Hlaing’s Conflict with Suu Kyi: Uncertainty as Junta threatens to end Democracy in Myanmar

  • + The much heralded and abrupt democratic experience in Myanmar has come to a foreseeable end.
  • + Conflict between Hlaing and Suu Kyi disrupts any basis for coexistence between both sides.
  • + Repetition of trends and conditions allows for the military dictatorship to flourish.  
Source: Wall Street Journal

Why is Hlaing in conflict with Suu Kyi?

Answer: Because they represent two incompatible ideals; militarism and democracy.

The conflict between Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing is a prime representation of Myanmar’s firm ideological divides as the rivalry is not a personal dispute between two leaders, but a conflict that dates back decades.

In 1962, Myanmar underwent a military coup d’état led by General Ne Win. During the following years, the country suffered the repression and isolation of martial law and outstanding military involvement in every aspect of daily life. The Burmese people suffered in fear of violent reprimands until August 8th, 1988 (known as the 8888 Uprising). On that day, the country went up in flames as the population rose up against the repressive military regime. Out of the unfortunate death of more than 3000 people arose a new hope: Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy. Because of this defiance and because of the threat that her ideas posed for the military regime, she was imprisoned and put on house arrest for more than 15 years. Fortunately enough, these protests forced the rewriting of the 1974 constitution, which took almost two decades until it was finalized in 2008. This same constitution is one of the main reasons why today Myanmar is being lit on fire once more.

The 2008 constitution was crafted by the military, for the military. It superficially frees the country from the decades-long military regime, but actually stiffens the military’s (also known as Tatmadaw or the Junta for short) power grip. For instance, it automatically reserves 25% of Parliament seats for the military to fill. At the same time, the constitution requires more than 75% of votes to undergo any amendments, which is then impossible without the support of the military votes.. Additionally, the constitution  seems to have been written to restrain Suu Kyi as it clearly states that no person married to or having children from a foreign country may become President (Suu Kyi falls under both categories).

 Finally, and most relevant for our understanding of today, the 2008 constitution grants the military the majority of ministerial seats comprising the National Defense and Security Council. This body -besides controlling intelligence services, border guards and the police- has the constitutional right to declare a state of emergency and obtain absolute power over the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Regardless of these constitutional barriers, Suu Kyi and her party were able to win the 2015 elections and proceed with the democratization process they had promised. They reopened the country to foreign investment, they pushed for social reforms and always had democracy and demilitarization as the core ideas of their work. But the military never left. They watched behind the scenes as the Burmese population praised Suu Kyi and her reforms.

The military ultimately hoped that the Rohingya scandals and Suu Kyi’s failure to fulfill some of the promises she had made would cause her to fall in the November 2020 elections. To the surprise of the international community –and the military- Suu Kyi came out of the polls stronger than ever.  As a result, General Hlaing and the army began discrediting the elections and claiming expansive election fraud. But as their outbursts were continuously  ignored, on February 1st, 2021, they declared a state of emergency and arrested Suu Kyi for having illegally imported some walkie-talkies. Protests have taken over Myanmar ever since.

What does Hlaing want?

Answer: He wants to officially remove the masquerade of democracy from Burmese society and reinstate a holistic military rule under his command.

Following the state of emergency, the military enacted its coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s government that had been in place for half a decade. Full authority was therefore relayed to the head of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The particular motivation around the -for what some in the international community may seem sudden- rapprochement with authoritarianism by the military is based on the pernicious history of the military with the Burmese political establishment. 

Before the short democratic facade, the military’s direct mandate to rule had an extensive impact on Burmese society. Because of its 50 year period, it instilled itself as the guardian of national unity. This idea of military rule as the status quo has entrenched the Junta’s jurisdiction to oligarch levels of socio-economic and political authority. The period of quasi-democracy satisfied the palates of certain national and international forces for a brief period. By reverting its power-sharing ‘democratic’ deal, the coup exhibits how the military has had enough of its quagmire with the National League for Democracy (NLD), regardless of foreign and domestic backlash. 

