists’. This has led to numerous extreme displays of spectacular violence designed to deter further dissent, including the hanging of two prominent critics, Ko Jimmy and Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw, in July 2022.20

Military Fragility

The application of mass violence during military rule in Myanmar fits the pattern of other fragile states that have undertaken spectacular displays of violence. As open challenges threaten the military’s imaginary, this shakes the foundations of military confidence and forces it to face the very real possibility that it can be toppled. There have been only a few incidents in which this imaginary has been realistically shaken: the U Thant funeral riots in 1974, the collapse of the BSPP government in 1988, the Saffron Revolution in 2007, and the violence from 1 February 2021 to the present. In such circumstances, the military has relied upon spectacular displays of violence to scare the population back into submission. This is an indication of military weakness, not of strength.

But why should the military feel weak and take popular opposition as a genuine threat? After all, it has the military hardware, the impression of numbers, organization, and a tight hierarchy, not to mention experience and training in waging war. Much of the insecurity has to do with how the military’s strength was undermined by generals since active civil war with the EAOs receded, and particularly since the transition to democracy began. Before 1988, military strength was around 186,000 people, but it expanded in the two decades after 1988 to 200,000. The size of the military today is a closely guarded secret. It has been estimated to be between 300,000 and 350,000 soldiers by some and, at some point, the military may have hoped to swell numbers to 500,000 to 600,000. But the number of combat soldiers today is probably far lower, perhaps around 100,000 men and women, although paramilitary units of the national police force could add tens of thousands to this number.21

Military secrecy is often maintained for security reasons in nation states. A larger-than-life army is intimidating to foreign and domestic enemies alike. The appearance of having the ability to strike anywhere, anytime, and to hold multiple fronts with ease, is aimed at keeping ethnic armed organizations divided and quiet. Potential foreign interventions are dissuaded. To foreign investors and those invested in other ways in Myanmar, the army’s implied size assures stability and, where challenged, victory over the long term.

Another reason is likely the hydra-headed way in which the generals pursue their private wealth. The upper levels of military expenditure are likely to have been tapped for private gain. Some, like Ne Win, used Japanese aid and other public resources for his private estate even while he publicly condemned corruption on the part of subordinates. A large army is expensive. Inflating the size of the army payroll, the cost of the equipment necessary to arm them, or supplies to feed them, is common practice in officer corps in many countries historically and today. Nevertheless, the lack of sub-‘line item’ transparency and the continued control of the military in Myanmar made it difficult to do anything other than conjecture until leaks of the military budget and procurement files after the 2021 coup revealed the prominent role of military families as suppliers to the military.22 There are many other areas of military collusion in parts of the economy and in conflict zones where the military is deployed to maintain central control, including jade and ruby mining and the gems trade.23

The political theory behind kingship in predominantly Theravada Buddhist polities is relevant here, as the ruler historically drew their legitimacy to rule from the belief in, and demonstration of, their superior store of merit.24 This superior store is reflected in different ways. In precolonial Burmese history, when the kingdom was often also a conquest state that oriented itself towards raiding and conquering, a ruler with merit therefore had a large and powerful army—the more merit, the larger the army. A weak or declining army would indicate the opposite, a poor store of merit for the ruler, and therefore their dwindling legitimacy.25 Preventing anyone from perceiving the true size of the army, in yesteryears or today, is in the ruler’s or rulers’ best interests.

This is particularly true today if the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) grow in size. PDFs arose spontaneously but were partially organized on 5 May 2021 by the National Unity Government (NUG) as a federal army to oppose the military. Currently, PDFs number about 60,000 soldiers. Should this grow larger and faster, the trajectory of increase would clearly demonstrate that PDFs could overtake the military in numbers. This would be proof in a predominantly Theravada Buddhist society that the NUG were rapidly demonstrating a superior store of merit that demonstrated their own legitimacy to rule. This of course is hindered if the military continues to convince the public that it is larger than it really is. One of the most glaring indications of this practice is that the military relies on mobilizing militias and police paramilitary forces to maintain order across the country. Another is the way in which it relies on particularly experienced divisions, shifting them from one end of the country to another to conduct special operations. Yet another indication is the mass of desertions, revealing an army bleeding soldiers as fast as it can deploy them. These defectors indicate that the army is very fragile indeed.

