Trump, Putin, and the Tatmadaw

Posted on: October 23, 2022 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry



[Below is a note to a colleague on his way to Bangkok for discussions regarding the Rohingya situation.]


My esteemed colleague,

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”

-Lord Acton

I am keenly aware that quoting the words of a colonialist -let alone a British colonialist- to begin this message is perhaps the height of irony. Acton’s words, though, are relevant to my observations below.

I read the document you sent to me [as background for your high level meeting in Bangkok to discuss the situation in Maynmar regarding the Rohingya]. Thank you.

I have been thinking a great deal about the situation in Myanmar and what can be done to create a different political narrative in that country. Enlarging my scope of attention, I see my own country, the United States, being very much influenced by the MAGA Trump followers and those who have come to power with him. I am also looking very closely at Russia and the world that Putin has created and the narrative he is pushing in his war against Ukraine. I think these three situations, Myanmar, the United States, and Russia have a great deal in common. The only big difference is that in Myanmar, instead of having a charismatic figure in control as in the United States and Russia, there is a cabal of older men who cling onto power. They are acting as one and can hide, at least in the eyes of the outside world, in anonymity. What I see in common with these three situations is that there is an entrenched power that stays in control largely by exploiting the fears of people and, at the same time, the greed of those around them.

Let’s discuss the case of Russia for a moment. The outside world, with the exceptions of China and India and a few other countries, has largely condemned what Russia is doing and have put political and economic measures in place to punish the behavior of Putin. As I write this it appears that Putin is very willing to take his entire country down with his egotistical desire to push his narrative and retain power. All the sanctions in the world have not and will not dissuade him.

In the case of the United States, we have the charismatic figure of Donald Trump who emerged in the mid 20 teens and has virtually taken over the entire Republican Party and is controlling the political narrative of the those on the right. He will not back down, and he will not be defeated in the sense that all the sanctions in the world, just like with Putin, won’t do anything to him. He will bring down the United States and democracy before he quits his efforts to retain power.

Now, I realize I am very naïve about the inner workings of the Tatmadaw, but I must assume that those at the head of this military are psychologically very similar to both Putin and Trump. And as is with sanctions against Trump and Putin, I feel any sanctions against the Myanmar military will only yield more extreme measures on their part. Neither Trump nor Putin nor the leaders of the Tatmadaw will go quietly into the night. From a cynical perspective it appears that legal measures are impotent gestures that fall off the Trump/Putin/Tatmadaw egos like so much tiny drops of rain onto a huge umbrella, just bouncing off little noticed.

So, the question for those of us who have a humanitarian heart and seek social justice is what do we do in the face of this recalcitrance? We certainly can’t just do nothing, but we don’t want to continue doing things that are only symbolic gestures affirming our own sense of righteousness.

I have deep faith in the human spirit, and I do believe that the moral arc of the universe though long does bend toward justice. I am heartened by the news of various grassroots groups in Myanmar continuing the fight even though certain death awaits them. I have the same deep respect for the protesters recently in Moscow who were carried away to jail cells and serve as a motivation for others to come out and protest. In the United States we also have people continuing to fight for social justice. We have an election coming up in just over a month and that I’m hoping we will finally find an answer to this populist and authoritarian MAGA madness. I hope that collectively we in the US can come to our senses, so to speak.

So back to the question, what can people like you and me who believe in social justice and believe in the beauty of the human spirit do in the face of the reality that exists now on the ground in Myanmar? Just as in any battle one must be ever creative and flexible in strategies and a tactics, fighting on as many fronts as possible. Certainly, looking for legal measures such as what The Gambia has done it is necessary.

I’m sure you are aware of many of the similar kinds of legal actions being taken by individuals, organizations, and nations against Myanmar are taking place. All of these are good. All of these are necessary. All of these are good. But are all these enough?

For my part I am doing both my duty as a US citizen and as a global citizen to encourage my political representatives to take whatever actions they can change the behavior of the government in Myanmar. But as I said above, I think that the leadership in Myanmar, like Putin and Trump, will not be cowed or convinced by any such measures. Those corrupted by power do not respond to reason. They are entrenched in their power webs and will always remain blind to any moral logic other than their own twisted way of looking at the world.

So as you head to Bangkok I wish you well. I have every faith that the collective wisdom in the room will lead to some productive discussions and outline some viable actions to take. There’s a small part of me that feels that the best thing that I can do is to support the resistance movement on the ground in Myanmar, support those who are putting their life on the line to fight the Tatmadaw.

So, there you have it, the scattered thoughts of a late career sociologist.

In solidarity,


Thomas Arcaro
Professor of Sociology
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Elon University
Elon, NC 27244


“It would be advisable to think of progress in the crudest, most basic terms: that no one should go hungry anymore, that there should be no more torture, no more Auschwitz [or Gaza or Cox’s Bazar]. Only then will the idea of progress be free from lies.”   

-Theodor Adorno




Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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