No one seriously thought that Myanmar’s 64-year-old General Min Aung Hlaing’s public life would end with this retirement, set for June 2021. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and many of the general’s supporters in Buddhist-majority Myanmar believed that he would simply reincarnate into a different, perhaps newly created government post to protect his and his army’s vast amounts of wealth. The coup of February 1, however, showed that the general prefers a more direct path to power.
Aeschylus is said to have coined the adage that “truth is the first casualty of war.” During a military coup, however, the first casualty is a lie. In the case of Myanmar, this latest coup dismantled the political fiction that democratic reforms — that began in 2011 — had decreased the military’s power.
WHEN MYANMAR’S DEMOCRATIC FICTION BEGAN
Aung San Suu Kyi and her long-suffering pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won Myanmar’s general election in 2015. The election followed a series of historical political actions: a new constitution written by the military in 2008, first general elections in 2010 after almost two decades of military rule, and easing of US sanctions in 2012 after parliamentary by-elections. While various regions of Myanmar experienced violence, such as in Rakhine where the majority Rohingya population was frequently targeted by the state, the steadiness of democratic reforms seemed promising. But to a close observer, the reforms were not really reforms. And it all started with the 2008 constitution.
Despite its promise, the 2008 constitution reads less like an affirmation of democracy and more like a thinly disguised plan to re-label the country as a democracy while the military retains real power. For example, 25 percent of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military with the ability to veto any constitutional amendment, and key cabinet positions are filled by the military — and answer directly to it. These include the Ministry of Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs. The state’s formidable intelligence agency, known by its Burmese acronym Sa Ya Pa, is also under the direct control of the military. In other words, it is a constitution designed for a perpetual coup, and where the democratically elected government exists merely to rubberstamp Myanmar’s democratic label with the aim of easing foreign sanctions.
Many observers were also fooled by the new capital city, Naypyidaw — constructed by the military as a sort of peace offering to seat a democratically elected government. No expenses were spared. And yet this wonder of a city looks less like a city built for human habitation than a force field where the military can project its power with least resistance. Designed to house the official residence of the elected government, this uncanny city has no public squares where demonstrators can gather, but has twenty-lane highways allowing the military to field tanks any time. And that is precisely what they did during February 1’s putsch. The military was able to round up the civilian government with lightning speech — all the military simply did was surround the official residences of the elected members of parliament and the NLD’s leaders in Naypyidaw.
SOURCES THAT FUEL MYANMAR’S POWERFUL MILITARY
As an institution, Myanmar’s military is autonomous from the state. A 2019 United Nations fact finding mission found that the military, known as the Tatmadaw, owns vast business interests through two subsidiary private companies: the Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). The Tatmadaw also has close links with a subset of domestic private businesses, often through family ties, that the report calls “crony companies.” These companies are owned and “influenced by” senior military leaders, including Commander in Chief General Hlaing and Deputy Commander in Chief General Soe Win. This pattern of military owned businesses is also common in other countries like Pakistan and Egypt, where the military frequently intervenes in domestic politics.
From construction and gem extraction to manufacturing, insurance, tourism and banking, the military has captured most of the lucrative industries in Myanmar. Local and foreign companies that do not fall directly under the Tatmadaw’s control must also operate in “partnership” with MEC, MEHL or one of the crony companies in order to gain access to the Myanmar economy. The Tatmadaw has also maintained a perpetual state of emergency in Kachin and Shan state under the guise of fighting ethnic insurgencies. But these counterinsurgency operations really protect the military’s jade and ruby mining interests in both states. In 2017, the Tatmadaw financed a large part of its “clearance operation” against the ethnic Rohingyas in northern Rakhine by soliciting “donations” to the tune of $10 million from many of these partner companies, an operation that the UN Secretary-General called a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.
