State-building, Military Modernization and Cross-border Ethnic Violence in Myanmar

AuthorLionel Beehner
Published date01 April 2018
Date01 April 2018
Subject MatterArticles
01_AIA748464_1-30.indd Article
State-building, Military
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
Modernization and Cross-
5(1) 1–30
2018 SAGE Publications India
border Ethnic Violence in
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797017748464
Lionel Beehner1
This article explains cross-border uses of force against ethnic armed groups along
Myanmar’s bloody borders with China and Thailand. I trace the history of Burma’s
ethnic disputes, its state-society relations, and the “modernization” of its military
doctrine to understand how its state-building enterprise can shape the use of
force along a state’s frontier. I treat each of the border regions as distinct sub-
categories to highlight variation in the micro-dynamics as well as types and condi-
tions under which the use of state-orchestrated violence occurs. First, I point to
the role of greater state-building – extractive, coercive, etc. – and how it influ-
ences the use of force along border regions. Second, I explore the modernization
of Burma’s military and evolution of its doctrine – this includes early efforts by
the tatmadaw’s post-1988 shift toward a more conventional counterinsurgency
strategy. An implication of my theory is that more peaceful relations between
states perversely can create the conditions for more cross-border violence, as
there are greater opportunities for states to either “pool” border security or
outsource the use of force to proxies or paramilitary forces.
Burma, Myanmar, state-building, civil-military relations, Tatmadaw, civil war,
counterinsurgency, state-society relations, China, Thailand
The world’s longest civil war rages on in the frontiers of Myanmar between a
government historically dominated by its military and several bands of ethnic
rebels, many of them seeking self-rule.1 At the same time, a number of other
1 Assistant Professor, Department of Defense & Strategic Studies, United States Military Academy,
West Point, NY, USA.
Corresponding author:
Lionel Beehner, Assistant Professor, Department of Defense & Strategic Studies, United States
Military Academy at West Point, Washington Hall 5106A, West Point, NY, USA.

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 5(1)
insurgencies, including one against a Muslim minority, the Rohingya, continue
along Myanmar’s other frontier regions. Even as Myanmar begins to democratize,
there has been little to no let-up in the violence along its periphery. To understand
Myanmar’s use of force against these groups, one must understand the compli-
cated origins of its military rule, its fitful attempts at state-building and shifts in
its threat environment, both internal and external.
This article posits that the Myanmar’s approach to counterinsurgency and
application of force is a function of two simultaneous processes: First, the state
under military rule has carried out aggressive state-building along its frontier as
a way to further consolidate its boundaries, alternating between the use of local
paramilitary forces and its own armed forces to quell these border regions,
while purposely not eradicating these groups given that the military benefits
from some level of a threat to legitimize its control.2 Simultaneously, Myanmar’s
military (or tatmadaw) seeks to profit from cross-border trade (timber, jade,
opium, etc.), both licit and illicit (see Lintner, 1999; Meehan, 2011). As a result,
it has vacillated between military coercion and political accommodation as a
means of bringing order to its frontiers while also enhancing its economy,
capacity and legitimacy. To this day, these areas, hilly, remote, rich in natural
resources and ethnic hodgepodges, have proved difficult to control and bring
into the political fold.
Second, Myanmar’s civil-military relations have gone through a series of insti-
tutional crises and challenges to the regime’s authority. Together with shifts in its
threat environment, this has spurred on a modernization of its military doctrine
(Maung Aung Myoe, 2009, pp. 16–46). During the first years of postcolonial rule
(1948–1958), Myanmar’s military posture was based largely on fear of external
invasion from China (ibid., p.11). Over the next few decades (1958–1988), its
doctrine congealed around the threat of the country’s internal insurgency and eth-
nic armed actors along the periphery. Following 1988, military doctrine focused
almost exclusively on modernization, as external threats took on renewed atten-
tion and the armed forces shifted towards a more conventional warfare stance
(ibid., p. 11). Interestingly, its use of force against ethnic armed groups, even
across borders into neighbouring states, would become more routinized as the
military modernized itself after Ne Win stepped down in 1988. Part of this mod-
ernization process was to consolidate its borders and reduce the threat these
groups posed while simultaneously guarding its border against conventional
threats. The tatmadaw would rely increasingly on local border patrols, some of
them comprising ethnic armed factions it was previously fighting. It was a coun-
terinsurgency policy that mixed co-optation with coercion.
Myanmar’s military rules over a fragmented society. The tatmadaw itself is
riven by elite divisions, yet still rules as a leviathan-like entity. It views itself as a
‘modernizing’ force, despite claims to the contrary.3 The case of Myanmar reveals
how military rulers, insulated from public opinion, perceive of state and non-state
threats along its periphery, and how this perception shapes its military doctrine,
at a time of rapid state-building. Its use of force is manifested by the centre’s
exertions of greater control—economic, political and cultural—over its upland
periphery.4 Despite greater civilian control, the government still retains a strong

