Guest Column

The Stumbling Military Adhocracy in Myanmar

By David Scott Mathieson 3 February 2023

The two-year anniversary of the military coup d’etat in Myanmar was met with a silent strike in many parts of the country. Outside Myanmar embassies in Thailand and other countries, protesters screamed out the name of dictator Min Aung Hlaing, slightly adjusted to Mah Ar Lah (an accusation of carnal knowledge between a general and his mother) and condemned the coup and two years of violence. The State Administration Council (SAC) marked the occasion with an extension of the state of emergency by six months, putting plans to conduct nationwide elections in doubt.

Protesters take part in a demonstration outside the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok on Feb. 1, 2023, to mark the second anniversary of the coup. / AFP

Is this a permutation of repressive rule that indicates the regime is losing ground against multiple enemies around the country? That the bureaucratic capacity to actually hold elections was too daunting, or that rising violence against the electoral infrastructure is a deterrence?

Two years after the coup, the SAC is admitting failure. The National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) meeting notes contained the SAC’s version of the scale of the post-coup conflict, which even if their data cannot be trusted, indicates widespread violence by the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and the multiple People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) across Myanmar.

Notification Number 1 from the NSDC meeting yesterday said in clear terms; “(a)ll attendees including the Pro Tem President discussed the situations of killing innocent people, blowing up public places, posing armed intimidation and coercion on the people committed by CRPH, NUG and their subordinate PDF terrorist groups aiming to cause utter devastation to the State [my italics]…and the unusual circumstances of the country that they are making attempts to seize the State power in insurgent and terror ways.”

This indicates the military cannot consolidate power. Or it could mean they simply can’t be bothered to hold elections right now. The meeting discussed the need for a new census, accurate voter lists, a new Proportional Representation voting system, and the amendment of the Political Party Registration Law to reduce the number of parties from 88 to a more manageable level “so that they can be engaged in the political field more effectively and efficiently.” All of this tinkering in the midst of a civil war seems like a lot of effort for a process that is devoid of a sliver of credibility.

The central takeaway from the copious points discussed at the NDSC is that: “More work and time are required for the prevalence of peace and stability and the holding of the elections and therefore we would like to request the entire mass of people and respective organizations to cooperate with the government.” Whatever appropriate cliché works here, kicking the can down the road or lipstick on a pig, the SAC is clearly an adhocracy making it all up as they go along, and not especially effectively (in the Alvin Toffler sense).

The majority of the West realize clearly this election talk is a farce. The world should actually take the lead of the Americans and denounce the entire electoral exercise in unequivocal terms. For those diplomats, emissaries or academics, or “great men of peace” from Switzerland or Scandinavia that still believe their character can forge positive mediation with the military, the extension of the state of emergency is an updated data point that Min Aung Hlaing and his henchmen are making it all up as they go.

Residents of Ayardaw Township in Sagaing Region stage a protest against the regime’s planned election, in January 2023.

It’s pointless to engage in any micro-analysis of anything the SAC does when it involves the constitution or anything related to the law. Under the current circumstances, the Chief Justice is essentially a cheap suburban solicitor writing an indemnity clause for a half-wit hoodlum. The age of humoring the regime as if they’re serious men is over. And let’s all retire the fallacy that the military has any fidelity to the constitution.

So much of the country is in open rebellion because the military staged a coup then couldn’t contain the inevitable resistance to that takeover and the widespread atrocities committed by the SAC forces. For any military obsessed with “non-disintegration of the union” to actually profess less than half of your country is peaceful is a clear admission of failing in your central duty as a military: we knew Min Aung Hlaing was a loser but it’s refreshing to hear him basically admit it.

The sheer proliferation of armed groups and the scale of local resistance from new groups and many well established EAOs is the main reason the military can’t ensure full control. This isn’t just about elections, this is about counterinsurgency, development, the very functioning of the country. It was heading this way before the coup and it has accelerated in the past two years.

Elections are not completely off the table however. Yet even in the SAC’s make-believe world the technical ability to conduct anything approaching even clearly fake elections will be circumscribed by lack of bureaucratic capacity, confusion, boycotts and violence. In some senses the SAC will welcome anti-elections violence to discredit the resistance. The horrific impact on Myanmar society won’t matter to them. It’s all about demonstrating to their own support base that they have an embattled but ultimate legitimacy.

What Min Aung Hlaing needs to convey to his military base is not that elections are important, but that the strategy of pacification can be ultimately successful, and he has no convincing evidence that is happening. Anyone from field commanders or the senior leadership in Naypyitaw know they have unleashed hell and the only way out is to end violence and seek negotiations. The cabinet reshuffle and the new SAC advisory board is just a shabby shell game, and another admission of slow-drip defeat of military rule. We might possibly see more rats jump a sinking ship, but there are plenty of rats who will go down because they don’t know any other way and they are terrified of the inevitable vengeance from their own people. And the military has a plentiful supply of psychopaths to draw on to keep fighting for the foreseeable future.