Why exactly has General Hlaing given up on the democratic facade and opted for an anachronistic return to a military dictatorship? On an individualistic scope of analysis, it is important to highlight that Min Aung Hlaing took command of the armed forces during the democratic transition in 2011. Not being able to holistically command the nation because of the democratic transition as well as his scheduled transition from a position of leadership after hitting the retirement age of 65, Hlaing had to act aggressively to consolidate power. Accordingly, he self-extended his tenure as commander of the military for another five years back in 2016- entailing the planification of his swift takeover.

Now that he is in power, the commander-in-chief is looking to step-into and lead his nation as he angles for the presidency in what is likely to be a sham election –undoubtedly without the presence of Suu Kyi– in 2022. Moreover, the existence of the previously installed ‘democratized’ constitution, offering citizens the slightest glimpse of political participation, will most likely be completely voided by Hlaing future policies. Economically speaking, the Junta will look to revert any of the advances towards market liberalization made at the beginning of the decade. Similarly, Hlaing and the Junta will most likely double-down on the cronyistic tendencies exemplified by the Junta’s potentates over economic proceedings- essentially encapsulating plutocracy and voiding needed redistribution to a vastly unequal population.

What does Suu Kyi want? 

Answer: What she has always wanted: Democracy.

To understand Aung San Suu Kyi’s political aspirations, one must dig deep into her shaken past. She was born the daughter of a national martyr –Aung San- who led the country to independence from the British and who was killed for it. She is her father’s daughter: A fighter, an independent and relentless leader.

Throughout her youth, Suu Kyi lived away from her home country, but was forced to return in 1988 to take care of her sick mother. It was at that moment that she was introduced to the struggles suffered by the Burmese citizens. She witnessed the mass murders committed by the army during the 8888 uprisings and determined that she was to carry on her father’s legacy and free her people from repressive and unwanted rulers.

To fulfill that self-promise, she suffered decades of persecution by the military, was imprisoned for a great part of her life, watched her peers die, and ultimately let go of her family ties. But her sacrifices bore their fruits. The international community awarded her with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and she was bestowed with numerous other international recognitions for her non-violent fight for democracy. At home, her supporters grew in numbers and strength, and were seen as “a female bodhisattva, an angel, a divine being” as stated by Peter Pophman in The Lady and the Peacock. 

With domestic and international support, Suu Kyi continued to fight alongside her party for the democratization of her country. It wasn’t until almost 30 years after the creation of the NLD that the party finally rose to power. However, in the last couple of years, she has been faced with outstanding opposition from the international community, especially in regards to her (absent) role in the Rohingya crisis.

It was truly a surprise for the world to see Suu Kyi, a first-hand victim of the Tatmadaw’s repression, stand up and defend their genocidal intent at the International Court of Justice in 2019. But is it really a shock that she decided to please a military fervently ready to take over control of the country, as we have seen, at the slightest sign of insurrection?

Suu Kyi has devoted her entire existence to bringing democracy to Myanmar. And she has learnt the hard way that patiently waiting -even if it is in a prison cell- while the support of her people is demonstrated in every corner of her country, is the best way to gain the upper hand in the military. Now, as she waits to be incarcerated once more by the Tatmadaw, her aspirations are the same: The transformation of her country into a true democracy, free from the grip of the veiled control of the military. 

What is Hlaing doing?

Answer: Utilizing the different munitions in his military and political arsenal to consolidate his new mandate.  

In order to enforce his mandate, Hlaing has made use of a range of domestic and international capacities. Domestically, he has used the military’s technocratic capabilities to suppress any sort of rebellion. Since the coup, the military has set out to assert a high degree of control over communication and mobilization of the populace. More specifically, he has suppressed telecommunications and restricted media presence to only state-controlled outlets. On the ground, there has been a comprehensive deployment of different security forces throughout the state’s territory, essentially imposing a state of martial-law.

Going a bit further into the technocratic capabilities that have allowed for the Junta to act under such premises, we perceive a degree of uncoincidental preparedness in mass-suppressing competencies. Myanmar’s Tatmadaw disposes of an extensive and sophisticated arsenal composed of Israeli-made surveillance drones and phone-hacking software from Europe and America. This would explain how Hlaing was able to use the facade of democracy to acquire previously unattainable competencies from its then Western allies- now supposed enemies. This technological transfer is now being directly used to suppress opposition. Regionally, this tactic is indifferent to other instances of contemporary military coups. Like what happened in Thailand, Hlaing is aiming for the judicialization of his crackdown; creating independent commissions formed by the military and ultimately replacing public servants that are not serving his interests. 

