Commentary

One Year Ago, Myanmar’s Military Passed a Point of No Return

By Naing Khit 1 February 2022

In the year since the coup of Feb. 1, 2021, Myanmar has been turned into a killing field and the world’s biggest gulag. The military takeover’s inauspicious anniversary, which falls today, marks one full year of a new, hellish existence for the country’s 55 million people. Myanmar citizens, who long for—and have tirelessly fought for—the return of democracy and their honor, don’t deserve such a life, and have committed all of their efforts to ending military rule for good this time.

No one in this country, having suffered oppressive rule under continuous military dictatorships from 1962 to 2011 (nearly half a century), wanted the coup or the disaster it has wrought. But the people always knew that a military takeover was a possibility—it was a fear they lived with, even during the recent semi-democratic era from 2011 to 2020. In the end, their worst fears were realized a year ago today when military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing seized power from an elected government, destroying the fledgling democratic process of rebuilding the nation.

Myanmar’s dark history repeated on that day.

Everything started going wrong for this diverse country on March 2, 1962, when General Ne Win staged a coup to overthrow the elected government of the day.

By seizing power, Ne Win sowed a poisonous seed. With his coup and his subsequent ironfisted rule over the entire population in the name of his “Socialist” regime (1962-1988), he became the country’s first dictator. Since then, a culture of staging coups or illegitimately seizing power has become entrenched, despite the Myanmar people’s vigorous and varied efforts to resist military rule.

The offenders are always military generals.

(From left to right) General Ne Win, Senior General Saw Maung, Senior General Than Shwe, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing

The original coup maker spawned succeeding generations of coup makers within the military—Senior General Saw Maung and his deputy Than Shwe in 1988; and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in 2021. Each of them stepped easily into the role of dictator in their respective eras. But they were never alone; almost all their high-ranking military subordinates stood together with the coup makers when they stole the people’s power and the nation’s wealth.

Thus, every generation of generals has been loathed; they are no longer trusted by the people. Their institution, known as the Tatmadaw and once respected due to its leading role during the country’s independence struggle in the 1940s, is now despised. Min Aung Hlaing has taken this process to new lows; his dictatorship has already ensured that the current military institution will never regain the people’s respect.

Instead, the people are resolutely committed to uprooting the military leadership. They no longer patiently seek to reform it, an approach the general public accepted under the elected civilian government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi between 2016 and 2020. To be more precise, this view endured until the coup in 2021.

There is no such thing as a “legitimate coup” against a democratic government, not in Myanmar or in any other country. But coup makers in Myanmar seem always to have believed that they, as military officers, are a special breed entitled to rule the country as long as they see fit. They appointed themselves the “saviors” of the country. This wronghead, unprofessional hubris grew directly out of the seed that Ne Win, the “father” of the coup d’état tradition in Myanmar, sowed back in 1962.

This sense of entitlement was the root cause of the 2021 coup. But this misguided perception was aggravated by the generals’ lust for personal power and wealth—put simply, their naked greed. All of their actions flow from this. This mix of entitlement and greed motivates the generals as individuals and informs the political doctrine of the military as an institution.

This should be kept in mind by those who, on this inauspicious anniversary, are tempted to toss around scenarios in which, they believe, the coup of 2021 might have been deterred.

Some of them, including scholars, observers, politicians, activists and others, are of the view that if the elected government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had chosen, for the sake of the country’s political stability, to enter into negotiations with future coup leader Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the military takeover could have been prevented—despite the fact that the latter hinted at the possibility of a coup just a few days before his power seizure on Feb. 1 last year.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing / AFP

Some go further, bluntly accusing the government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which had governed the country since March 2016 after winning a landslide victory in the 2015 election, of failing to take steps to preempt a coup.

No. Such speculations betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the military leadership’s political mentality and the military’s political doctrine.

Nothing or no one could have deterred the coup of 2021. “Nothing” meaning no political strategy or ideology or method or approach. “No one” in the sense that there was no individual or group with more legitimacy or political capital than Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party; nor was it a question of lacking someone with sufficient political shrewdness.

The coup had a specific motive; it was premeditated by Min Aung Hlaing, who is of course among the generals who harbor the misperceptions outlined above—in other words, who believe in their own lies.

Min Aung Hlaing had simply been waiting for the right time to strike since the NLD government was inaugurated in 2016. He finally executed his plan on Feb. 1, 2021. He did not form the plot alone; his fellow generals, even ex-generals, were in on the plan.

U Soe Thane was one of those complicit officers. An ex-admiral and key minister in the administration of general-turned-president U Thein Sein, U Soe Thane praised coup leader Min Aung Hlaing’s seizure of power from the NLD as “a very smart move” in his latest book, in which he also described the nation’s worst day as follows: “Our Myanmar’s independence was restored on Feb. 1, 2021.”

The worst day for the entire population of Myanmar was the best day for the generals. These generals and other high-ranking military officers are no different from the dictators they serve, be it Ne Win, Than Shwe or Min Aung Hlaing.

They had a shared motive for staging the coup. And most Myanmar people believe the new generation of officers coming up under the current leadership will inherit that motive. Many people in this country now perceive the military as a “terrorist” force, rather than the Tatmadaw—a word that still carries a certain esteem.

This represents a drastic shift in views since the coup of Feb. 1, 2021, one that some international players including members of the UN and ASEAN and others still fail to grasp.

The people of Myanmar will continue to fight for their freedom, their honor and democracy. The political implications of this are clear: There is no longer any question of accommodating the military in its current form, or its leadership. A year ago today, Myanmar entered a new and utterly different era.

Naing Khit is a commentator on political affairs.

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