Myanmar’s Military Chief Staged a Coup. But He Did Not Act Alone

By Naing Khit 13 August 2021

As commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing is the public face of the coup staged against the country’s elected government by Myanmar’s military on Feb. 1. But he did not act alone. His former bosses, ex-supremo Than Shwe and ex-president Thein Sein, and their cohort undoubtedly supported his action, as they all played a role in devising the political doctrine that the coup seeks to uphold—to maintain for their military not only a dominant role in the political system, but also its place as the supreme institution in Myanmar’s society.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing probably would not have staged the coup if the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had managed to win by a margin of 25 percent of parliamentary seats in the last general election, in November 2020. If that had happened, the electoral scenario would have been: 25 percent of seats held by military representatives directly appointed by Min Aung Hlaing himself in the country’s parliaments, plus 25 percent or more of seats held by the USDP’s representatives, allowing it to form a government fully controlled by the military.

Under those circumstances, there would have been no coup. Whether Min Aung Hlaing or the USDP’s chairman should be president would have been an internal matter between the Myanmar military (known as the Tatmadaw) and its proxy party.

But the USDP won just 6.4 percent of seats, while the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) won another landslide victory, securing more than 83 percent of the elected seats in the Union Parliament.

That outcome eventually triggered Min Aung Hlaing’s state power seizure, not only on behalf of the military as a whole, but also to salvage his own thwarted personal political ambitions. If he hadn’t done so, in its second term (2021 – 2026), the elected NLD government would have cemented the country’s nascent democratic reforms, including a diminishment of the military’s role in politics. To that end, the newly elected civilian government, other political forces and civil society groups, acting in a freer political atmosphere, would have continued the push to amend the military-favoring 2008 constitution they began during the NLD’s first tenure.

Then President U Thein Sein (right) and military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing (center) / The Irrawaddy

Political doctrine

When it comes to politics, the Myanmar military’s doctrine is to maintain its leadership role. We could say this doctrine officially dates to 2008, when the previous military regime led by then Senior General Than Shwe succeeded in getting its draft undemocratic constitution approved. One of the basic principles of their constitution is clearly stated in Article 6(f): “[The union’s consistent objectives are] enabling the Defense Services to be able to participate in the national political leadership role of the State.”

For the first time in Myanmar’s history, the generals had explicitly inserted their political intentions into the constitution. The move can be regarded as the official establishment of military supremacy as law, and the abandonment of any pretense of the Tatmadaw playing the role of a standard or professional military. No such clause existed in the previous two constitutions—not the first charter drawn up in 1947 just before the country gained independence, nor even the second one drawn up by dictator General Ne Win’s regime in 1974.

The 2008 constitution doesn’t just grant the military and its chief extraordinary powers; it completely favors the military in all aspects. In other words, it enshrines the military’s political doctrine.

The architect and the implementer

The 2008 constitution was part of the military’s exit strategy from the sustained domestic and international pressures that were beginning to weigh on it, including economic sanctions imposed by Western countries, which the regime had faced since seizing power decades earlier following the nationwide democratic uprising in 1988, and as a result of the continuous gross human rights violations it committed thereafter.

The constitution was the most important element in the military’s seven-step exit strategy, which would lead to the creation of, in their official terms, “disciplined” democracy. Though it could in some ways be seen as the collective creation of the previous regime, Snr-Gen Than Shwe was its architect as the head of the junta and commander-in-chief of the military.

If Snr-Gen Than Shwe was the architect of the military’s political strategy, including creating its central doctrine enshrining a permanent leading role for the military in politics, general-turned-president U Thein Sein was to be its key implementer. Lieutenant General Thein Sein became a member of the junta when Than Shwe restructured his regime into the State Peace and Development Council in 1997.

To set this strategy in motion, including the political doctrine, Lt-Gen Thein Sein steered the junta’s National Convention from 2003, tasked with drafting the future 2008 constitution. He became secretary-1 of the military regime in 2004 and its prime minister in 2007.

The following year, Thein Sein accomplished the task of getting the undemocratic constitution officially approved through a referendum, which was held just a week after Cyclone Nargis killed about 138,000 people in the Irrawaddy Delta and Yangon. Thus, the charter came to be dubbed the “Nargis Constitution”. Nonetheless, it was a significant step in Thein Sein’s implementation of the military’s roadmap.

Even before then, Than Shwe seemed to have seen in Thein Sein a future president with the ability to execute his vision. No doubt he also believed that Thein Sein—who looks more like a school headmaster than a combatant general—was the perfect person to defeat the popular Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the upcoming political battle.

Snr-Gen Than Shwe (center), Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye (left) and Gen Thura Shwe Mann (rear) welcome then Prime Minister Gen U Thein Sein (right) back from an overseas trip in 2011.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was a prisoner of the junta throughout Thein Sein’s rise to the presidency. Just a few months before Thein Sein was promoted to secretary-2 of the junta in 2003, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade was attacked by a junta-organized mob in Depayin, Sagaing Region. She narrowly escaped the ambush—widely regarded as an assassination attempt—with her life. Dozens of her supporters were killed in the violent incident.