Political scientist Tun Myint has argued that popular sentiment has already seen through the military’s imaginary. Rather than being the focal point of Burmese unhappiness or seen as an institution to be reformed, or possibly even forgiven, many Burmese have come to view the military in unemotional terms as something that is no longer relevant to the country and its future. They no longer see it as something to fear. As Tun Myint explains: “If a person, an institution, or a thing is conceived as falling into the (junzaja) category, Burmese no longer treat that person or thing as something to like or to hate; the junzaja is to be disregarded and ignored as worthless. People seek to erase it from their memory. A junzaja entity possesses no attribute that is respectable; no ethical or moral properties; no value to the natural or human world.”26 This is a very different perspective than the mere dislike of the military in past decades. Clearly, it will be increasingly difficult for the military to attempt to cow the population through spectacular violence, if the Burmese have indeed moved beyond fear.

Conclusion

One of the current trends in academia that speaks a great deal to some of the issues I have discussed above, or at least their underlying causes, is the move to decolonize knowledge, that is to say, the structures of knowledge that have been established by the West that ignore or suppress modes of interpretation from non-western sources.27 It has largely been foreign, white, interpretations of Myanmar’s military and its behavior that have (mis)portrayed it in so many ways and so often made erroneous predictions. The present author, who normally identifies as a white male, is conscious that being from the West and educated in the West has shaped his perspective. But arguably, some of the thinking behind the need to decolonize knowledge was formed as much within the Western laboratory as against it. In much of the author’s own work that has been drawn on for the present article, it was indigenous perspectives, authors, and actors who were examined for how they viewed their world and their place in it. In this way, meeting some of the goals of decolonizing knowledge about the military has been attempted here.

It is the case though, that a full accounting of the history of the military, its decline, and its fall from power will not be possible until the last phase has taken place. Only then can the generals, hopefully imprisoned, be interrogated (before they too are executed in the same way as Ko Jimmy and Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw), military rank and file be free to reveal openly the daily functioning of the military from within, and documents may be published outlining everything from the true size of the military to the size of the generals’ fortunes. Then, the military imaginary will genuinely be shattered and revealed to be artificial even to the generals and supporters who might still otherwise cling to the image of a rightful power dispossessed.

The main point to underline here is that if military control is to be unraveled, which is now the avowed goal of many the country’s civilians, this goal can only be achieved if the military, including how and why it acts and reacts the way it does, is better understood. Too often no effort is made in this regard, with continuingly unfortunate results. Just as the United States relied upon a psychologist for insights to predict how the dictator Adolf Hitler would behave as he faced undeniable defeat, understanding how the Myanmar military and the generals who lead it view the world, and their place in it, is of the utmost importance to understanding what they will do next and then again, what they will do after that. However partisan this observation may appear, scholarship on the military, whether it admits it or not, is always partisan to a certain extent.

Endnotes

1 Charney, 2009.
2 See, for example, Maung Aung Myoe, 2014.
3 For example, see Thant Myint-U, 2021.
4 This development is examined by Callahan (2003).
5 Tharaphi Than, 2021a.
6 Topich & Leitich, 2013, p. 79.
7 Maung Bo Bo, 2019.
8 Callahan, 2003.
9 Topich & Leitich, 2013, p. 86.
10 Charney, 2009.
11 Ibid.
12 Parts of this section were first delivered in a conference presentation (Charney, 2021).
13 Taylor, 2004, p. 23.
14 Benedict Anderson’s popular ideas of imagined communities (2006) could be confused with what the author is talking about here. To be clear, the author is not talking of an imagined, impersonal, meta-group or national collective.
15 This is discussed in Charney, 2022.
16 Eimer, 2013.
17 “Aung San Suu Kyi”, 2019.
18 Charney, 2020.
19 Maung Zarni & Cowley, 2014.
20 “Myanmar Junta”, 2022.
21 Selth, 2022.
22 McPherson, et al., 2021.
23 Agence France-Presse, 2021.
24 Walton, 2017, p. 68. See also Grabowsky, 2007.
25 Charney, 2003.
26 Tun Myint, 2022.
27 For the case of Burma, see Tharaphi Than, 2021b, and Chu May Paing & Than Toe Aung, 2021.

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