Between 1988, when a pro-democracy uprising in Myanmar was crushed by the country’s security forces, and the installation of a quasi-civilian government in 2011, there was a lively and sometimes acrimonious public debate between those officials, academics and activists who favoured international sanctions against the military regime, and those who believed that external pressures of that kind were largely counter-productive. Despite their radically different approaches, the stated aim of both sides was to bring the generals to the negotiating table, or at least to persuade them to reconsider their brutal, narrow and unproductive policies.

The same debate, accompanied by the same strong emotions, has arisen since the military coup of 1 February 2021. Those advocating punitive measures are bitterly opposed to the more measured approach of the “ASEAN family”, among others, who favour “consensus” and a dialogue with the State Administration Council (SAC), now the “Caretaker Government” in Naypyidaw. For all the ink spilt over the years, however, neither side has put forward a very persuasive case although, in arguing for their respective positions, both have stated that they are supported by historical precedents. For example, despite the lack of hard evidence, both sides claim that their policies eventually led to the 2011 transfer of power.

One key point on which there is agreement, both in the past as more recently, is the central role of Myanmar’s armed forces (or Tatmadaw). Despite the current public focus on the pro-democracy movement and its struggles against the new junta, most observers recognise that progress towards a freer, fairer, stable and more prosperous society in Myanmar ultimately depends on the degree to which the most senior members of the Tatmadaw can be persuaded to change their attitudes to critical questions of governance, human rights, societal development and international relations. For, like it or not, the military leadership remains the essential arbiter of Myanmar’s future.

The armed forces have long been the most powerful institution in Myanmar. As veteran Myanmar-watcher Robert Taylor once wrote, “only the army can end its own role in Myanmar’s politics”, and in February this year the generals showed that they were determined to retain effective control over national life, regardless of the cost, human and otherwise. Of course, other factors need to be taken into account, but it is now largely up to them whether the country steps back from the abyss, or becomes an isolated, bitterly divided and broken-backed authoritarian state, populated by “legions of dirt-poor, uneducated, ill-fed and sickly people”.

In this regard, most objective observers accept that fundamental changes to Myanmar must come from within Myanmar in accordance with, and taking full account of, the country’s complex internal dynamics. That is not to dismiss a role for foreign governments and international organisations, but history has shown that the ability of external actors to influence domestic developments in Myanmar (short of military intervention, which has always been and remains highly unlikely), is very limited.

One persistent problem has been the refusal of Myanmar’s military leadership to observe internationally accepted and formally mandated norms of behaviour. As former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has written, the generals “make and play by their own rules”. For reasons that are not always clear, they have been remarkably resistant to approaches from foreign governments and international organisations. The usual diplomatic carrots and sticks appear to have no appreciable effect, except perhaps to make the generals even more determined to make up their own minds and decide Myanmar’s fate according to their own lights.

This raises many questions. For example, how do foreign governments, international organisations and other external actors treat with Myanmar’s new military regime? Are there clues in Myanmar’s history that can throw light on the generals’ behaviour? How can outsiders identify the pressure points within Myanmar’s opaque military system, choose the most appropriate policy levers, and then apply them in a focussed and discriminating way? How do those outside the country, concerned about internal developments and their external implications, persuade the Tatmadaw’s leadership to adopt different policies and practices? How do they engage with the junta in critical areas, such as the provision of humanitarian assistance to the general population?

There are no simple or easy answers to these questions. However, an obvious first step would be to try and understand the mindset of the military leadership, to learn how the generals view themselves, the Tatmadaw’s national role and the country, and how they perceive Myanmar’s place in the world. The many failed attempts since 1988, to persuade successive military regimes to take greater account of the international community’s concerns, would seem to demand a better informed and more nuanced approach that fully takes into account how approaches might be perceived and received.

This is certainly not to argue that the international community should overlook the appalling behaviour displayed by the SAC and previous military regimes. However, a greater effort to appreciate the generals’ worldview and the Tatmadaw’s strategic concerns would be a sensible starting point in responding to the current crisis. Even then, there can be no guarantee of success. History has made that clear. Through a better understanding of what makes the generals “tick”, however, and a greater awareness of the intangible factors that influence political life in Myanmar, there is at least the potential for more productive discussions and more beneficial outcomes than those seen to date.

To look at all these ideas, the GAI has just published a research paper titled Myanmar’s Military Mindset: An Exploratory Survey. It first sets the scene and emphasises the difficulties of studying the Tatmadaw, both inside and outside Myanmar. There are two chapters that look at the debates that have taken place over Myanmar’s supposed “national character” and perceived “strategic culture”. They provide a framework for the detailed discussion that follows, which looks at the many diverse factors that appear to make up the mental landscape of the Tatmadaw’s senior leadership. The final two chapters draw together all these matters for potential interlocutors and offer some broad conclusions.


Andrew Selth is an Adjunct Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University.

Please click here to read the full research paper available online at “Myanmar’s military mindset: An exploratory survey.”