Strong Soldiers, Failed Revolution

Kai Chen

In reference to General Ne Win's regime, Strong Soldiers, Failed Revolution by Yoshihiro Nakanishi, departs from many other works on Myanmar’s military regime.     This insightful book has eight chapters, which examine the dynamics and characteristics of Ne Win's regime, stressing how Myanmar’s administrative structure was transformed during the regime, and explaining the internal factors for the long duration of the regime.

At the very least, this book makes two contributions to the literature of modern Burmese politics. First, this book describes how Ne Win's regime could survive for decades (from 1962 to 1988). As Nakanishi suggests, there are two factors that importantly contributed to the duration of Ne Win's regime. On the one hand, Ne Win was good at institutionalizing interest distribution within the Tatmadaw (the Armed Forces). On the other hand, he consolidated his power through cultivating the element of ‘winner-takes-all’ in the political culture of Myanmar, rather than a regime ‘built on the shared power of the dictator, the Tatmadaw, and the party’, defined as ‘a wholesale reshuffle of people in important political posts during regime transition’ (pp. 141, 169–70). For example, Ne Win usually assigned retired officers with positions in the Burma Socialist Program Party or civilian ministries. Second, this book reveals the reasons why Ne Win's regime collapsed in 1988, when the massive anti-government campaign led to a coup by the Tatmadaw. In Nakanishi’s opinion, Ne Win's regime was based on the ‘former young nationalists who had fought against the Japanese empire as soldiers and then against domestic insurgents as leaders of Burma’s own national military’ (pp. 211–2). However, in the 1980s, a new generation of officers emerged and became a potential threat to Ne Win's regime, because they were not promoted through their achievements in battle, and were excluded from the decision-making process to a large extent. In addition, Ne Win used a tactic of ‘divide and rule’ on the younger officers. For instance, the younger officers in the Tatmadaw were ‘mixed among the commands’ (p. 268). Without a doubt, this paved the way for more disputes among the factions within the Tatmadaw. As a result, the political legitimacy of Ne Win's regime was weakened to a large degree.

What’s more, Ne Win’s allocation of political posts to the retired officers led to the politicization of the Tatmadaw. The younger officers disliked this kind of politicization. To many retired upper-ranking officers in the Tatmadaw, a post in civilian ministries means ‘the end of promotion and signals their failure in the climb toward the top of the Tatmadaw’ (p. 290). Not surprising, in the eyes of many officers in the the Tatmadaw, Ne Win's regime was no longer the optimal approach to solve the internal conflicts within the Tatmadaw. It’s noteworthy that the collapse of Ne Win’s regime in 1988 did not necessarily imply the end of military regime in contemporary Myanmar. Obviously, history repeated itself. After the coup in 1988, ‘the military regime had continued for so long’ (p. 285). In the foreseeable future, Tatmadaw’s influence over the state and society would remain more obvious than that found anywhere else in the world. Strong Soldiers, Failed Revolution successfully explains the ups and downs of Ne Win’s regime. It will appeal to scholars of many stripes and regional experts, and specialists in the study of military regime and Myanmar history. Moreover, it’s a book worth reading for those with great curiosity and questions about either Myanmar’s current situation or the possible course of Myanmar’s politics in the future.