From the Army’s Perspective, Now Is Not the Time to Stage a Coup

By Aung Zaw 18 September 2018

Amid increasing instability inside the country and threats of Western sanctions, some analysts are openly discussing the possibility that the Myanmar military will stage another coup.

Not surprisingly, support for the idea has been voiced by former generals who are members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party. If a coup does take place, some senior USDP leaders warned last week, the ruling party will be to blame.

Speaking in Singapore recently, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi deflected a question about the likelihood of a military takeover.

She said it was a question best put to the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces). “They will be able to answer better,” she replied, adding, “But I’m not worried about it. In politics anything can happen. Our relationship with the Tatmadaw is not that bad. Please don’t forget that our cabinet includes three men who are in fact military men, generals, and they’re all rather sweet.”

We all know that relations between the government, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, and the generals are unstable, and that the military could come back at any time. But with the 2008 Constitution drafted in its favor — it grants the Army a key role in national politics — the generals will think twice before staging a coup. Why bother abolishing the 2008 Constitution, which gives them so much power?

Under the present charter, the Army holds 25 percent of parliamentary seats and controls the key ministries of Defense, Border Affairs and Home Affairs. It is a hybrid power-sharing government structure that some former military leaders claim is designed to prevent a military coup like the ones the country experienced in 1962 and in 1988 – exactly 30 years ago.

If necessary, declaring a state of emergency would likely be the preferred option of the generals; a military coup is a last resort. The irony is that a coup could also make the ruling party and the government popular again.

In November 2016, amid a flare-up in the military conflict in northern Shan State and threats from Muslim terrorists in northern Rakhine, Tatmadaw commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said the military is a stabilizing force in political and ethnic issues.

He said at the time the military would not engage in “party politics,” but that the 2008 Constitution did enshrine provisions for a state of emergency.

According to the Constitution, only the president can declare a state of emergency, after consulting and coordinating with the commander-in-chief of Defense Services and the Home Affairs Ministry.

This declaration must be submitted to the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) for approval as soon as possible, according to the Constitution.

Since the NLD party came to power, there has not been a regular NDSC meeting, but some irregular high-level security meetings have been held.

The commander-in-chief would have executive power to head the government, but would have to seek NDSC approval to extend the emergency period to six months or more.

He would also have to report to an emergency session of the Union Parliament. This scenario is likely if the country is seen to be facing a serious emergency situation or a genuine threat to its sovereignty.

In June this year rumors of coup swirled when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing met for a high-level security meeting.

According to one news report, the Army commander reacted angrily over the government’s handling of the Rakhine issue and even threatened a coup. The government denied it, and senior officials who attended the meeting recalled that it was quite productive.

Some analysts have gone even further, saying that the country will witness the same scenario as in 1958, when Prime Minister U Nu invited General Ne Win to form the military-led Caretaker Government.

The political instability in the country at that time, and the serious split within the ruling party, the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, forced U Nu to reach a compromise with Gen. Ne Win, then the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, to hand over power with the promise of holding free and fair elections in the near future.

Gen. Ne Win, a member of the legendary “Thirty Comrades,” was arguably already planning to seize state power. Gen. Ne Win became prime minister, but as promised, he held a free and fair election in 1960, which U Nu won. Two years later, however, the general staged a coup and threw U Nu and his cabinet ministers in prison.

Will Daw Aung San Suu Kyi follow in U Nu’s footsteps? Do the generals expect her to surrender power to them when she thinks or feels she can’t run the country, so they can play the role of national savior again?

The generals have keenly observed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s failing health, her inability to unify and govern the country, or to work with stakeholders, ethnic leaders and armed groups, as well as her lack of progress in finding a successor in the near future. The generals have surely noted that so far the NLD seems to have produced no clear succession plan for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is 73 and will be 75 at the time of the 2020 general election.

Additionally, there are external dynamics affecting domestic politics in Myanmar that fuel the talk of a military coup.

Many believe that Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has political ambitions and has set his eyes on the 2020 general election. But now the top general himself faces serious challenges.

In August, the UN issued a damning report on Myanmar, calling for the country’s top military commanders, including Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, to be investigated for what it claims are crimes against humanity under international law.

The UN mission called for Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague over the Tatmadaw’s crackdown on Muslims along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and crimes committed by security forces in other ethnic areas.

It is unlikely he will face trial at the ICC. Myanmar is not a signatory to the 1998 Rome Statute, under which the ICC was established, and is under no obligation to hand Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing or other commanders over to the court.

Last month, social media giant Facebook removed the accounts of the senior general and some other military leaders. But he is still the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. He will not leave the post because of international pressure.

Since it came to power, the NLD’s opponents have been waiting eagerly for the government to stumble on every front – the peace process, the economy, political stability and the burning issue of Rakhine State — and to fail to keep the promises it made to the public. And indeed, the NLD has failed to live up to expectations.

Beyond Myanmar, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a fallen icon in the international arena, particularly in the West. The irony is that, despite their sharply differing views on the major issues facing the country, in terms of their international standing, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing now share a similar status—condemned as outcasts.

So far, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s political opponents should be fairly pleased—many must feel they have witnessed the failure of this government in many areas, and watched it underperform in terms of its achievements over the last two-and-a-half years. But this doesn’t mean the public wants the USDP to return to power. So the attention returns to the men in uniform, as guarantors of stability and protectors of the nation’s sovereignty. At a minimum, they don’t want to see the NLD winning another landslide victory in 2020, controlling the Lower and Upper houses of Parliament.

So, until 2020, we are likely to see endless rumors of a coup, and of the military taking steps to assume power.

But the point is, the generals are well aware that the government has not lived up to expectations, and that people have begun to question the government and its poor performance. In their game against the NLD, the military and the former generals are already winning. As the country’s problems mount and it braces for more storms, the military can publicly bask in an attitude of, “I told you so.”

Given the present situation, from the military’s perspective, it is better off not staging a coup.