Guest Column

Myanmar’s Orwellian New Order

By Bertil Lintner 6 July 2021

Myanmar’s ruling junta has accused veteran pro-democracy activist Mya Aye, a humble man who has always stood for tolerance and understanding between ethnic and religious groups, of hate speech. The now deposed State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who never showed any interest in using her position to enrich herself, is charged by the most corrupt institution in the country, the military, with corruption. And the same military that ignored the outcome of a general election in 1990, conducted a phony referendum on a new constitution in 2008 and rigged an election in 2010, claims that it had to seize power because the 2020 election was marred by electoral fraud. International and local observers said the election, which led to the formation of a government dominated by the National League for Democracy (NLD), was free and fair.

Those familiar with the work of British author George Orwell would argue that all this is reminiscent of his dystopian novel 1984, which depicts a future, nightmarish and fictitious state he calls Oceania. The book’s main character Winston walks past a huge board displaying this message from the Ministry of Truth: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” Orwell could not, of course, have predicted it, but this is the new normal in Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s Myanmar and the rule of his junta, the State Administration Council (SAC).

But judging by social media postings and other writings by Myanmar as well as foreign observers and analysts, hardly anyone is buying the SAC’s lies. The question remains, though: Do the generals and their cohorts believe them themselves? The answer is probably yes, and that goes to show how isolated, physically as well as mentally, the military is from the general public. Historian Thant Myint-U wrote in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs that Min Aung Hlaing “seems to have thought that he could take over without much of a fuss, sideline the NLD, focus on fixing the economy, and then hold fresh elections skewed to his advantage. If so, he completely misread the public mood.”

And this is far from the first time the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, has seriously misread the public mood. After crushing a nationwide pro-democracy uprising in August-September 1988, the Tatmadaw leadership felt they needed to improve the image they had earned as butchers—at that time, thousands of activists and protesters had been gunned down in the then capital Yangon and elsewhere—so a group of foreign journalists were invited to Myanmar. As part of the PR drive, the then ruling junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), also promised to hold a general election in which the NLD would be allowed to participate.

I was one of the correspondents who were flown to Yangon on Jan. 18, 1989. We were not allowed to stay in the then capital but had to catch a connecting flight to, of all places, Loikaw in Kayah State. On that day, we had a meeting with Colonel Ye Htut from the SLORC’s information committee (not to be confused with the 2014-16 information minister of the same name). He clearly and unambiguously stated that “as soon as elections have been held, we will hand over power to the party that wins and return to the barracks.” I asked him if they would do so even in the event of an NLD victory. The colonel replied: “Of course. We are soldiers and keep our word. We will return to the barracks.”

Present at the time were, apart from myself, the regional bureau chief of the Associated Press and other foreign correspondents. Ye Htut probably sensed that we did not believe him, because he added: “You foreigners believe the NLD is popular. Yes, they might have some support in urban areas, but in the countryside, people support us.” It was not clear what he meant by “us”, but we assumed it meant the Tatmadaw-backed National Unity Party (NUP), which—under the name Burma Socialist Program Party—was the only legally permitted party when it ruled Myanmar on behalf of the military from 1962 to 1988.

It was our impression that Ye Htut really believed that the military and its party enjoyed widespread support outside urban areas. He and the SLORC were later probably encouraged by an assessment made by Robert Taylor, who wrote in the March 1990 issue of the journal Current History: “Many observers feel that it [the NUP] will do well in the election.” The argument was, as Ye Htut had also indicated, that the NLD may be strong in cities and towns, but in the countryside people would vote for “the devil they know”.

In May 1990, the promised election was held and, to the astonishment of many, it was surprisingly free and fair. The NLD scored a landslide victory, winning 392 out of 485 seats up for grabs, while the NUP got a meager 10. The rest went to ethnic parties that were allied with the NLD but wanted to promote the interests of their respective nationalities. But the euphoria turned into dismay and frustration when, exactly two months after the election, the SLORC declared that only the junta “has the right to legislative power”—and that the representatives of the people would merely be “responsible for drafting a new constitution.” No one doubted that Myanmar needed a new constitution, but that would be one of the tasks of the elected body, which even the SLORC had called a Pyithu Hluttaw, or legislative assembly, and not a constituent assembly. But, in the end, not even the assembly that was elected in 1990 was allowed to meet. Instead, the SLORC formed a gigantic constituent assembly consisting of 100 of the 485 MPs-elect—and about 600 delegates handpicked by the military.

The final outcome was the 2008 constitution, which was adopted after a referendum that was held in the aftermath of a cyclone that had devastated large parts of the country. Of those voting in the referendum, 92.48 percent were supposed to have voted in favor of it, but the junta—by this time called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)—came under heavy criticism from Western countries and international human rights organizations. Massive fraud and intimidation were reported from all over Myanmar.

