Ominous Rumblings in Myanmar’s ‘Abode of Kings’

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 8 August 2019

What intrigues me most about being here in Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar, is the ongoing power struggle between the old guard and the political newcomers—one that is shaping the fate of this diverse and complex country of 53 million people.

Naypyitaw, as many know today, means “abode of the kings”. But it could just as well be named “abode of the generals.”

The reasons are crystal clear.

The new capital, about 320 km away from the former capital Yangon, was the personal creation of ex-junta chief Senior General Than Shwe, who was domestically and globally regarded as a military dictator during his iron-fisted rule of 19 years (1992-2011). There is no doubt that it was exclusively built for the top military leadership and its circle, which had been in control of the country since 1962.

In the years after November 2005, when the junta chief ordered his entire government to move from Yangon, Naypyitaw was the isolated preserve of military leaders and officials, as well as civil servants.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing inspects troops during an Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw in March 2017. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

In the eyes of Myanmar’s people, Naypyitaw represented the military dictatorship and belonged to the military leaders, as it sprung from the soul of a military dictator. But that image didn’t last for forever, as the military leaders might have expected. In fact, it lasted for just six years.

Naypyitaw today is not the city it once was. Fourteen years since the government was moved, it is no longer what many newspapers described as a “lifeless” and “isolated” city. It is still the epicenter of power of the country, however.

In my observation, Naypyitaw has politically evolved in three significant ways:

  •  The first paradigm shift occurred in March 2011, when Snr-Gen Than Shwe handed over power to his hand-picked president, ex-General Thein Sein, and his so-called civilian government after their own party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, won the 2010 election in a landslide (one that many people believe was rigged);
  •  The second was in July 2012 when then opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself and 42 other members of the NLD won 43 out of 44 vacant seats across the country and joined the Parliament dominated by the USDP and the military representatives; and
  • The last but most significant event occurred in March 2016, when the NLD formed a government for the first time after winning a landslide victory in the 2015 election. The NLD won a majority of seats in the Union and state/regional parliaments, which had been dominated by the USDP and the military.

In recent years in Naypyitaw, we have seen a power struggle arise between the old establishment and the newcomers. (The old order mainly comprises the military, its ex-generals and its party, the USDP, which together ruled the country for more than five decades after 1962. The newcomers comprise the ruling National League for Democracy and the ethnic political parties, which won seats in the country’s parliaments in the by-election in 2012 and the general election in 2015.)

The Myanmar Parliament complex in Naypyitaw. / The Irrawaddy

These important events transformed Naypyitaw dramatically—from an obscure, dictator-created capital to a more politically vibrant and diverse place. Of these three important occasions, I was on hand here to witness two—in July 2012 and February 2016, when newly elected lawmakers took their seats in the Union Parliament; in the latter case, just before the NLD formed the government.

Since the NLD formed the government in 2016, the military representatives have been acting more like an opposition than any of the other parties in Parliament.

Naypyitaw has become more vibrant—in a positive sense, but perhaps negatively too. Two power bases—the old establishment and the newcomers—are engaged in a political arm-wrestling match, with the NLD and ethnic parties seeking to reduce the role of the military in politics, and the military looking to preserve the status quo and their constitutional privileges. But nobody can predict whether the outcome of this battle will be positive or negative.

This official battlefield lies within the sprawling Parliament compound, with its hulking buildings. The majority of the NLD and some ethnic representatives work on one side, while the 25 percent of lawmakers selected by the current military chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, are on the other.

NLD lawmakers arrive in Parliament. / The Irrawaddy

The battle appears to be playing out on the stage for all to see. But in fact, the events going on backstage are more interesting.

New city, old tactics

Naypyitaw today is much greener that it used to be, with big trees and plants. Its roads are broad and the traffic is almost nonexistent. The greenery flanking the streets gives the city a fresh, cool look. The pavements in the main areas are quite tidy. There is almost no air pollution, so you get a lungful of oxygen when you take a deep breath.

When I was given a glimpse of what former but still influential generals behind the political stage are thinking, however, I suddenly felt suffocated.

One thing I discovered is that they have still not ruled out a coup as one of their main political tools, despite having decided to change the country’s political course in 2011. I learned this while visiting the very source of power in Naypyitaw.

Near the Yarza Thingaha Roundabout in Pobba Thiri Township, there are six houses where the top six members of the former junta and previous government currently live—the junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe; his deputy, Vice Senior General Maung Aye; ex-president General Thein Sein; his ex-vice president, General Tin Aung Myint Oo; the former house speaker, General Thura Shwe Mann; and the former chairman of the Union Election Commission, Lt-General Tin Aye.

I would say this is the area where the soul of the original Naypyitaw lies. It is known locally as “the row of the six houses.” Security guards man the gates of every compound and some roads are blocked.