In April 2010, Thein Sein retired from the military with the rank of general to serve as the first chairman of the USDP, right after it was transformed into a political party from its former incarnation as the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a so-called social organization formed by Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

On Nov. 7 of that year, the regime held a general election and the USDP won by a landslide, while the NLD and the other main ethnic and political parties boycotted it. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was still a prisoner in her house when Thein Sein, as chairperson of the USDP, and his team celebrated their victory on election night. Six days later, she was released.

We shouldn’t forget would-be president Thein Sein’s list of “achievements” up to that point. As secretary-1 of the previous junta (the third-highest-ranking official after Than Shwe and his deputy Maung Aye) and prime minister of the military government, he bore significant responsibility for much of what had happened over the previous decade, especially since 2003: for the junta’s violent crackdown on the monk-led Saffron Revolution; for the systematic blocking of international relief efforts in the days immediately following the deadly Cyclone Nargis (as prime minister, he chaired the junta’s National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee); and for many more of the junta’s actions, including its acts of political repression.

In March 2011, former general U Thein Sein became president as planned. This represented another step taken along the military regime’s roadmap, mainly designed by Snr-Gen Than Shwe and implemented by Thein Sein.

It was a new era for Myanmar. The generals had achieved everything they planned—the military-favoring constitution; the enshrining of the military’s political doctrine in Article 6(f); Than Shwe’s handpicked former general Thein Sein as the country’s “civilian” president; the placation of the international community through the freeing of the regime’s enemy Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar was now a “normal” country.

‘Reformist’ era

President Thein Sein had a tricky task to pull off. In this new political environment, ostensibly characterized by “reform” but still skewed in favor of the military, his primary duty was to open up the country under a military-dominated “civilian” government. To do this, he had to strike a balance, reforming the political process while preserving the military’s leading role in it. In a nutshell, he was to reform the country to the extent that continued military dominance allowed. That’s the doctrine his boss Than Shwe, he himself and all the other generals had formulated for their military institution over the previous decade.

President Thein Sein never crossed the line. He never attempted radical reforms (as the majority of people and democratic forces asked for), such as amending the constitution to reduce the military’s role in politics. As the key implementer of the military’s doctrine, he was loyal to it.

Nonetheless, even the limited tangible reforms implemented by his quasi-civilian government were enough to earn him a reputation as a “reformist” president. He was dubbed “Myanmar’s Mikhail Gorbachev”, which may in fact be a fair comparison. US President Barack Obama himself recognized the reform process, saying, “After years of darkness, we’ve seen flickers of progress.” But most rational people doubted that this “flicker of progress” would develop into the flame of a truly wide-ranging democratic reform process.

Then US President Obama (left) meets with his Myanmar counterpart U Thein Sein in Naypyitaw in November 2014. / GNLM

And as the former general President Thein Sein emerged as a “reformist”, some of the ex-generals serving as key ministers in his government anointed themselves as “reformists” too. This earned them love from many quarters; international leaders respected them; diplomats adored them; local and international scholars—and alleged “scholars”—exchanged intellectual rigor for emotion in their assessments; journalists and other professional observers—both local and foreign—abandoned their basic powers of critical thought in their approach to this seemingly new regime.

Absurdly, in Myanmar in this era, self-described ex-military “reformists” were more popular than the real fighters for freedom and democracy who had paid and continued to pay a high price—those who had languished in prisons, been forced into exile or been injured or killed on battlefields over the preceding decades of struggle for democracy and against military dictatorship.

Those who were deceived or simply naïve were blind to the nuances of the situation. In truth, Thein Sein’s role was to implement superficial changes, not to bring about fundamental structural reform through the kinds of radical change that would compromise the military’s doctrine. These onlookers failed to see that Thein Sein’s reform efforts were not built on solid ground.

The ordinary people of Myanmar understood it well, however, based on their own experiences and their instincts about general-turned-president Thein Sein and his team of ex-military “reformists”, not to mention the military leadership itself. The people’s instinctive sense was very different from the views of President Thein Sein’s apologists, and of the scholars and advisers who surrounded him during his presidency from 2011 to 2016.

President Thein Sein’s reform process was never designed to deliver genuine democracy, just a hybrid democracy under the pro-military constitution. Its aims were never aligned with the people’s aspirations; its ultimate goal was to ensure that the military and its proxy party continued to rule the country.

In the end, however, he failed to achieve that goal.

The savior

The USDP under the leadership of Thein Sein lost both of the electoral battles it fought with the NLD: the by-election in 2012 and the general election in 2015. His puppet master Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s vision—that President Thein Sein would defeat their arch-enemy Daw Aung San Suu Kyi politically—proved unrealizable.