The next general election was held in November 2010, but it was boycotted by the NLD and its leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was at the time still under house arrest in Yangon. The military had, after the NUP debacle, formed a new party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which won 129 out of 168 contested seats in the Upper House, or House of Nationalities. Some 56 seats, or a quarter of all 224 seats, were reserved for the military. In the Lower House, or House of Representatives, the USDP got 259 of 330 contested seats, while 110, or a quarter of all 440 seats, went to the military. But the fairness of the election was questioned even by the United Nations, whose Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed “grave concern” because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had not been released from house arrest and the polls would therefore “lack credibility”. And the SPDC had barred foreign observers and the international media from covering the election.

The 2010 election led to the formation, in March 2011, of a USDP-led government under U Thein Sein, a former Tatmadaw general who, conveniently, had resigned from the military to become president. The election may have been far from free and fair, but U Thein Sein did initiate a number of moves that resulted in a more open society. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, political prisoners were freed, and the NLD and other political parties were able to work openly. Myanmar’s previously rigid press censorship was lifted and foreign correspondents could travel freely to the country.

The international community was once again euphoric. Foreign dignitaries, among them then US President Barack Obama, came on visits. But was it really the “transformation to democracy” that many foreign analysts rather naively believed was taking place? Hardly, because the Tatmadaw remained in the background, controlling a quarter of all parliamentary seats—and more than three quarters of all MPs would have to vote in favor of any constitutional amendment that would undermine its supreme power.

Chapter XI, sections 413(b) and 418(a), of the 2008 constitution allow, in case of a national emergency, for the transfer of power to the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw. The elected assemblies would then, according to the constitution, be dissolved. In other words, future coups would be deemed legal and constitutional. But, some foreign analysts argued, that was not much to worry about because such a handover of power would have to be initiated by the elected president, not the commander-in-chief himself.

Then came an election, which was held on Nov. 8, 2015. The NLD was allowed to participate and, this time, international election observers and the foreign media could visit Myanmar and travel freely. This time, however, the Tatmadaw had once again seriously misread the public mood. The generals and their cohorts in the USDP government probably thought that the opening of society and the new freedoms that everyone was allowed to enjoy had made them popular. I was in Yangon at the time and was told by credible inside sources that military and USDP leaders were so sure about a victory that they had met more than a week before the election to decide who should become the minister of what in the next cabinet.

They must have been shocked when the results were announced. It was, as in 1990, a sweeping victory for the NLD. Of the contested seats, the pro-democracy party won 255 of 330 in the Lower House and 135 of the Upper House’s 168. And, as before, a quarter of the total number of seats went to military appointees. The NLD was allowed to form a new government, but Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could not succeed U Thein Sein as president because the 2008 constitution stipulated that no one with close relatives who are foreign citizens can become head of state. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s two sons, Alexander and Kim, are US and British citizens respectively. But a new position, that of State Counselor, was created so she could lead the new government.

The next election was held on Nov. 8, 2020—and the military, once again, misjudged the situation. It was clear that the NLD government had lost popularity among the urban middle class, which had expected more drastic reforms toward democracy, and in ethnic areas, where many were also disappointed by the performance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s cabinet. The federal system they envisaged had failed to materialize. But that did not mean that people anywhere in the country would, as the military had hoped, turn to the USDP. Instead, the NLD won an even more massive victory with 258 seats in the Lower and 138 in the Upper House. And international observers, including those from the US-based Carter Center, the Asian Network for Free Elections and the European Union’s Election Observation Mission, all judged that the election had been mainly free and fair.

No credible evidence has been produced to support the SAC’s claims of fraud, but that doesn’t matter. According to well-placed sources, the military still believes that there must have been fraud if the NLD won. What the military has always failed to understand is that the 1990, 2015 and 2020 elections were not just a contest between different political parties, they were referendums in which the NLD, despite all its flaws and shortcomings, stood for the hope of a new, better future, while the military’s parties, first the NUP and then the USDP, represented the old, military-dominated order that the vast majority of the population detested.

And, as regards constitutionality, the mostly foreign optimists on post-2010 developments were wrong this time as well. Yes, the 2008 constitution stated that only the president could hand over power to the commander-in-chief, but that was no obstacle to the military staging a coup. The “problem” was solved by dismissing the legitimate president, U Win Myint, and having him succeeded by the military-appointed vice president, Myint Swe, a former Tatmadaw lieutenant general and a hardliner who, as Yangon commander, ordered the crackdown on anti-SPDC protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007.

The mindset of the Tatmadaw leadership is also the main reason why “dialogue” or “engagement” with them is bound to fail. The generals are, plainly speaking, delusional and live in their own Orwellian fantasy world, devoid of any understanding of what the people think and want. And, to use another quote from 1984: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.” The Myanmar military seized power in 1962 and has since then remained in charge under different guises, as a junta or behind a political façade. And not even the 2016-21 NLD government was able to change the country’s fundamental power structure, with the military always at its apex. Unless the Tatmadaw cracks, and some in high positions are willing to face up to reality, there is little chance of Myanmar becoming truly democratic. The alternative is another few decades of military-dominated rule, with all the repression and misery that entails.

Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant who has been writing about Asia for nearly four decades.

You may also like these stories:

Myanmar Civilian Death Toll Rises From Sagaing Fighting

Myanmar Reports Highest COVID-19 Daily Death Toll Since Coup

Emergence of People’s Militias in Myanmar: What Does It Mean?