Will the Myanmar junta chief consider allowing any envoys to meet his prisoner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? Well… before we answer that, let me rephrase the question: Does the all-powerful military chief have the courage to let a 76-year-old woman he has jailed meet foreign dignitaries?
On Monday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen urged coup maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to allow ASEAN special envoy Prak Sokhonn to meet Myanmar’s detained leaders, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint, during his next visit to the country in late May.
Hun Sen, as ASEAN chair, was just doing what he was supposed to do during their teleconference: seeking to create a conducive environment for starting a so-called inclusive political dialogue on ASEAN’s five-point peace plan. But Min Aung Hlaing flatly rejected it, saying only that he would facilitate meetings with “other parties concerned”, clearly signaling that this excludes the two detained leaders.
His refusal was not the least bit surprising. He has rejected all such demands, not only by the regional bloc, the United Nations and the West, but also by China, whose special envoy made a similar request of the junta last year. No doubt Min Aung Hlaing will continue to reject such calls in the case of his key prisoners, especially Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Certainly, there are multiple reasons, as the junta chief’s intransigence is motivated by more than just his personal hatred or political jealousy of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The fact is, Min Aung Hlaing is afraid of his most high-profile prisoner. And whether he is conscious of it or not, this is no ordinary fear.
While it appears relatively insignificant, his denial of this request reveals that all of his actions against her—overthrowing her elected government, his arbitrary arrest of her, his filing of groundless lawsuits against her and so on—are born of this all-consuming fear.
Just before the coup, Min Aung Hlaing issued a public threat to the entire country that there was “nothing he wouldn’t dare do”. In this instance, at least, he was true to his word: he has since demonstrated that he is willing to engage in any number of illegal, unjust and arbitrary actions—including staging a coup and killing innocent people—that no normal or decent person would countenance.
Because, quite simply, he was terrified that the elected civilian government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, after convening the new Parliament on Feb. 1, 2021, would try to reduce or even abolish the military’s role in politics and terminate him as the commander-in-chief, as his term had officially already expired.
The reason for his actions is fear.
Fear is his fundamental motivation; among the other driving forces for his crimes and wrongdoings against Myanmar and its people are his megalomaniacal political ambition and the protection of his family’s economic interests.
Indeed, there are sound reasons for him to be afraid of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Here they are:
Vast public support
Since she entered the country’s politics during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising with a commitment to bring about democracy in her authoritarian-ruled country, no one has been able to touch Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in terms of the support she commands from the overwhelming majority of Myanmar’s estimated 55 million population. And in Myanmar’s modern history, only her father, independence hero General Aung San, can match her in terms of popularity.
And the support for her is not hollow. It has been hard won through her inspiring words and the dedication and self-sacrifice she has shown on behalf of the country’s democracy movement over many years. The people cannot forget what she has done for them or the country. The 15 years of detention she endured under the previous regime was just the start of her commitment to them. She is now locked up again. She doesn’t know where she is, and the people don’t know where their leader is. The misery that consecutive ruling generals have subjected her to has led the people to regard her as their true leader. Today, she may well be more popular than ever. “Good health to Mother Suu!” was one of the popular slogans shouted by anti-regime protesters last year. The same Myanmar people shouted “Speedy death to Min Aung Hlaing!” on his birthday in July last year while holding mock funerals for him. This undeniable public support for her is most certainly one reason that Min Aung Hlaing should be afraid of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) have converted this huge support into successive political mandates. Having won landslide victories in general elections in 1990, 2015 and 2020, and one by-election in 2012, the NLD is far and away the most popular party and has never won less than 80 percent of votes in an election. In this respect, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s success is unparalleled even beyond her country’s borders. It is fair to say she is the only leader in the ASEAN region to have repeatedly won elections over a time span of three decades. All of those victories were indisputable political mandates, though the outcomes of the 1990 election and the latest poll in 2020 were ignored by the previous military regime and by Min Aung Hlaing respectively. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s political mandate shows no sign of evaporating, for all Min Aung Hlaing’s efforts to erase it with his illegitimate coup. He is well aware of this; that unwavering political mandate, which has now lasted for more than 30 years, haunts him.
Min Aung Hlaing’s lies
If she were allowed to meet an envoy, the whole world would hear the other side of the Myanmar coup story. In other words, her story—as yet untold—would expose Min Aung Hlaing’s lies to the entire world.
The regime was hugely embarrassed last year by President U Win Myint’s court testimony on how he was forced to resign by Min Aung Hlaing’s henchmen on the day of the coup. When the revelation made headlines, the junta gagged the detained leaders’ lawyers, preventing them from talking to the media.
For such a fear-struck junta, a meeting between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and an international envoy is unimaginable. From such a meeting the world would hear more striking and true stories of the bullying or baseless persecution of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her team by Min Aung Hlaing and his regime. She could articulate the hitherto untold stories of the coup, as it has unfolded since the morning of Feb. 1, 2021, and of how she was taken to an unknown location. Surely, Min Aung Hlaing doesn’t have the courage to let her reveal the truth.
Words sharper than a knife
Through such a meeting, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as their elected leader, could also deliver messages to her people, as well as to the world. Everyone wants and needs to know what she has to say. Given her political integrity and mandate, everyone from the world’s leaders to ordinary Myanmar people would pay attention to her words. Her account would be taken incomparably more seriously than anything Min Aung Hlaing has to say. He knows it well, just as all the generals are aware of their own lies. Min Aung Hlaing won’t let her political message escape by greenlighting a meeting with an envoy, even for an hour; doing so could destroy his political ambition and personal interests at a stroke.
As I have discussed above, all of his actions are driven by fear.
In truth, Min Aung Hlaing is not the only general who is afraid of her. All the generals, including his predecessors and ex-generals, even his former bosses like erstwhile dictator Than Shwe and ex-President Thein Sein, are afraid of her, as none of them can compete with her, politically or personally. Almost all military generals and leaders have a grudge against and are jealous of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, keenly aware of their inferiority when it comes to her public support, personal charisma, education and political sophistication.
The generals are only able to achieve their ambitions when she is locked up in prison or under house arrest or at an unknown location. In 2010, they only dared hold an election because she was in detention, such was their bravery.
Before 2010, the previous regime under supremo Snr-Gen Than Shwe and then-Prime Minister General Thein Sein often prevented international envoys from meeting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then under house arrest.
True to form, the most recent coup maker, Min Aung Hlaing, has followed their lead. Well, that’s hardly surprising… These “macho”, brutal generals seem to find their courage only when they have the old woman locked up in some unknown corner of the world.
There’s only one word for people who act in this way: They’re all cowards.
The coup maker should remember what he said: that there is nothing he wouldn’t dare do. In fact, however, there are certain things he dares not do—not even, for example, letting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi meet an envoy.
Min Aung Hlaing—what a coward.
Naing Khit is a commentator on political affairs.
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