Guest Column

Myanmar’s Generals: The Banality of Evil

By Bertil Lintner 13 December 2022

When Adolf Eichmann was put on trial in Jerusalem in 1961, few could imagine that he was responsible for sending millions of Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Instead of a monstruous butcher, Eichmann looked like a meek civil servant who, as he said, had only been doing his job — or “no more than a simple pencil pusher” — as someone in the audience remarked at the time. But Eichmann was indeed a monster. He was sentenced to death for a series of crimes, among them crimes against humanity, and hanged on June 1, 1962.

The almost surreal scenes that were played out in the Israeli court during the trial later prompted political philosopher, author and German Jewish refugee Hannah Arendt to coin the term “the banality of evil.” The same could be said today about the top generals in the Myanmar military. When the country opened up to the outside world in 2011, hordes of foreign peacemakers, interlocutors from conflict-resolution outfits, foreign investors and even government officials flocked to Myanmar from countries around the world for meetings with the generals.

Their hosts in Yangon and Naypyitaw did not seem to be monsters but reasonable people that Europeans, Australians, North Americans and other Westerners could deal with. The foreign so-called “experts” were convinced that they could “engage” the generals and assist them in the “transition to democracy” and bringing a peaceful solution to the ethnic wars that have been raging since the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.

Millions of dollars were poured into ill-conceived “peace projects” in Myanmar and foreign policy pundits produced a flood of papers with headlines such as “Understanding the Democratic Transition in Myanmar”, “Deciphering Myanmar’s Transition” and “What’s Behind the Transition in Myanmar?”. Some were tainted by outright quasi-academic gobbledygook, among them a report on ethnic conflicts in Rakhine State headlined “Ethnogenesis as Schismogenesis”. Surely those charming military officers could not have been responsible for all the atrocities that human rights organizations and civil society groups had been documenting for decades?

Those of us who questioned this approach, saying it doesn’t work that way — tyrants don’t become reasonable patrons of liberal democracy overnight — were dismissed as pessimists and even cynics. Then came the coup in February last year. Tanks rolled into Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw, and its largest city, Yangon, taking over the reins of power and putting in a junta, the State Administration Council (SAC).

Many outsiders were taken aback by the military violence that the coup unleashed on Myanmar’s people and startled by the strength of the resistance, peaceful as well as violent, that is continuing all over the country. The violence that was directed at initially peaceful protesters stunned those who had believed that the military would be incapable of committing such crimes. The first to be targeted were young demonstrators, many in their teens, who were gunned down by snipers in an attempt the scare the others into submission.

When that didn’t have the desired effect, people were shot indiscriminately. Armed resistance flared up in many parts of the country — and the SAC responded by bombing and obliterating entire villages. Thousands of activists were rounded up and tortured and, in July, four activists were even hanged in the first judicial, political execution since the mid-1970s. So far, another 139 death sentences have been handed down to opponents of military rule. Scores of other people have been killed extrajudicially in towns and villages all over Myanmar.

Nor did it take long for the military top brass to reveal their true colors. Former president U Thein Sein, a retired army general once hailed by some Western media as “Myanmar’s Gorbachev” leading the country to a better future, first showed what he actually stood for when, in January 2020, he endorsed the policies of the military, saying that Myanmar faced growing threats to “territory, race and religion” and called on the people to vote for candidates in the upcoming November general election who would “protect the country”.

Since last year’s coup, Thein Sein has made donations to families of members of the military’s proxy Union and Solidarity Development Party (USDP) who have been killed or wounded on suspicion of acting as military informants. Needless to say, he has not donated any money to the many families whose loved ones have been gunned down by the military and the police for demonstrating peacefully against the coup.

On Armed Forces Day this year, March 27, about two dozen retired military officers were invited to a grand ceremony in Naypyitaw. Coup maker and SAC leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing paid the guests of honor his respects, and among them was not only Thein Sein but also figures like ex-admiral Soe Thane, once dubbed a “reformer” and, in 2012, an invitee to Norway’s Oslo Forum. The following year, he attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But shortly after last year’s coup, Soe Thane published a book in Burmese in which he praised Min Aung Hlaing’s seizure of power saying that “our Myanmar’s independence was restored on February 1, 2021.”

Min Aung Hlaing talks to former president and ex-general U Thein Sein during an Armed Forces Day-related ceremony in Naypyitaw in March 2022.

By then it should have been obvious what kind of power the generals actually represented, but that did not prevent, for instance, Marte Nilsen, a researcher at the Norwegian government-funded Peace Research Institute Oslo, from reiterating the myth of a “reform process.” In an article published on December 13, 2021 in the Norwegian magazine Bistandsaktuelt, she still stated that Thein Sein has been the head of a “reform government”.

It is worth noting that three ministers in the cabinet appointed by the SAC after the 2021 coup also served in that supposed “reform government” headed by Thein Sein: ex-Colonel Wunna Maung Lwin, then and now foreign minister; ex-Brigadier-General Khin Yi, immigration and population minister until August 2022, and ex-General Maung Ohn, then deputy home minister and now information minister.

In 2007, Khin Yi, then the police chief, led the bloody crackdown on the Saffron Revolution protests against military rule. Aung Naing Oo, now the SAC’s investment and foreign economic relations minister, was not a minister under Thein Sein but served as his foreign investment czar. Khin Yi has since left the SAC to become head of the USDP ahead of the junta’s planned election next year.