My findings came directly from there.

A retired senior military official I met started our conversation with a collective pronoun: “We are quite concerned about the west,” the official said, referring to Rakhine State, which is in the west of the country. “The state might be separated from our country.”

“Why?” I asked.

“The AA [Arakan Army] is quite aggressive and the Rohingya crisis there is ongoing. And one big foreign country is interfering in this matter,” he said, referring to the United States.

Lawmakers leave Parliament in February 2016. / The Irrawaddy

One of his other main concerns is the NLD’s attempt to amend the Constitution. He firmly sounded like the military representatives in Parliament, who are officially resisting the NLD’s attempts at constitutional amendment.

“If things get worse, we will have to stage a coup,” he continued. “We know there will be serious consequences if we do that. But we have no choice. And then we will have to rely on China, because the international community will end their engagement with our country.”

What he said shocked me. I immediately responded, “If you do that, our people and future generations will suffer again, as in the past.”

“Well, that will be the fate of the people,” he responded.

With great concern, I told him, “Instead of a coup, why don’t you urge the commander-in-chief to negotiate with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? That would be the better option for our country.”

He replied, “Well, as you know, their talks have broken off.”

His words reveal much about the way the military leadership—both former and current—thinks. They represent the views of the old establishment. That is the main problem in our country; that the generals—both retired and active—have never ruled out the option of a coup, an option they have historically applied whenever they feel it’s needed.

An impasse at the top level

What the former military official said is correct in regards to the “talks” between State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and military commander-in-chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing.

“The two leaders held four-eyes meetings a number of times until 2018,” one official who did not want to be named told me. “But the meetings didn’t yield fruitful results.”

One of their points of disagreement was constitutional amendment. The two leaders have never been known to have a good relationship, and no officials I met imagined that it will improve any time soon.

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Army Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing attend a high-level security meeting at the Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw on June 8, 2018. / Myanmar President’s Office / Facebook

Another official, a former army officer, said it’s impossible to believe that the attempt by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to amend the Constitution will succeed. He added, “Without agreement from the military, it won’t happen at all.”

Many people believe the military-drafted Constitution needs to be amended if the country’s ongoing democratic transition, which started in 2011, is to move forward. But without any support from the military representatives in Parliament, it seems unlikely to go anywhere.

One thing I wanted to find out from government officials, especially former military officials working for the current government, is their general view of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her government.

I asked them relevant questions. One answered, “She treats us as human being. That’s different from the generals we used to work for in previous governments.” He continued, “And she is a person of principle. She’s smart and works hard, unlike her ministers. But she is not a person who listens a lot.”

Critics say that the NLD government doesn’t have capable people. The officials told me that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the President have had to warn most of the Union ministers over poor performance and corruption issues. One official said, “Only a couple of ministers in the entire cabinet have escaped official warnings.”

However, the officials I met think the NLD is likely to win enough seats in the upcoming election in 2020 to be able to form another government, though it might not repeat the landslide it achieved in the 2015 elections, given the decline of the NLD’s popularity in ethnic areas.

The officials think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has learned a lot about running a government over the past three years, and those lessons will help her in her next term should the NLD win again.

From my conversations with various retired military officers, current government officials and members of Parliament, however, it seems pretty clear to me that the ex- and current generals don’t want the NLD to win again. Many of them might see the newcomers, especially the NLD, as “invaders” in their “kingdom” of Naypyitaw.

Military lawmakers stand as Speaker U Ti Khun Myat enters the Parliament chamber in July 2018. / The Irrawaddy

Members of the old order have felt insecure since the NLD encroached into the capital. In fact, the NLD has a legitimate right to be in Naypyitaw. Many of the current elected leaders of the country, including the President and the State Counselor, are former prisoners of the generals.

All governmental offices from the President’s Office to the State Counselor’s Office to almost all buildings are occupied by NLD people, most of whom were at one time prisoners of the generals who created this capital.

So it’s hardly surprising that some of the former and current generals might feel awkward, strange, insecure or even antagonistic.

To be sure, I would personally prefer to see the unelected military representatives gone from the country’s parliaments, and I am sure Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other democrats would prefer not to have them there either. But the time has not yet come. If the military representatives are forced out of the parliaments—and the military forced out of politics—through an amendment to the Constitution, such a move would backfire politically. It might even be the trigger for the scenario outlined for me by the former military officer during this trip to the capital—a military coup.

That’s why Naypyitaw must be a place where politial opponents—even enemies—coexist and seek common ground. That should be its purpose—no more and no less than that. It should be more than a personal shrine to a dictator. This capital shouldn’t be a source of fear, hatred, oppression and shame for the country. Instead, I would love to see this capital become a virtuous place where people work to ensure that all citizens of the country enjoy liberty, justice, equality, happiness and prosperity.