Everyone wants a sustainable life, a sustainable economy, a sustainable environment and a sustainable country. For the people of Myanmar, however, those ambitions were dashed when the military staged a coup on Feb. 1. But the man who shattered an entire country seems satisfied with the purported “sustainability” he has created, presiding over the disaster in a place he has no right to be—the Presidential Residence.
One of the first actions coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing took a few days after he staged his coup was to forcibly move democratically elected President U Win Myint from the Presidential Residence to another location, also in Naypyitaw, where he was placed under house arrest. Right after that, the general and his wife held a traditional house warming party with five Buddhist monks in the residence’s Ngu Shwe Wah Hall. Since then, sources close to the military’s top circle have revealed, the coup leader and his family have occupied the residence.
In truth, it’s a place that was never meant for him. It is intended for presidents, as its official name, the “Presidential Residence”, indicates.
In the decade after the previous military regime relaxed its total grip on power in 2011, the residence housed three elected presidents: U Thein Sein, U Htin Kyaw and U Win Myint. Even U Thein Sein, a former general, became an elected president, though the general election held in 2010 under the previous regime was not free, fair or inclusive. But in name, at least, he was an elected president.
To succeed him, the National League for Democracy, which won a landslide victory in the 2015 election, selected U Htin Kyaw for the first two years and later U Win Myint as its first civilian presidents in its tenure between 2016 and 2021.
The leader of the NLD and State Counselor of its ousted government, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, wasn’t forced to move but has been detained under house arrest at her home. Most of the NLD’s cabinet members have also been detained in their houses in Naypyitaw.
It is believed that Min Aung Hlaing’s decision to mount a coup in response to the result of the 2020 election, in which the NLD won another landslide, was motivated by a desire to secure “sustainability” for himself as head of state, or perhaps as an “elected” president in the future after he organizes a vote in the coming years—one of the regime’s stated plans. Comments he made in an interview in 2020 show without a doubt that he really sought the top position in the country.
It seems fair to say he has been obsessed with the presidency, including the residence and all the other status symbols that go with the top position. The swiftness with which elected President U Win Myint was evicted from the Presidential Residence suggests the move was premeditated. Now, more than three months after the coup, the senior general and his family seem to have comfortably and shamelessly settled into this residence intended for a president. He may indeed think of himself as a future president, but in the meantime, as self-appointed head of state, he seems to believe he’s entitled to live there.
Setting aside his political ambitions and viewing the coup in a military context, the way Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has conducted himself has not only destroyed his image as armed forces commander-in-chief, but also made the military an object of total contempt in the eyes of the public.
What he did on Feb. 1 has been a disaster not only for the country but also for the military—known as the Tatmadaw—itself. The military was already a notorious institution in Myanmar, but his coup has greatly magnified the public’s antipathy toward it. What the people of Myanmar feel about the military now, and especially its leadership, is hatred and a sense that it cannot be forgiven.
Of course, military leaders have a long history of destroying democratic systems in Myanmar. But this time it seems worse. As the regime turned 100 days old early this week, it had yet to impose stability on the country, let alone achieve any of the goals it laid out upon grabbing power.
The country has suffered many bitter political experiences when it comes to the destruction of democratic systems of government.
In 1962, dictator General Ne Win staged a coup that did away with parliamentary democracy and the free and fair elections that had been held regularly since independence in 1948. The country would not see another democratic vote for 26 years.
The military leaders turned democratic Myanmar into an undemocratic nation under iron-fisted rule for almost 50 years. But the generals who seized power through illegitimate means had to find a way to make themselves legitimate.
Two years after the coup in 1988, the new regime held a general election, but the NLD won a landslide victory. In response, Senior General Than Shwe, head of the regime, and his deputy generals annulled the result of the election and refused to hand over power to the winner.
For the next 20 years, there was no election. But eventually Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s regime decided once again it wanted to make itself legitimate and held another election. The vote in 2010—though not inclusive, free or fair—opened the door for the country to establish a partly democratic system under a semi-civilian government led by former generals.
But inclusive, free and fair elections in 2015 reversed the results of 2010. The NLD again won a landslide victory. Under the undemocratic constitution drafted by Than Shwe’s regime, the country was transformed and the people of Myanmar enjoyed freedoms they had been denied throughout the period of the previous military dictatorships. Though there were tensions between the military leadership and the ruling NLD over its five years in office, the country’s democratic transition continued with some radical transformations in other sectors, including the economy.
Even under the undemocratic 2008 Constitution, which grants the military privileges in the political arena, the arrangement seemed to resemble that of normal countries, with the political situation remaining sustainable despite disagreements and confrontations between the main stakeholders.
In Myanmar, the military chief’s mandatory retirement age is 60. In Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s case, his tenure was extended for five years beyond that age—a period that was set to end this year. The “sustainability” of his military career was coming to an end, and the 2020 election result held similar implications for his political ambitions, not to mention his family’s businesses.
It was out of that realization, it’s believed, that the idea for the coup was born.
One man’s desire for personal “sustainability” destroyed the sustainability of an entire country and its population of 54 million people. Myanmar now exists in a world without sustainability, stability or safety.
But the real question here is how long Min Aung Hlaing’s unjust and illegitimate “sustainability” will be sustainable.
Naing Khit is a commentator on political affairs.
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