So what did actually happen during the decade of relative openness, from Thein Sein being sworn in as president in 2011 and the 2021 coup? If it was not a transition, what was it? The answer is obvious: the unprecedented openness that people came to enjoy when Thein Sein took over led to a transformation of Myanmar society. An entire generation learned how to use the internet, communicate on social media, and to hold workshops and seminars on subjects related to democracy and civil rights. That, in turn, gave birth to a young movement which opposed the coup, first by peaceful means and then with armed struggle. As one Myanmar observer put it at the time of the coup: “The military has messed with the wrong generation.” It is unlikely that Thein Sein and the other generals expected this kind of development when changes were introduced months after the 2010 election.

So why did the military agree to open up the country? The heavy dependence on China was one very decisive factor. Western sanctions and boycotts over many years had led to a reliance on China for trade and diplomatic support and, according to internal Myanmar military documents seen by this writer, the situation had become so grave that the generals believed the country was in danger of losing its sovereignty. In order to become more acceptable to the broader international community, it would be necessary to make certain changes, which the generals could afford to do because the 2008 constitution, which has been implemented after a totally fraudulent referendum, safeguarded supreme military power. And the military has said time and again that it is their duty to defend that constitution. No major changes would be tolerated.

Another reason was that the old strongman, Senior General Than Shwe, who had held supreme power since 1992, was about to retire. He wanted to secure his legacy not as a despot but as someone who had created a new nation, including, as many rulers elsewhere have done, building a new capital at Naypyitaw. He was also, insiders say, worried that he and his family might sooner or later face the same fate as that of his predecessors, generals Ne Win and Saw Maung, who ended their lives in disgrace and shame.

Former Myanmar dictator Than Shwe reviews troops during a parade marking the 65th anniversary of Armed Forces Day in March 2010. / AFP

Therefore, Than Shwe selected not one but three successors: Thein Sein, prime minister and Secretary 1 in the junta of the time, the State Peace and Development Council, would be president; General Min Aung Hlaing, not a particularly strong and charismatic officer, would be the military chief and be promoted to Senior General, and General Shwe Mann would become the speaker of the lower house of parliament and later chairman of the USDP. With power divided among those three, Than Shwe would be safe. Or so he thought.

The first miscalculation was Shwe Mann, who realized at an early stage which way the wind was blowing. He began co-operating with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, which led to his downfall. In August 2015, Shwe Mann was removed as head of the USDP and, in April 2016, sacked from the party altogether. Eventually, in 2019, he formed his own political party, the Union Betterment Party, which failed, however, to win a single seat in the November 2020 general election.

Shwe Mann has been completely silenced since the coup, while Thein Sein reportedly spends most of his time in a private residence in Naypyitaw where, while remaining loyal to the SAC, he devotes his days to his favorite hobby of painting. That leaves Min Aung Hlaing from the original triumvirate, and he has surrounded himself with other leading officers who are determined not to let what unfolded during 2011-2021 happen again. The military reluctantly agreed to honor the 2015 election and let the National League for Democracy form a government, but that was not acceptable a second time, so a coup was staged and a witch hunt launched against elected, central and regional representatives.

What has happened since the coup has not come as a surprise to anyone truly familiar with Myanmar history. It was far from the first time that the military gunned down pro-democracy demonstrators. The first massacre happened when students demonstrated at Yangon University four months after the initial military takeover in March 1962. Officially, 15 were killed and 27 wounded when the military opened fire on the students. But both neutral observers and students who were present say the university looked like a slaughter house where not 15 but hundreds of potential leaders of society lay sprawled in death.

During the mid-1970s the military fired on striking workers in Yangon, killing scores of people who were protesting against food shortages, rising prices and bad labor conditions. Another massacre took place in 1974 when the body of U Thant, a former United Nations Secretary-General and an opponent of Ne Win’s brutal, autocratic rule, was flown back to Myanmar for burial. Students and Buddhist monks snatched the coffin and carried it away to the university campus.

The monks and students wanted a proper funeral for U Thant and for him to be buried in a place of honor, not where Ne Win had intended it to be. They shouted “Down with the fascist government!” and were then shot at. People who were there say at least 300-400 were killed and at least 1,000 taken to prisons, where many were badly tortured.

In 1988, during a massive nationwide democracy uprising, machine guns were used to silence the people as a new military regime took power. Estimates of the number of deaths are about 3,000 during the first demonstrations in August, and about 1,000 when the military stepped in again and crushed the protests. Similar, student-led demonstrations were brutally suppressed in the 1990s and again in 2007, when Buddhist monks marched against the regime.

By now, the international community should have learned from their pre-coup, gross misinterpretations of the political culture of the Myanmar military. No outsiders can “engage” or influence them; they listen only to themselves and the only language they understand when things don’t turn out the way they want is violence. But it is happening right now. Western do-gooders are on the move again, hoping to establish some kind of rapport with the generals in order to achieve the unachievable: to turn them into decent philanthropists.

Min Aung Hlaing has promised an election next year and some of the do-gooders seem to believe that while it may not be enough, it could be the opportunity for a “dialogue” and, as such, a first step towards an end to the present crisis. But the Western world will, once again, be charmed and taken for a ride. What Min Aung Hlaing has promised will not be a general election, but a generals’ election and not a repetition of the mistakes from 2015 and 2020, when they actually allowed people to vote freely. Like Eichmann, the generals may seem innocent and reasonable enough. But they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Make no mistake about that.