Myanmar Military Chief’s Warnings Raise Specter of Post-Election Chaos

By The Irrawaddy 4 November 2020

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s recent stern warnings to the Union Election Commission (UEC) and the government over their handling of the Nov. 8 vote have raised concern and unease among politicians and observers.

Due to what he described as weaknesses and deficiencies in the work of the UEC, the legitimacy of the election’s outcome will be in question, the military commander-in-chief said in an exclusive interview with a Yangon-based news outlet known as Popular News.

The senior general appears to be sending a message that if the NLD wins again in this election, the military will not sit idly by. The military leaders and some opposition parties have long cast doubt over the credibility and impartiality of the UEC. Now they are questioning its competence.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s calculated, public challenge and warning to the government and UEC are at odds with the fact that, technically, the commander-in-chief and the armed forces he leads answer to the government. By issuing such an open warning he is acting as if he is an independent authority when, in fact, he himself is a government servant—and is not above the law or the 2008 Constitution.

We can expect more such criticism of the government from the military chief. The government’s reaction will determine the future of the currently frozen relationship between the military and the civilian leadership. At a press briefing, government spokesman U Zaw Htay said the commander-in-chief’s interview with Popular News does not abide by the essence of the Constitution and the existing law, because Article 26(a) of the Constitution bans civil servants from party politics, and military men and police are civil servants. He also said the UEC is an independent body and the law does not say that the electoral body must be held accountable to the government.

Some observers fear the country is headed for a period of post-election chaos and violence that will give the military a pretext to step in and take control. Diplomats in Yangon have expressed concern about Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s open criticism of the elected civilian government and questioned whether he has overstepped the bounds of his authority.

The Constitution guarantees the military 25 per cent of seats in Parliament and control of three ministries: Defense, Border Affairs and Home Affairs. This effectively puts the country under a joint administration. It is an open secret that the military and civilian government have been at loggerheads for the past five years.

Military leaders are unhappy with the NLD government over its handling of several issues including the peace process, the economy and the Rakhine conflict, and its failure to convene a meeting of the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), the nation’s highest security body.

Above all, the military feels it has lost control of the country’s democratic transition, which the generals envisioned as a gradual process under which they would hold on to power until 2025.

The NLD’s landslide victory in 2015 and the likelihood that it will extend its tenure for a second term on Nov. 8 have no doubt dismayed some military leaders and associates.

It seems certain that Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, whose term as military chief expires next year, will keep up his pressure on the government and continue to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election—leading to speculation on the likelihood of a military coup.

The 2008 Constitution allows the military to assume control of the country in the event of chaos and instability.

Throughout the NLD government’s term, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has frequently made comments attempting to justify the military’s continuing role in Myanmar’s politics. The military is a stabilizing force in the country’s politics and ethnic issues, he told cadets at the National Defense College in 2016.

In November of that year, the military mouthpiece Myawaddy Daily quoted him as saying that while the military would not engage in “party politics”, the 2008 Constitution enshrined provisions allowing it to declare a state of emergency.

Under Article 412(a) of the Constitution, the president may declare a state of emergency in any situation that could lead to the disintegration of the country or a loss of sovereign power, or if there is an attempt to take power through force, including an insurgency.

The president must coordinate with the NDSC; if all 11 members of the council are unable to attend, the president must at a minimum coordinate with the commander-in-chief, deputy commander-in-chief and the ministers of defense and home affairs. The president is also required to submit the state of emergency declaration to the NDSC for approval as soon as possible. The NLD has proposed repealing both these provisions.

During its bid to reform the charter last year, the NLD proposed reducing the military’s dominance of the NDSC, which includes the president, two vice-presidents (one of whom is appointed by the military), both parliamentary speakers, the commander-in-chief and deputy commander-in-chief, the minister of foreign affairs and the military-appointed ministers of defense, home affairs and border affairs. Nevertheless, military representatives in Parliament rejected the proposal.

The military and government are locked into a confrontation that will carry over into the post-election period. This tension will raise fears and speculation of a military coup in Myanmar. But with the 2008 Constitution drafted in favor of the men in uniform, why does the military need to stage a coup?

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