The military has constructed the “ethnic separatist” into such a strong bogeyman that it has become inconceivable for any leader — military or civilian — to see these minority groups as anything but a threat to Myanmar’s sovereignty and statehood. Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize winner, didn’t even acknowledge that the military had used disproportionate force in 2017 when the Rohingya exclusion from Rakhine began.
In the past, Western powers have been frustrated by their own failed attempts to manage Myanmar’s military. New sanctions have not worked. And since Myanmar has been under military rule for nearly fifty years, its economy has become isolated from the West. Furthermore, in its attempt to protect its Belt and Road Initiative investments in Myanmar, China and Russia have routinely shielded the state — and the military — from any serious censure at the UN Security Council (UNSC). For example, in 2017 when the Rohingya ethnic cleansing began, China and Russia both vetoed any UNSC resolutions against Myanmar that called on the military to release political prisoners, and stop its attacks and abuses against ethnic minorities.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope now. The political fiction of democratization in Myanmar over the last ten years has prompted many democratic countries to reestablish economic ties with the state. Many of the recently arrived foreign companies have entered into economic partnership with the military’s conglomerates in order to do business in Myanmar, including the Japanese beer conglomerate, Kirin, PosCo Steel of South Korea, Hong Kong-based Universal Apparel, as well as Indian companies like the Adani Group and Infosys. Today, Western countries can exercise more leverage over the military by threatening to remove their businesses from the country. In the wake of the coup, for instance, the Japanese beer giant, Kirin terminated its relationship with the Myanma Economic Holdings Public Company Limited (MEHPCL), which provides welfare fund management for the military. The Biden administration has been more cautious: while the US government imposed severe targeted sanctions on key members of Myanmar’s military, it stopped short of sanctioning all firms connected to the MEHL and MEC. These credible threats of foreign business flight, however, have a potential to play a critical role in making the military reconsider its determination for holding on to political power.
In addition to its significant economic holdings, the Tatmadaw derives its power from Myanmar’s ethnic tensions. The colonial legacy of Myanmar’s military is that it is almost entirely composed of ethnic Bamars, the majority ethnic group in the state. When the British ruled Myanmar they had filled the native army with ethnic minorities like the Karen, Kachin, Shan, Rakhine, and Rohingyas. Upon taking power from the British, the new national army was made almost entirely out of Bamars instead. Since being created, the Tatmadaw has never let the people of Myanmar forget that the ethnic minority groups had been colonial collaborators — and therefore forever pose a threat to Myanmar’s sovereignty. When movements for greater autonomy emerged in states predominantly inhabited by ethnic minorities, the Tatmadawy began a brutal fight against these ethnic groups, routinely committing war crimes, such as destroying entire villages, conducting mass murders and rapes, and imprisoning innocent civilians.
The 2017 genocidal operation against the Rohingya minority is one of the most horrifying examples of the military’s brutality — and that has led to the expulsion of nearly 750,000 Rohingyas to neighboring Bangladesh, creating an international humanitarian crisis that is ongoing. Dan Slater, an expert on Myanmar’s military, has argued that drawing out these conflicts in ethnic minority states for decades has allowed the military to justify its role as the only organization that is capable of ruling Myanmar and protecting it from ethnic secessionists. Furthermore, the sheer extent of brutality used by the military against ethnic minorities, both insurgents and civilians, is calculated to prevent reaching any kind of peace accord.
The military has constructed the “ethnic separatist” into such a strong bogeyman that it has become inconceivable for any leader — military or civilian — to see these minority groups as anything but a threat to Myanmar’s sovereignty and statehood. Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize winner, didn’t even acknowledge that the military had used disproportionate force in 2017 when the Rohingya exclusion from Rakhine began. Instead she defended her country against accusations of war crimes at the International Court of Justice. Observers sympathetic to the pro-democracy leader have tried to justify her decision by arguing that she must give some concessions to the military to maintain her already fragile hold on power. Such thinking is incredibly short-sighted.
WHO IS THE GENERAL BEHIND THE COUP?