Min Aung Hlaing is wholly to blame for this conflagration. One hopes that the Senior General is seriously rattled that his retirement plan is now looking uncertain. Assuming the presidency might be less likely than a lamppost, a length of rope and a cheering crowd on a highway in Naypyitaw: the Benito Mussolini outcome. Or even more enticing, ending his days wearing an orange onesie in The Hague, with no access to hair dye and years of listening to his catalogue of high crimes in the International Criminal Court (ICC), knowing a slow death in a prison cell with stodgy food is inevitable, his only solace watching re-runs of the South Korean soap opera Flower of Evil and his rebirth as a dung beetle the cosmic justice he deserves.

The SAC’s subordinates must also be looking askance at the stark reality of a country divided. We know very little about the inner workings of the senior military leadership, of their sense of failure in containing armed resistance cementing the military takeover. What is the morale of the frontline soldiers and officers who must be feeling on some level a deep sense of embattlement and distance from their own population? How voluntary were the new additions to the SAC Central Advisory Body, and how do civilian members of the regime feel about the protracted nature of the civil war and how no clear winner is obvious?

So too many of the SAC’s interlocutors, the small signatories to the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) who have continued to schlep to Naypyitaw to resuscitate a dead peace process. For many of them, including Khun Okkar from the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) who genuflected abjectly to Min Aung Hlaing to receive an award recently, a deplorable obsequiousness to the dictator, do they believe they are on the wrong side of history even more than before the coup? There must be immediate excommunication from the peace-industrial complex for all individuals who are cooperating with the SAC, and the determination to exclude most of them from any future political settlement which has at is core the exclusion of the current junta leadership in any negotiation at all.

For all people struggling against the regime, in violent or peaceful ways, take this extension as vindication that resistance is working, but the end isn’t in sight. It must also be a relief that with elections being delayed the targeting of anyone perceived as supporting the preparations can be suspended and fundamentally rethought. If, as Ko Ye Myo Hein of the Tagaung Institute of Political Science (TIP) has urged over the past several months, the disparate armed groups need to better coordinate then extra effort and support should be marshalled to achieve this. Ko Ye, the most astute analyst of post-coup conflict, has scripted precisely what needs to be done, and how it can be translated into reality. Also, targeting air power and the personnel and supplies, the defense factories, the intelligence infrastructure and the personnel (such as two Sit-Tat intelligence officers ambushed and assassinated north of Bago recently) are all multiple ways to continue to hamper and frustrate the military.

However, never underestimate the ability of the Myanmar opposition to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The perennial problem of mistrust, simmering hatred, and male ego could fracture the resistance even more. Now is the time to be extra vigilant against fratricide of all kinds, and to contain and manage inter-PDF fighting. The NUG is unfortunately not accomplished on leadership and is unlikely to accomplish this, so perhaps the broad resistance complex should embrace the complexity and variated capabilities and maintain the momentum they have been gathering for two years.

The resistance needs to mature and not insist on the immediate delivery of Stinger missiles and assorted wishful thinking, or the delusional belief that the US Burma act and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is poised to deliver a cascade of high-tech weaponry. Efforts have to be redoubled to plan carefully how more support could help a multi-front resistance complex. The NUG should not be axiomatically granted full recognition; they have to seriously lift their performance before any consideration of that is pursued, and seek to be part of, not the sole leader of, a united front approach to denuding the military.

However, the international community should speak clearly and forcefully to denounce all forms of elections-related violence from all parties to the conflict. Encouraging a boycott should be accompanied by insistence on a non-violent rejection of the farce. If the election ever does take place, and let’s not be rash in our predictions, it should be permitted to play out in farcical fashion, not degenerate into an even greater bloodbath.

The war will inevitably go on. The SAC may be realizing that decreasing violence and cutting deals, in some repeat of the post-1989 “standfast” peace agreements, is unlikely to work and that the civil war has passed its fail-safe point. Heavy firepower and atrocity is all the SAC have to sustain themselves, this post-coup mixture of high and low tech violence and the dawning realization that after 600 days of incessant containment and abuses against civilians they’re still no closer to winning. No army has ever won a war from air power alone, and the Myanmar military is no different. Every air strike or village torching just increases people’s anger and determination to continue resisting. However, we must remember that this is an army that has believed for 75 years that state building is inherently violent and divisive, and that counterinsurgency is a process not a result. Hence, endless war.

That doesn’t mean the resistance writ large is winning yet, but they are definitely seeing a diminishing of military power to match the complete lack of legitimacy of the regime. If the emergency extension shouldn’t be perceived as a major event, but another indication of a flailing junta, then we must also relish the schadenfreude in any setback for the SAC.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, human rights and humanitarian issues on Myanmar.