The recent release from house arrest of the iconic Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi generated headlines around the world. But more than 2,000 of her colleagues and others remain in detention – a fact which continues to highlight the mutually hostile relationship between the military government and its opponents.


Burma (officially known as Myanmar) has the world’s longest surviving military dictatorship. What are the factors responsible for this – and what are the origins of the internal political conflict that has plagued the country for so long?

Roots of the crisis

Burma hasn’t had a conventional government for almost half a century. Over recent decades other countries have, of course, experienced military dictatorships – but usually they are seen, even by their supporters, as short term temporary expedients rather than semi-permanent arrangements.

But Burma’s military dictatorship is different for four historical reasons – a strong military tradition, a relatively weak civil society, a long-standing fear of national disintegration and an equally long-standing fear of foreign intervention.

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Unlike most Asian and African countries, Burma did not win its independence by conventional civilian-based political agitation. Modern Burma was born partly out of an Allied military struggle against Japanese occupation – a struggle which, by 1945, also involved Burmese forces led by the leaders of what became the country’s post-independence army.

To that extent, Burma’s iconic military heritage is similar to that of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or to mid to late 20th-century Indonesia or even to the Caudillo (military leadership) tradition in post-independence 19th-century South America.

In Burma the embryonic military, known as the Burma Independence Army, was first formed during the Second World War by anti-colonial Burmese nationalists in collaboration with the Japanese. Under Japanese occupation it became the Burma Defence Army (1942) and then the Burmese National Army (1943). As the war began to turn against Japan, the BNA switched sides and, supporting the Allies, became the Patriotic Burmese Forces.

However, throughout all these politically-induced changes in nomenclature, the embryonic Burmese military was led by modern Burma’s greatest national hero – Aung San.

Indeed it’s his iconic status that sustains not only Burma’s military tradition (and therefore to an extent the current military dictatorship) but also the status of Burma’s main opposition leader, his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi.

Weak civil society

The second source of military power is the historically weak nature of civil society. In 1824 Britain seized parts of Burma, and its subsequent abolition of the Burmese monarchy and the dis-empowerment of the Burmese aristocracy (by the last Burmese kings and then by the British) all served to undermine traditional civil government.

Under British colonial rule, the country’s Burmese-speaking majority population was largely excluded from middle-ranking and senior civil service roles. Indeed Indians and colonial Britons imported from the Indian sub-continent were recruited to the civil service while members of Burma’s many ethnic minorities made up much of the police and the army.

One reason for this was that, although Burma formed part of British India, its Burmese-speaking heartland was one of the last regions to be conquered and incorporated into the Raj.

Consequently it had far fewer western-educated, English-speaking inhabitants than India. Also, the Depression of the 1930s destroyed the embryonic Burmese middle class – the class that would otherwise have laid the foundations of civil society.

Another factor behind the military’s strength is the Burmese nationalist fear of the disintegration of the country. In the 17th–19th centuries, prior to the British conquest, the kings of the Burmese-speaking lowland region had expanded the size of their state by assuming at least nominal control over vast areas of non-Burmese-speaking territory.

Indeed, as a direct result of that process, around two-thirds of Burmese territory is still inhabited by non-Burmese native-speaking minorities who account for around a third of Burma’s total population.

There are dozens of separate ethno-linguistic minorities in Burma – the largest being the five million-strong Shan, the four-million strong Karen, the two-million strong Arakanese and the Mon, Chin, Karenni and Kachin peoples.

Nationalist fears of the disintegration of the country have been bolstered by numerous ethnic minority armed insurgencies, two of which (the Karen and Shan revolts) continue today. Immediately post-independence, the Burmese government faced more than a dozen armed rebellions and even today the central government’s writ does not run in around five to 10 per cent of Burma’s territory.

Nationalist fear of the disintegration of the Burmese state is integrally linked with a parallel fear of foreign intervention – a fear that has generated an unusually high level of xenophobia among the military.

