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Of monks and superstitions: Myanmar’s military and militancy

Nagaland News

Nirendra Dev
NEW DELHI, JANUARY 18: There have been reports of fresh violence and gun fight between Myanmar military and People’s Defence Force (PDF) at Witok village and near Lallim along India-Myanmar border. These have been happening intermittently since the February coup in that country.
‘Myanmafication’ is a term used by Gustaaf Houtman, a writer and anthropologist of repute, to denote the multi-layered policy pursued by the Generals to reinvent the concept of an ‘unified Myanmar’.
But when it comes to Generals in Myanmar including the incumbent military ruler Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, there is an unusual but common thread of superstitions.
The unpopular military power grab by most, if not all Generals, had also tried to lay emphasis on the country’s cultural heritage and ‘national character’.
Time and again the military coups occurring irrespective of what the international community thinks about the country do not seem to bother them much. One reason for this, according to experts and analysts in Delhi or elsewhere, is that authoritarianism forms an important part of Myanmar’s national character.
Thus, the Generals get repeated opportunities to rule for long.
However, observers also say that the country also has had “a long line of superstitious military dictators renowned for their erratic behaviour”, as an article in Asia Times goes.
Now, let us sample a few of them in today’s context and what the incumbent Senior General
Min Aung Hlaing has been doing and speaking out.
In May 2021, three months after the coup, Min Aung Hlaing said at a meeting with health officials that “walking is the best and cheapest form of exercise”.
There have been other ‘incoherent ramblings’ by him, as reported by Asia Times that raised questions among many observers about the coup leader’s mental health.
Min Aung Hlaing and his wife Kyu Kyu Hla are known to be close to one monk and occult practitioner, Ashin Kovida, also known as Vasipake Sayadaw.
Now some of his predecessors.
General Ne Win, the country’s dictator from 1962 to 1988, was a firm believer in Yadaya, a traditional way of attempting to ‘control one’s fate’ through the use of charms and combinations of lucky numbers.
It was reported that in September 1987, influenced by his belief in mystic numerology, he ordered the introduction of 45 and 90 kyat banknotes while demonetizing pre-existing notes because the digits 4 and 5 added up to his ‘lucky number 9’.
Sein Lwin, who ruled for only 17 days in 1988, was told by his astrologer that he would be shot.
To neutralize that threat, Sein Lwin shot his ‘own image’ in a mirror.
General Saw Maung, who became the country’s dictator after the 1988 uprising, also had become increasingly erratic in his behaviour.
Saw Maung’s reference to himself as a powerful warrior-king ‘Kyansittha’ of the ancient Pagan Empire was seen as eccentric. Kyansittha’s name is interpreted as “the remaining soldier” or “the one who was left behind”.
Some of these ‘eccentric’ behaviour at the leadership level definitely had an impact down the line too.
Myanmar’s ‘Tatmadaw’ – a name originally given for defence forces – has a unique position. But today it is generally used for ‘army’ and its leadership. But rivalries, factions and cliques work within the officer corps.
According to an Australian expert on Myanmar affairs, even during the 1990s and at the later stage, there were bitter rivalries between intelligence wing and combat officers. In fact, in 2004, Gen Khin Nyunt heading the intelligence wing was arrested and the entire intelligence corps was disbanded by Gen Maung Aye.
Indian agencies are now engaged in gathering information and analysing things in the perspective of 2021-22 and the geo-politics of the near future.
Myanmar and India share a 1,600 kilometer-long porous border and the mountainous terrain does make it easy for ‘rebel fighters and dissidents’ to remain unchecked and undetected by authorities.
Myanmar’s Sagaing region has always helped Naga rebels and groups from Manipur and ULFA.
Some India-based groups are again trying to enlist covert and overt strategic ‘support’ from the military junta.
Against this backdrop, it is worth taking note that the Zomi Revolutionary Army run by Chin-Mizo groups had attacked a Myanmar military camp in the Tedim region in September.
Things have been taken note of in both the countries.
India favours keeping close watch on the emerging situation in Myanmar where China is trying to make deeper inroads. Last month Foreign Secretary Harsh V Shringla’s visit was an important event in the geo-political context, sources say.