Myanmar’s Military Is Again in Cost. It By no means Really Left.
The men in army green never really withdrew.
When Myanmar presented the world with a facade of democracy, the generals who had ruled the country for nearly half a century still dominated the economy and the chambers of power. They even got away with what international prosecutors called genocide on their murderous offensives against Rohingya Muslims.
The military, led by Maj. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, again displayed its ultimate authority in its pre-dawn coup on Monday, which ousted an elected government and placed its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, back under house arrest.
On Monday evening, the army known as Tatmadaw unveiled a new cabinet for Myanmar after most of the country’s civilian leaders were arrested. Each minister was either a former general or a current one.
But while reasserting their command, the generals tore apart a valuable project: a carefully constructed political system that has allowed them to camouflage their fists behind a veneer of democracy for decades.
The Tatmadaw called it “Discipline Thriving Democracy,” an oxymoron burned into its name. Although they allowed elections, army officers also reserved a quarter of the seats in parliament and key cabinet positions.
Deviating from this political strategy could be disastrous for Myanmar’s economy, which has already been hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The public, who felt they could express their political aspirations through landslide victories to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, is angry. And the international community, which has been more focused on the civilian part of the country’s civil-military system, is now aware that one side of the scale clearly outweighs the other.
“With this coup, the military’s entire vision of a hybrid civil-military democracy, the entire structure, could disappear and send the country back decades,” said Gerard McCarthy, postdoctoral fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. “And we may have found ourselves in this completely absurd situation because a man, Min Aung Hlaing, did not feel respected by Aung San Suu Kyi and could not place the country above ambition.”
Myanmar politics is never tied to simple logic. Although the top brass players had worked for years to design a system for their permanent use, they had given only one man – General Min Aung Hlaing – the power to tear it down.
Myanmar’s modern history is full of generals who single-handedly redefined the country’s circumstances. A former army chief was a megalomaniac whose obsession with numerology crashed the nation’s currency when he decided to label it nine. Another was a butcher of student protesters who believed he was the reincarnation of an old king.
General Min Aung Hlaing, 64, rose quietly – and largely unnoticed – through the ranks of the army, according to some who know him. Early in his career, some of his coworkers said they gave him a nickname referring to cat poop – something that settled quietly but left a strong stench.
After his rise to higher ranks and a larger public position, he wooed the Buddhist lay people in Myanmar by funding the largest marble Buddha statue in the country. But piety has done little to hide what the army chief has to atone for.
Rohingya Muslims faced decades of persecution under Tatmadaw’s rule, but it was General Min Aung Hlaing who led a terrorist campaign that forced more than three quarters of a million Rohingya to flee the country. When the Rohingya villages burned, the nationalists rejoiced at the expulsion of the Muslims who were viewed as foreign invaders. The army chief’s popularity rose.
Soon General Min Aung Hlaing was coveting the position of president, which he hoped to fill after retiring from the army this summer, military insiders said. But since 2015, when Myanmar’s first civilian government was elected, the presidency has passed to loyal lieutenants to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is constitutionally excluded from office.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi declined to meet the army chief to discuss his political aspirations, her advisors said, a nudge that hurt his pride. But when Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the country’s murdered independence hero, saw herself as the rightful ruler of Myanmar, so did General Min Aung Hlaing.
Both are products of a country where the Tatmadaw continues to pervade all facets of life, even if their soldiers were rarely seen during Monday’s coup.
“The military is part of the human fabric of Myanmar society,” said Richard Horsey, a political analyst in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. “Not only does it have its own schools, hospitals and a food production system, its elite are also married to business families and NLD families, creating an integrated structure that is hard to undo.”
The dominance of the military extends beyond the firepower of its half million soldiers, whose attacks on ethnic minorities increased during General Min Aung Hlaing’s tenure. The two most powerful conglomerates in the country are under the command of the army and control vast assets that include jade, timber, harbors and dams. The Tatmadaw deals with banking, insurance, hospitals, gyms and the media. It is the largest land owner in the country.
It is no coincidence that the Mytel cellular network was the first to come back to life on Monday after telecommunications were disrupted across the country by the coup. Mytel is partly owned by the military.
But the army’s takeover is likely to undermine Myanmar’s economic expansion, which flourished after the generals began loosening the country. And it will almost certainly lead to renewed economic and personal sanctions from abroad.
The State Department said Tuesday it found the military’s actions constituted a coup. That assessment will automatically cut off some U.S. foreign aid to the country and trigger a review of all aid programs, State Department officials said in the background. The impact of this action will be limited, however: the United States sends little aid to the Myanmar government and none directly to the military. American humanitarian and pro-democracy programs will not be affected, officials said.
Fewer foreign investors will want to take the risk of investing their money in a country where a coup threatens contracts with civil authorities. The daughter of a celebrity tycoon hit social media on Monday and flashed the hashtag #savemyanmar.
The effects of the coup could further damage an economy already hit by the coronavirus pandemic. A survey found that eight out of ten people in Myanmar are already cutting their food intake as the coronavirus has wiped out key sectors such as tourism and clothing manufacturing.
For the generals, especially General Min Aung Hlaing, the coup may help protect the patronage networks they have built for years. The Commander-in-Chief’s communication with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has not only thwarted his political hopes, but may also threaten the prosperity of his family and partners.
Some powerful generals had retired only to lose their wealth and status in political purges. General Min Aung Hlaing was determined to protect himself from a similar fate by guaranteeing Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi a safe exit, military insiders said.
But the leader of the National League for Democracy did not survive 15 years of house arrest by bowing to anyone. And Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s character is also marked by military determination: her father founded the country’s modern army, and although he was murdered at the age of two, she has referred to him as her political role model. The National League for Democracy was co-founded by another former army chief, and the party appoints a woman as its undisputed commander.
On Tuesday, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was again locked in her villa by the generals. National League for Democracy lawmakers have been temporarily confiscated from their homes in Naypyidaw, the country’s capital, built by military fiat early this century.
“We are all still waiting for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s order,” said Daw Win Mya Mya, one of the lawmakers. “We will all follow her.”
Michael Crowley contributed to coverage from Washington.
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