But that was not entirely Thein Sein’s fault. The majority of the population of Myanmar has always hated military-backed parties (including the National Unity Party in 1990), just as they hate the military leadership and its regimes. So, in any free and fair election, no military-backed party would ever have any chance of winning.

President Thein Sein left the stage after he himself and his party lost in the 2015 election, after which, in 2016, the NLD managed to form the first civilian government in more than five decades. The military faced a genuine political threat from the ruling NLD, which attempted to amend the constitution to reduce the Tatmadaw’s extraordinary political power. In the 2020 election, under a new chairman, the USDP was defeated again.

After defeats in two consecutive general elections, it was clear that the military’s initial plan—to rule the country through its proxy party—had failed. But there was always a Plan B for enforcing the military’s doctrine: a coup d’état. Many people, including well-known observers and scholars, wrongly thought that option had been permanently removed from the military leadership’s handbook. It showed their failure to grasp the basic mentality of the military leaders and ex-generals, or the military’s political doctrine as described above.

Now it was military chief Min Aung Hlaing’s turn. It was his job to save the military and its political doctrine from the elected civilian government.

A wanted poster for coup leader Min Aung Hlaing is seen in Yangon in February. / The Irrawaddy

To preempt the civilian government from making any further inroads, Min Aung Hlaing staged a coup on Feb. 1, just a few hours before the newly elected Parliament was to convene in Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar. Almost all elected government leaders and high-ranking officials were arrested. A fledgling democracy was killed; everything, including the country’s future, was destroyed at a stroke.

Where were the flickers of progress? Where were the “reformists”, who were, after all, the coup-maker’s seniors? Where was Than Shwe, who appointed Min Aung Hlaing military chief in 2011? Where was the “reformist” Thein Sein to whom Min Aung Hlaing reported when the former was president?

They have seemingly been silent in the months since February’s coup.

In fact, they have not been silent. Their actions say much. 

At least six ministers in the current military government are former ministers in U Thein Sein’s government: U Wunna Maung Lwin, foreign minister; U Khin Yi, immigration and population minister; U Win Shein, minister of finance; Dr. Pwint San, minister of commerce; U Aung Than Oo, minister of electric power; and U Maung Maung Ohn, minister of information, and of hotels and tourism.

With the exception of U Maung Maung Ohn, they have all been reappointed to the portfolios they held in the U Thein Sein government. U Khin Yi is a former brigadier general and police chief under the previous military regime, and currently vice chairman of the USDP. He was a key minister in the U Thein Sein government, working with other key ministers in the President’s Office, ex-Admiral U Soe Thein and former Major General U Aung Min. They were all once celebrated as “reformists” by the circle of diplomats and local and foreign scholars that touted the “opening up” under Thein Sein. Maung Maung Ohn, an ex-general, was appointed by U Thein Sein as chief minister of Rakhine State.

Now we know where our “reformists” stand.

All the former president’s men: Top row (left to right): Immigration and Population Minister U Khin Yi; Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin. Bottom row (left to right): Finance Minister U Win Shein; U Maung Maung Ohn, information minister and hotels and tourism minister

Reliable sources tell me that more former ministers of U Thein Sein’s government are waiting for the right moment to join the caretaker government recently set up by coup maker Min Aung Hlaing, six months after the coup. Others, I am told, are exercising patience and would prefer to wait for the “legitimate” government that will be set up after the election the junta says it will hold within the next two years.

The presence of so many former ministers in the military regime is proof that by and large, the officials who comprised the former U Thein Sein government and other ex-generals are happy, whether quietly or publicly, with the coup. To them, Min Aung Hlaing is the savior who has restored their military institution to its rightful leading political role—or even as the sole institution in charge: an absolute military dictatorship. To them, questions of legitimacy are neither here nor there. 

Than Shwe and Thein Sein have no reason to complain about Min Aung Hlaing’s coup. He staged it to restore the military’s leadership role in politics—the role they defined and attempted to implement. They must surely be proud of him.

Now, the military chief has absolute power to continue their shared mission.

While we can identify Than Shwe as the creator of the military’s political doctrine through the 2008 constitution and Thein Sein as its first implementer, Min Aung Hlaing is now the savior of the military, causing Myanmar to revert from fledgling democracy to military rule. Or, more accurately, to military dictatorship.

The fact is, these three generals collectively designed the doctrine underpinning the leading role their unprofessional military plays in Myanmar’s political sphere, and explicitly asserted the military’s supremacy in the country. They did so in order to establish a “legal” mechanism by which they can hold power indefinitely, and to create a space for themselves that is privileged above all other stakeholders in the country.

Everything they have done completely contradicts the will of the people. They are the destroyers of the country’s democracy, of any prospect of a brighter future for Myanmar’s people, and of the people’s aspirations.

Naing Khit is a commentator on political affairs.

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