Let’s Not Fall for 1988 Tactics In 2021

by mohingamatters

Mahn Winn Khaing Thann, the Prime Minister of the National Unity Government, said in a speech at a NUG cabinet meeting on 30 April 2024, “Messages that can cause misunderstandings and mistrust between the public and the revolutionists are circulating among us, along with increasing instigation and plots to inflame.” This statement caught our attention.

For many years, the Myanmar military’s intelligence has been infamous for being very good at spreading discord among the opposition. The people of Myanmar struggle with teamwork, trust, and cooperation, so it is no surprise that the military intelligence has conducted many successful missions against this divided society. 

Since the colonial era, the citizens of Burma have been known for their fractious behavior. The British proposed the provision of the Burma Act in 1935 which was to separate Burma from India’s administration. Burmese society split into two groups: one group wanted to remain part of British India as they viewed that the separation could be a tactic to remove Burma from further Indian reforms, while the other wanted to separate. These groups did not get along. According to local news and writers from that time, even within the same family, members had different perspectives and views. Discussions about the issue ended in confrontations.

After independence, the main actors who had fought colonialism and fascism together split into many different groups based on ethnicity, race, and ideology. This has led to the longest civil war in Southeast Asian history. In the 1950s, various rebel forces emerged, creating a “colorful” revolution. The government was called the “Rangoon government” because the rebels occupied most of the country. Surprisingly, the rebel forces have never been able to defeat the Burma/Myanmar Army since then. 

In retrospect, historians viewed that the reason for failure was that rebel leaders were egotistical and held grudges. For example, a major split in the then-ruling party, the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), after independence dragged the country into turmoil. This happened after National Leader General Aung San was assassinated. Once the most respected leader was killed, the remaining members vied for influence, leading to a political rift. The grudges of our ancestors blinded them, and their refusal to give up the AFPFL name made reconciliation impossible. Both factions even used the same political name with slight modifications. The faction led by former Prime Minister U Nu won the 1960 General Election, but the democratic system was destroyed by a military coup in 1962. This coup, fueled by the division among former allies, plunged Myanmar into brutal military rule that continues to this day.

When the military controls every sector of the government, the tyrant’s top priority is to maintain power with an iron fist. To do this, regime leaders created Military Intelligence (MI) forces to spy within both the government and the army itself. MI’s main task is to protect the regime and the autocrat at all costs. Their missions include infiltrating leading organizations across the country, conducting espionage, gathering information, and reporting directly to the junta. In some cases, MI forces use their skills in covert operations to suppress opposition. 

In the first generation of the military regime, junta leader Ne Win’s most trusted and controversial MI head was Colonel Tin Oo. Though his rank was only a colonel, he took direct orders from Ne Win. His influence in the army, government, and party was so significant that he was often called “number one-and-a-half” in the regime. One of his most notable successes was infiltrating the Communist Party of Burma and successfully assassinating its leader, Than Tun, which was a major victory for Ne Win’s regime. This was just one of the many missions carried out by military intelligence under Colonel Tin Oo. 

In the early 1980s, General Khin Nyunt was chosen as the head of military intelligence (MI). Eight years later, a major uprising occurred, driven by the oppressed people of Myanmar. This was a turning point for Khin Nyunt and his modern MI organization. MI infiltrated the opposition and protesters, spreading false news and creating chaos. Their mission was to make the 1988 Uprising look like a state of anarchy so that it would create the need for a coup within the autocracy. After the coup, MI forces infiltrated student revolutionary groups, creating illusions and sowing distrust that led to students accusing and executing each other as supposed army spies. This was one of MI’s successful missions, turning students against each other during the uprising. History shows that more than 20 years later from 1962 to 1988, students were fighting each other due to MI instigation, but this time in 1988, with even more violence, demonstrating that military intelligence had become more powerful and brutal than ever.

In that period, the whole country was oppressed by Khin Nyunt. And not just the opposition—entire families of those who opposed the military regime were brutally cracked down by his force. When Khin Nyunt’s MI was powerful, people in Myanmar were too afraid to speak loudly in public places like tea shops, bus stops, and restaurants because anyone nearby could be working for him. Suspicion among citizens was rampant.

Khin Nyunt carried on the unfinished business of MI-Tin Oo, aiming to destroy the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). He understood that the CPB had formed alliances with ethnic troops mainly from the Northern Shan State regions, such as the Kokang and Wa ethnic groups, who fought under the CPB flag but were not actual members of the party. Khin Nyunt used an ethnic strategy by infiltrating MI agents into these ethnic units, inciting them to stage mutinies within the CPB, particularly led by Kokang ethnic leaders. As a result, the CPB collapsed, and its allies emerged as independent armies. Later, Khin Nyunt reached agreements to grant them special region status and self-administrative zones.

