Myanmar Days

In Myanmar, coups come rather more naturally to the military than electioneering. The re-house-arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) and the shutdown of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar last week mark a bitter juncture in the power-sharing arrangement between the Tatmadaw and the charismatic State Counsellor, whose international stock has now rallied to near pre-genocide heights. On the face of it, the dispute was over the election results of November last year, in which ASSK and the NLD triumphed at the polls. But to call what happened on 1 February a ‘coup’ is still a misnomer: the Myanmar military had never relinquished de facto power. It remained in a crouched position in its surreal fortress-country-club capital, Nay Pyi Taw, where it commanded 25 percent of the seats in parliament automatically, as well as control over the defence and interior ministries, and several other critical sectors of the state. On top of this, the openly Schmittian provisions of the 2008 Constitution – Article 417, in particular – grant the military the right to reassume power over the state in an emergency. There was never any question as to who decides what an emergency is.

Within hours of the Tatmadaw’s reassumption of control, solipsistic Western readings attached to events. Human-rights activists in and outside the country are by no means a monolithic group, but some argued that the Tatmadaw’s claim of an illegitimate 2020 election was inspired by Donald Trump. As if the Myanmar military needed tips from anyone on how to undo an election. The shutdown of the NLD was executed with such efficiency and speed that by the time it was being protested online and in Yangon, it was already a fait accompli. If Chinese state media were capable of tongue in cheek, its description of the events – ‘a major cabinet reshuffle’ – would be closer to the mark. The accompanying suggestion from some progressive outlets that Min Aung Hlaing, the chief of the Tatmadaw, and his cronies were driven by worries about being turned over to the International Criminal Court is likewise baseless. Part of the point of building the capital-compound of Nay Pyi Taw in the middle of the jungle was to banish any idea of an external intervention in Myanmar politics. Min Aung Hlaing is hardly the sort who spends his time shopping at Harrods or skiing in the Alps, where he could be picked up like an African general. When Min Aung Hlaing goes to Europe, he has been invited, typically by European military chiefs, and spends his days visiting the defence contractors who have armed his regime to the teeth.  

Why then did Min Aung Hlaing and the Tatmadaw radically shift course? However much the NLD may intend to demilitarize the parliament, and however strong their performance at the polls, they did not – and cannot – reach the electoral threshold to do so. It seems that the generals had thought that the arrangement with ASSK would stabilize their preferred future for Myanmar and help naturalize their privileges. They wanted to make sure that their political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), was on the way to being perceived as more than a front for the military, and rather as a legitimate, competitive political party. For their children, the point was for them to establish themselves in non-regime-friendly cities like Yangon as legitimate business-people. But these metamorphoses were becoming increasingly jeopardized. Ever since 2015, when ASSK’s NLD won 57 percent of the vote – a strong showing, though not the landslide Western media often made it out to be – the generals knew they had a problem. Instead of an adjustable power relationship, they came to see that they were at risk of becoming marginalized in an effective one-party state where the one-party was not their own. ASSK’s chutzpah in the face of the generals has been unyielding. For the past year, she has even apparently refused to meet with Min Aung Hlaing. She is now counting on people in the streets – not merely her own followers –  to risk everything to reinstate her. It is not an unreasonable scenario. ASSK has deep sources of popular support. First, she is the daughter of the founder of the country – Aung San, ‘the General’ – who remains a kind of George Washington-JFK-Che Guevara wrapped into one (it helps that he was assassinated in 1947 and could remain a hazy martyr of independence; the very military that kept ASSK under house arrest for 15 years was founded and led by Aung San). The second is that the Bamar majority, the largest identitarian group in the country, see in ASSK all of the promise of globalization and prosperity. It is difficult to spend much time in Yangon or the smaller cities in the Bamar heartland without being overwhelmed by the iconography devoted to her. Yet no less significant has been her adamant embodiment and propagation of Myanmar nationalism, narrowly construed as Bamar interests. One of the few things that she and the military junta agreed on was the prosecution of a brutal campaign of massacres, rape, and forced exile of the Rohingya groups in Rakhine state. To her credit, ASSK has never much dissembled about being anything other than a blinkered Bamar chauvinist. 

The trouble for the military is that, despite having fashioned the Constitution of 2008, they have lately been disserved by it. The Constitution, like its previous iterations, was designed with a first-past-the-post system that would keep ‘ethnic’ parties in the borderland states from having too many seats in the parliament. The chief minister of each state is still appointed by the President of the country, so that even an allegedly irredentist state like Rakhine, where NLD does not perform well, still has an NLD chief minister. The military made sure that the Constitution guarantees them 25 percent of the seats as a safety buffer. But the idea was that the military, and the constituents who work for industries associated with it – agriculture, mining, precious stones – would add to that vote share to make their party, the USDP, at least competitive with the NLD. Last year, Min Aung Hlaing even encouraged the military to campaign around the country and made some attempts to do so himself – a technically illegal activity since the USDP and the military are supposed to be separate – but in any case he was up against an NLD electoral machine that has been fine-tuning a get-out-the-vote campaign for a decade. Additionally, Myanmar’s first-past-the-post voting system, an enduring legacy of British colonialism, was not in Min Aung Hlaing’s favour. Successive Bamar-led governments have kept it in place since it helps suppress smaller ‘ethnic’ parties in the country. But now first-past-the-post is suppressing the actual – or now presumed – support of the USDP itself, which with just over 28 percent of the vote in 2015 would have won some 92 seats in a plurality voting system, as against the 30 it was actually awarded.

It is still too early to speculate whether 1 February marks the end of the military’s experiment with ASSK and the NLD. But there is little doubt that there is a constitutional problem in Myanmar that needs to be solved, both to make electoral politics more competitive, but also to deoxygenate the on-going civil wars in the border states, which would have more of a chance to de-escalate if Katchin and Shan and other borderland radical factions were less easily able to claim that they will never find justice or solace in the national parliament. The problem is that the NLD has little incentive to rearrange a system which puts such headwinds in its sails, while the junta do not think they are in an existential situation because Beijing is even more suspicious of the NLD and ASSK than they are. Viewed in a longer historical perspective, the events in Myanmar suggest that Samuel Huntington’s old vision of Third World authoritarian militaries midwifing – however more or less violently or against their will – bourgeois revolutions is a much trickier undertaking when the military itself wants to oversee every step of the procedure, and for its spawn to occupy the upper-echelon of the capitalist elite. Like Myanmar’s other hot conflicts, the inter-elite, inter-Bamar civil war is no longer behind closed doors.

Read on: Mary Callahan on the riddle of the Tatmadaw’s long reign.