praetorian composition, which explains its aggressive use of force along its
frontier (Ben-Eliezer,1997).
Externally, despite relatively peaceful relations with its neighbouring states, and
despite greater civilian control, Myanmar has taken a largely offensive approach
to counterinsurgency, one that mixes conciliatory gestures to co-opt armed actors
with the application of brute military force. This article argues that the peripheral
threat is necessary for the tatmadaw’s claims to institutional authority and legiti-
macy, as well as for the military to profit from the booming economy along the
border. The implications of my argument are that the state should have little
incentive in seeing these areas become completely pacified and so will continue
to wage a border war that mixes conventional counterinsurgency with political
This article proceeds as follows: First, I examine the country’s historical
background of ethnic war, looking at the postcolonial roots of the conflict. Then,
I discuss its early attempts at state-building, placing Myanmar in the larger
literature. Next, I situate my case study in the broader literature on civil-military
relations and explore the historical evolution of its military, how its military
doctrine has evolved, and specifically its use of cross-border force against rebels
in Thailand and China. I conclude with a recap of my theory.
Background of Ethnic Conflict in Myanmar
Myanmar is strategically located in Southeast Asia, wedged between two more
powerful state rivals, China and India.5 It is a nation hemmed in by a horseshoe of
hill country, ethnically diverse, impoverished and constituting what James Scott
has referred to as a ‘negative space’ (Scott, 2009). The highlands of Kachin state
along the northern Chinese border provide insurgents with a natural canopy to
evade being targeted (Tucker, 2000). Likewise, the jungles between Myanmar and
Thailand, rich in lumber and lucrative teal, are some of the world’s thickest.
As John Seabury Thomson noted in 1957, ‘[The] topography of the country and
its isolation from trade routes tended to make the [Burmese] people look inward
rather than outward […]’ (Thomson, 1957, p. 269). That shapes the country’s
view of itself in the wider region as well as its own poorly defined borders and
helps explain why the country currently faces no fewer than a dozen armed ethnic
Besides the ethnically dominant Burman, which constitutes over two-thirds of
the population, the government officially recognizes 135 distinct ethnic groups.
Virtually all of the ethnic groups can be carved up further into various sub-
groups. The categories still in use today were mostly derived by the British admin-
istrators and missionaries, who made perceptions-based differentiations mostly
based on a group’s language and culture. As one British official noted in 1931,
‘[S]ome of the races or tribes in Burma change their language almost as often as
they change their clothes’ (Smith, 1991, p. 34). Interpreting Myanmar’s history by
delineating it into various political-ethnic groups is problematic, if only because
of these groups’ complex identities and overlapping cultures.6 Myanmar retains

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 5(1)
some of the strictest citizenship laws, which in theory require proof of ancestry
present in Myanmar before arrival of the British in 1824. This has typically been
a ploy to discriminate against non-Buddhist minorities, like the Rohingya, a
Muslim minority not considered citizens...

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