In a country with a modest GDP per capita of USD 1,400, and where well-paying jobs are still hard to come by, the Tatmadaw employs around 515,000 military personnel, making it the second largest standing army in Southeast Asia. This ever-expanding population of military men are beholden to the military by ties of militarized patronage, and have become invested in the Tatmadaw’s ability to maintain its financial empire — and no one more than General Hlaing is a product of this militarized patronage network.
Rising from relatively humble beginnings, and entering the military’s Defense Service Academy (DSA) in 1974 after failing the entrance exam twice, the young General Hlaing showed little political promise early on. But between 2002 and 2009, when as Commander of Triangle Regional Command he was given charge of fighting the ethnic Shan and Kokang insurgencies in Northeastern Myanmar, he won a set of decisive victories on the battlefield — though his forces were accused of mass murder, rape, and systematic arson. He was also able to co-opt major factions of two insurgent groups, the United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army into the country’s Border Guard Force.
Promoted to the position of Chief of the Bureau of Special Operations-2 in 2008, he earned further political points with the then-military leader of Myanmar Than Shwe by becoming a vocal supporter of the brutal crackdown on the Saffron Revolution, a Buddhist monk-led pro-democracy protest. The Tatmadaw leadership rewarded the general with rapid promotions and eventually designated him as the Joint Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces in 2010.
General Hlaing could not have even dreamt of such rapid social mobility from outside the military.
WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR MYANMAR
While there is no doubt about Tatmadaw’s power, the February 1 coup serves as a good example of the extent of its reach. For instance, the Tatmadaw forced Telenor, the Norway-based telecommunications company that is popular in Myanmar, to switch off its cell phone services nationwide, disrupting pro-democracy activists’ ability to organize against the coup.
General Hlaing also does not possess the charisma of his political opponent. The NDL, Suu Kyi’s political party, won an even bigger victory in November’s election than it had in 2016. Even though General Hlaing, a quick student of power, upped his appearance on social media in the run-up to the election, the general’s revamped election campaign did not translate into voter support for the pro-military political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Unable to translate its power into electoral support, the military did what it had learned to do over the past half-century: challenge the validity of the election and seize power by force.
General Hlaing has declared that the military will keep power for a year, and hold new elections sometime in 2022. But the last time the military made such a promise was in 1962, and ended up holding on to power for nearly fifty years. Activists in Myanmar know this, and since the coup, have taken to the streets in heavily populated cities like Yangon and Mandalay, wearing the red ribbons of the NLD and banging pots and pans, which according to tradition symbolizes the driving out of demons and evil forces. Protests, however, are not being held in the capital city, Naypyidaw as the military is strictly enforcing its ban on public protests. Doctors, engineers, lawyers, and civil servants have gone on strike despite knowing the military’s penchant for using violence against civilian protesters and disappearing dissenters.
It appears that General Hlaing may have miscalculated the extent of popular disapproval for his military. Even his Facebook and Instagram accounts have been removed since the coup. But even if the general returns to the barracks, he may still remain the de facto ruler of the country unless forceful reforms do not constrain the real sources of the military’s power.
For as long as the flames of ethnic insurgencies flicker throughout Myanmar, its military will always be able to justify its role as the only credible protector of the state’s internal sovereignty. It is for this same reason that the world must keep vigil against any signs of the military stoking tensions in the border regions of Myanmar in the early days of the coup. If the military can once manufacture tensions in ethnic minority provinces, they will have the mandate they need to stay in power.
Tauhid Bin Kashem is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine and studies refugee policy in Southeast and South Asia.
Correction issued 2/18: This essay previously stated that the Japanese beer giant, Kirin removed operations from Myanmar in protest after the military coup on February 1. Instead, Kirin decided to terminate its partnership with Myanma Economic Holdings Public Company Limited (MEHPCL), which provides welfare fund management for the military. Kirin aims to remain in Myanmar in some form and contribute to the Myanmar people. The essay reflects these changes.