After the CPB was neutralized, the Myanmar army’s next priority was to crack down on the strongest army in the south: the Karen Revolution. Khin Nyunt led the MI corps in exploiting religious divisions within the Karen National Union (KNU). The KNU, primarily dominated by Christian followers, also included a minority of Buddhist Karen fighters. In 1995, MI exploited conflicts between these Christian and Buddhist forces to create a mutiny within the organization. This led to the formation of a new group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which defected to the government side, taking with them crucial information about defense works and minefields near the guerrilla camps along the Thai border.

Reports suggest the DKBA had about 500 guerrillas, while the Christian-led KNU commanded the remaining 3,500. This use of psychological warfare and espionage allowed the Myanmar army to significantly weaken one of the most powerful revolutionary forces in the country’s history.

After dismantling armed resistance forces, Khin Nyunt turned his attention to political parties. Following the 1988 uprising, Myanmar saw a surge in political movements, with many parties formed by civilians, students, and politicians. One of the most notable was the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the late national leader, General Aung San. Despite winning a landslide victory in the 1990 General Election, the army refused to transfer power to the elected party and instead jailed many of its members, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Khin Nyunt’s plan at that time was to dismantle the NLD, imprison its hardliners, and outlaw the party under the Unlawful Association Act.

MI’s efforts to crack down on the NLD only partially succeeded as youth and opposition members continued to work underground. Myanmar remained under authoritarian rule until the so-called democratic era under Thein Sein’s regime in 2011. Due to Khin Nyunt’s MI efforts, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) led by Than Shwe was able to maintain power for over 20 years.

During Myanmar’s quasi-democratic government, the new commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing’s army exploited ethnic tensions in the sensitive region of Rakhine State. Their mission was to stoke conflict between the ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya communities, hoping to destabilize the administration in Rakhine. This tactic proved highly successful as Aung San Suu Kyi, whose NLD party won the 2015 General Election, was largely seen by the international community as complicit in the army’s ethnic cleansing operation against the Rohingya. However, within Myanmar, citizens rallied behind her, driven by nationalism and radicalism, and disregarded international criticism of the army’s atrocities against the Rohingya minority.

Min Aung Hlaing’s army heavily relied on radical nationalists, patriots, and loyalists to the military during the NLD administration. Despite their efforts to undermine the democratic government, the people of Myanmar remained resilient. They marched to the ballot boxes and overwhelmingly voted for the NLD in the 2020 General Election, despite the army’s attempts to disrupt the election. When the NLD won by a landslide again, Min Aung Hlaing’s political failure prompted a military coup, overthrowing the entire government and democratic reform effort from the past decade. 

At the beginning of the revolution, protesters often chanted “Don’t use 1988 tactics in 2021.” It’s true; the coup government led by Min Aung Hlaing is resorting to old tactics to suppress the opposition. To quell the protests, the regime employed thugs to sow chaos and spread false hope among the public. However, their attempts to incite division among the united peaceful protesters failed, forcing them to resort to brutal crackdowns, resulting in widespread clashes across the country.

Although Min Aung Hlaing’s forces face military setbacks, they continue to employ the same old tactics to pressure different resistance and revolutionary forces. This poses a grave danger to the citizens of Myanmar who aspire to live in a country free from oppressive rule. We can see this in the Northern Shan State, where clashes between the Three Brotherhood Alliances, once chemistry against the army, have erupted over territory disputes. In Rakhine State, the Rohingya, who were previously brutally targeted by the Myanmar army, are once again being used to fight the Arakan Army (AA), allegedly to create ethnic tensions and divert attention from the revolution. As a result, AA allegedly attacked Rohingya villages in Buthidaung in late May. Similarly, in Karen State, the KNU, once a formidable organization, has been divided by MI tactics, reminiscent of the strategies employed over 20 years ago.

Indeed, the Myanmar regime is employing various tactics to divide and weaken the resistance working for revolution in all sectors. Regime cells are circulating rumors on social media about the NUG’s officials, fundraisers, and financial supporters, designed to undermine the revolution. While the Myanmar army faces military pressure, our primary task is to resist the incitement created by the regime’s dying efforts.

To achieve this, we must avoid blaming each other and instead focus on establishing mutual respect and trust. For over 60 years, we have been manipulated by the same tactics, which the army and its allies excel at. Haven’t we learned enough from our history? It is not surprising that they continue to use these old methods as they lack innovative thinking. However, it would be our fault if we allow ourselves to fall victim to these tactics once again. By understanding Myanmar’s history, we have an advantage over the army; we know how to defeat the most notorious, corrupt, and brutal military force in history.

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