Ultimately, Hlaing is heralding his nation into a renewed era of democratic backsliding. The recent closed-door trial and indictment of his rival, Aung San Suu Kyi, serves as the pinnacle testimony of such a phenomenon becoming yet again the political reality in Myanmar. The presence of democratic degradation inspired by Hlaing’s aspirations is accentuated by the upscaling of violence in the recent interactions between protestors and security forces. Death tolls that keep rising by the day are a grim reminder of the reality nations are facing regarding the viability of extensive oligarch rule without genuine repercussions. For Myanmar, it is at a scale that encompasses a generational factor within the populace that have exacerbated their willingness to concede as they have seen most of the nation’s young population suddenly forced into less prosperous conditions. 

General Hlaing’s burdening constraints on the realization of an authoritarian dictatorship in the region might allow him to break through the threshold of an extrapolated version of ‘geopolitical correctness’ based on national sovereignty- which has apparently been reduced to allowing despotism.  In short, are sanctions and mass protests no longer a red-line for the contemporary nation state because those who hold power have been able to consolidate it? 

Who is winning? What does this mean for you?

Answer: Myanmar’s current conflict is a good opportunity for Western actors to help the Burmese people while taking into consideration lessons learned from the past.

Conclusively, it is important to recognise that Myanmar is a country that is already plagued with socio-economic caveates that are accentuated during periods of uncertainty. Myanmar remains a least developed country as it is awash with weapons and high levels of societal inequality coupled with deep-cutting religious and ethnic disparities prone to sparking further conflict. In addition, Hlaing at the throne appears to have essentially won compared to his rival- who is currently imprisoned. However, if said issues implode, it could reach a degree of uncertainty uncontrollable for the military. 

Ultimately, the military cannot count on domestic and international inaction. Even though Myanmar has an extensive history of military dictatorships, they must consolidate their power through structural reforms that ensure their grip over the three branches of government. The Tatmadaw have essentially been triumphant but one must recognise the repetition of patterns -similar instances of political instability back in 1962 and 1988- might decree a ‘third time’s the charm’ in the form of substantial foreign and domestic backlash. But, is this even a conceivable reality? All in all, it seems Myanmar’s coup is the epitomisation of a wider regression of democracy in Southeast Asia

What are other countries doing as a response to the sudden shift in regional democracy? Recently, ministers from the Association of Southeastern Asian Nations (ASEAN) met with the military-appointed foreign minister, a position previously held by Kyi. Although there was a certain degree of reprimand on behalf of the bloc, its policies of non-interference limit the organization’s degree of influence on the nation’s domestic affairs. 

For the West, a duality of contradictory challenges describes their potential for intervention, or lack thereof. Before Suu Kyi’s power takeover, the US and the EU took the offensive by strongly sanctioning the Junta, which unfortunately isolated the nation right into the hands of Chinese influence. Now the United States has imposed targeted sanctions on the military, which include export bans, asset freezes and travel bans by. Nonetheless, the Biden administration must understand that sanctions are not silver bullets, especially if we consider that most of the Tatmadaw’s business holdings are within Myanmar. 

Meanwhile, Joseph Borell -The High Representative of the EU- also  seems to be discussing the possibility of sanctions, but for now has called on the withdrawal of development assistance. Once again, the European Union must keep in mind that out of the 3.6% of GDP that development assistance makes up in Myanmar, only 12-13% comes from the West. The lack of Myanmar’s economic dependency on Western actors demonstrates that global governance is no longer dictated by unilateral liberal democratic ideals, but that we are digging deeper into the multipolar world of Global Value Chains. Consequently, if the international community wants to lift the people of Myanmar out of the endless hole of autocratic military-rule, they must think outside the box of idolized sanctions. 

Written by: Stefan Gonthiez & Laura Escobar