General Hlaing’s hot year since assuming control of Myanmar

  • One year after the coup in Myanmar, Min Aung Hlaing finds challenges to keep order within its borders.
  • While managing to silence his political rivals, the National Unity Government and the ethnic militias contest the security of the Hlaing’s regime.
  • The international community’s efforts to reverse this situation have had little impact.
General Hlaing - Myanmar
Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of the Myanmar armed forces. AFP / YE AUNG THU

Why is General Hlaing’s temperature hot?

Answer: Hlaing remains in power one year after the Coup backed by the military-ratified 2008 Constitution.

A year after Myanmar’s Coup d’Etat, the political control of the country remains with General Min Aung Hlaing and the military Junta (Tatmadaw). Hlaing’s pretext to declare the state of emergency and assume control of the country were claims of irregularities that occurred in the 2020 election. One year later the suppression of all social and political disobedience has characterised Hlaing’s rule. Following the repression in the streets, pro-democracy leaders and activists are being persecuted by the Tatmadaw, which continues to accumulate power and influence within the Burmese institutions. 

Former State Counselor, de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel prize winner and indispensable figure in Myanmar’s Democratic Transition, now faces up to 150 years of prison following a series of indictments since the coup. Among the charges, there are cases of alleged election fraud and lawless actions, the possession of unlicensed walkie-talkies, corruption charges and embezzlement

With General Hlaing keen on keeping Aung San Suu Kyi behind bars, it seems unlikely that her influential figure will make a return to the political stage of Myanmar. He maintains his political enemies controlled and powerless. Nevertheless, opposition to Hliang’s rule remains strong, and effective control of the politics does not translate onto the population, which remains adamant against the de-democratization of the country. 

The World Bank’s latest economic monitor on Myanmar raises concerns as the conflict escalates. Meanwhile, the withdrawal of international investors, the growth of unemployment, and international sanctions have caused an economic recession. Which does not seem to concern the Tatmadaw, since they mainly signify travelling restrictions to its own leaders and Western economic sanctions on the already weakened businesses and government-owned enterprises. 

General Hlaing is more focused on seeking support and legitimacy from non-western powers, such as Chinese President Xi. China is applying its no interference policy in the country’s politics and increasing its foreign investments. To protect its FDI, however, Chinese diplomats also maintained contact with Myanmar opposition NUG, hoping that its businesses in the nation could be left unharmed in case of an escalation of the conflict.

Who is changing General Hlaing’s temperature?

Answer: Hlaing’s temperature remains hot despite domestic public opinion, the rebel militias and the international community, particularly ASEAN.

In the urban areas of Myanmar, massive protests have taken the streets since February 2020. The brief taste of democratisation and opening to foreign investment that the Burmese population experienced for over a decade brought many to the streets. Despite Hlaing’s declaration of martial law and the terrorising of demonstrators with death threats, protests continue.

Since the 2020 coup, more than 1500 people have died in clashes with the security forces while more than 11.838 have been arrested. Furthermore, 70,000 people have been displaced as a result of the conflict and violence. However, the methods employed are not as effective as General Hlaing expected, marches continue to take over the streets while the Tatmadaw’s popularity and legitimacy stagnate. 

In the countryside, the outlook is not better for Hlaing. Adding to the existent insurgent groups, most of ethnic and separatist origin, the Tatmadaw’s brutality has motivated many to support resistance groups. Inspired by the National Unity Government, Myanmar’s shadow government in exile, many are joining the armed wings of the ethnic minority groups. The return of tactics of massacre and burning of villages by the military indicates an intensification of the conflict. While these tactics have already been used against ethnic minorities, the security forces are now implementing them against Buddhist Bamar villages, the ethnic majority of Myanmar. 

Outside Myanmar, Min Aung Hlaing also faces severe opposition by most of its neighbours as well as the Western countries. However, despite sworn statements against the Tatmadaw, foreign involvement in the conflict is having little effect on the regime. Since Myanmar used to be a closed regime to foreign investment and international trade for so long, economic sanctions do not suppose much influence. Because the sanctions are mainly directed towards individuals and state companies; they affect little of the overall economic situation. 

Myanmar is part of ASEAN, giving ASEAN leaders the biggest leverage over Myanmar. However, with an approach of consensual and non-conflictual problem-resolution, the “ASEAN way” is showcasing a limited approach to tackle the Myanmar situation. Prime Minister of Cambodia Hun Sen, current ASEAN Chair, is opting for an acceleration of the process: by hosting members of the Tatmadaw, accepting invitations to Myanmar and encouraging Hlaing to attend ASEAN’s meetings if progress is made in the country.

Hun Sen hopes that direct engagement in Myanmar can play a more influential role in the conflict. However, other ASEAN member states contested his strategy. Hun Sen, the longest nonroyal ruler of SouthEast Asia, has reasons to befriend Min Aung Hlaing, since another autocratic leader in the region could ease the external pressure on his own regime. 

What is driving General Hlaing?

Answer: Hlaing is driven to maintain political power in the hands of the military and fear for the full democratisation of the country.

Myanmar political history in the last 100 years has been one of war, ethnic conflict and dictatorship. The democratic transition was arranged by the Tatmadaw itself; the 2008 Constitution that would give way to democracy was crafted by the military,for the military. By automatically granting 25% of the parliamentary seats to the military, it makes it impossible to make any constitutional amendments without their support. 

While letting the Burmese people choose their leaders, the Tatmadaw would still hold a significant influence in the country’s politics. The 2020 elections, part of the fifth step of Myanmar’s Roadmap to Democracy, granted Aung San Suu Kyi’s party even more support than before. Obtaining 396 of the 476 contested bicameral seats, the general position of the population was clear in supporting the pro-democratic party. Fearing a slow but steady loss of political power, General Hlaing intervened once again in the country’s politics. 

The 65-year-old general was appointed chief of the military in 2011 and was a key figure in the 2016 Rohingya genocide. Even though he has seemed cooperative with Aung San Suu Kyi in the past, he asserted the role of the Tatmadaw in political power. In the end, the possibility of a full democratic transition and loss of all influence in national politics could lead to criminal prosecution of those accountable for past atrocities committed by the military. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: the constant violation of human rights in Myanmar and the forced failure of the democratic project are worrisome developments.

The lack of effective plans against the regime from part of ASEAN, the relatively ineffective sanctions of Western nations, and the UN and Security Council’s minimal involvement in the conflict (limited to the expressed condemnation of the regime and the conflict) show the little effect that outside influence is having on Myanmar’s situation. 

The internal conflict will, however, have a deteriorating effect on neighbouring nations. As it has already happened in the past with the Rohingya crisis, the continuance of violence is causing increased fleeing of refugees to countries like Bangladesh, India or Thailand. Moreover, the conflict between the Tatmadaw and the militias often happens in border regions, causing instability and a security threat for these countries. 

Myanmar’s military coup is among an increasing trend during the Covid-19 pandemic. Leaders all over the world are seeking control amid instability, economic downturns and the desire for strong leadership in times of uncertainty. Attempted coups have taken place in the Middle East (in Jordan and Saudi Arabia), the Caucasus (Armenia) and, more successfully, in Mali, Guinea or Burkina Faso.

Alberto Campos Moya

Research & Analysis Member