Certainly Burma has suffered a substantial number of foreign invasions and conspiracies – from the Chinese invasions of the 1760s through to the three Anglo-Burmese wars of the 19th century, Japan’s refusal to allow genuine independence (1943–45), and CIA backing for Chinese nationalist occupation of north-east Burma (1950–61).

In addition to all these historically-driven factors, military dictatorship has benefited from Burma’s ancient tradition of political deference. Many scholars see this as stemming, at least in part, from the Buddhist belief that political power (or indeed any other form of personal success) is a direct consequence of merit gained in previous lives. It is a form of meritocracy where karmic merit is ‘inherited’ through reincarnation.

Role of the monks

All these factors help to explain why Burma’s generals have ruled for so long. But what of the opposition? Like the army, it too draws on deference for and memory of the country’s greatest hero – General Aung San. It’s no coincidence that the leader of the opposition (under house arrest for 12 of the past 17 years) is Aung San’s daughter.

Concepts of respect have also helped propel the nation’s monks into the front line against the government. Monks, who by definition have also been re-incarnated at a high level, are therefore seen as being in a comparatively strong position to lead the population.

Why, however, have the monks chosen to fulfil that role? Historically, monks hardly ever involved themselves in politics. Up until 1885, the old Burmese monarchy and the Buddhist Sanga (the established ‘church’) had a symbiotic relationship in which rulers ‘bought’ karma (guaranteeing reincarnational advancement/promotion) by giving money or other resources to the Buddhist monastic orders.

Politically this guaranteed the Sanga’s support for government and impressed the population.

However, with the abolition of the monarchy, that symbiotic relationship ended and the Sanga was left without a traditional political role. This functional vacuum drew the monks into more pro-active forms of political action, often as opponents and critics rather than passive supporters.

By 1920 monks became involved in helping to set up Burma’s first major anti-colonial movement – the General Council of Burmese Associations. Then in the 1920s, monks were prominently involved in a series of anti-colonial strikes and tax protests and then armed rebellion (1930–31).

By 1938 monks were leading demonstrations against the British authorities (whose police opened fire, killing 17 people). Before the Second World War, Burmese independence fighter General Aung San allied himself with politically active monks to form a political alliance – the Freedom Block.

In more recent years, however, the monks have been drawn into active opposition by two factors. Firstly, like most long-lived dictatorships, the Burmese military have increasingly lacked the skills to successfully manage the country’s economy.

Food shortages and rampant inflation have drastically reduced the population’s ability to donate food to the nation’s 400,000 monks whose role is primarily spiritual and who are therefore, in Buddhist tradition, not allowed to work or grow food for themselves.

The monks are impoverished and have, at key stages in recent years, come under moral as well as economic pressure from the population to use their karma-derived high status to lead opposition to the generals.

History of Burma

849–1289 First Burman state – based at Pagan
1364–1527 Second Burman state – based at Ava
1486–1752 Third Burman state – based initially at Toungoo
1753 Fourth Burman state established (massive expansion till 1824)
1824 Britain attacks Burma which loses its north, west and extreme south east
1852 Second Anglo-Burmese War. Britain seizes the south west
1885 Third Anglo-Burmese War. Britain occupies central Burma
1941 Burma Independence Army (later Burmese National Army) founded in collaboration with the Japanese
1945 BNA revolts against Japanese occupation
1948 Burma becomes a republic
1962 The civilian government is overthrown and military rule begins
2010 Aung San Suu Kyi is released from house arrest

Further reading

The Making of Modern Burma by Thant Myint (CUP, 2001);
Burmese Administrative Cycles: Anarchy and Conquest, 1580-1760 by V Lieberman (Princeton, 1984);
Nationalism as Political Paranoia in Burma by M Gravers (Routledge, 1999);
Powerful Learning: Buddhist Literati and the Throne in Burma’s Last Dynasty by M Charney (CSEAS, Michigan, 2006)


Map: Martin Sanders