‘Survival at any cost’: Myanmar generals move to cement power

Bangkok/ Yangon – Failing to subdue resistance across Myanmar, military government chief Min Aung Hlaing is resorting to increasingly desperate measures to cling to power, firing senior ministers and military officers, and purging business cronies.

The heads of the navy and air force are among those who have lost their positions, as Min Aung Hlaing has sought to consolidate his position amid continued armed resistance to his rule — including with ethnic armed groups along the borders — a rebellious population in the heartland, and economic crisis.

After plunging by nearly 20 percent in the year after the February 1, 2021 coup, the World Bank has forecast growth of 3 percent this year for Myanmar’s economy and warned of “substantial risks”.

“When it starts dismissing its own team and established business cronies it does suggest its position is highly fragile and its leadership rather insecure,” a Western diplomat in Yangon told Al Jazeera. “Its top priority is its survival at any cost and given its disastrous economic interventions it would appear Myanmar and its people are that cost.”

On July 25, the regime executed four activists in a move that triggered outrage around the world.

Laetitia van den Assum, former Dutch ambassador to Myanmar, says the executions demonstrated that the military government was rejecting any dialogue about the future of Myanmar unless on its own terms.

“Even though its attempted coup failed long ago, it mistakenly believes that executing four political prisoners will help it to establish control. Instead, it is strengthening the resolve of the broad-based resistance movement.”

‘survival at any cost’: myanmar generals move to cement power

General Maung Maung Kyaw (centre) was removed as head of the air force in January. Analysts say his departure was probably part of an attempt by armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing to consolidate his power [File: Lynn Bo Bo/AFP]

Policy analyst Matthew Arnold sees Min Aung Hlaing sending the message that he is ready to resort to more violence.

“Regardless of structures, protocols, constitutions, Min Aung Hlaing is simply consolidating power with loyalists. There doesn’t need to be any coherence to the overall structure as long as it secures, in his own head, his position as senior general,” he said.

“The executions were both meant to scare the public but also for Min Aung Hlaing to demonstrate to his own people, especially hardliners in the wider security sector complex, his resolve and willingness to use such violence.”

Centralised power

The extreme violence, policy failures and chaos unleashed by the military have left not just protesters but also observers and more conservative businesspeople shocked and despondent. Apart from the strong anti-coup opposition, experts point to the structure within the regime that undermines sound decision-making and centralises too much power on a few generals even compared with previous periods of military rule.

Governance has been split between three entities: the State Administration Council, the regime’s top ruling body, senior military officials and the cabinet. While there is some overlap between the different groups, it is Min Aung Hlaing who is increasingly dominant, according to analysts.

The armed forces chief and coup leader has named new military officers since the coup, and only four SAC members still hold their military posts in the 19-member council.

“None of the younger officers who now hold senior posts in the Tatmadaw are members of the SAC,” noted analyst Htet Myet Min Tun in a January analysis, referring to the military by its name in Myanmar.

Since the coup, navy chief Admiral Tin Aung San, air force chief General Maung Maung Kyaw, judge advocate general Lt General Aung Lin Dwe and Commander of Joint Chief of Staff General Mya Tun Oo have been stripped of their military positions.

‘survival at any cost’: myanmar generals move to cement power

The military faces sustained resistance to its rule despite a brutal crackdown in which nearly 2,200 people have been killed and thousands arrested. After the regime executed four political prisoners in July, some took to the streets of Yangon [Lu Nge Khit/via Reuters]

Even though the stated reason is retirement or the end of their assignments, “the real story may be more complex,” Htet, who hails from Myanmar, wrote. “These moves can be seen as Min Aung Hlaing attempting to consolidate his Tatmadaw power base even more.”

To complicate matters, only six SAC members are also members of the cabinet, including Min Aung Hlaing and Soe Win, the only two who have positions in all three entities. The SAC “has gradually turned into a shell entity with power becoming more concentrated in the hands of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing,” Htet observed.

“The appointments of Union ministers replacing the deposed National League for Democracy-appointed ministers actually pre-dated the formation of the SAC. So, from the outset, it seemed that the military intended to keep the SAC separate from the cabinet,” said Moe Thuzar, a research fellow at Singapore-based think-tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The August 2021 formation of a ‘caretaker government’ also seems to point to the intention of the SAC to differentiate its ‘governing’ role from the cabinet’s job of ‘implementation’, she added. The head of this “caretaker” government, the chair of SAC and commander-in-chief are all the same person, Min Aung Hlaing. Likewise, Soe Win is deputy PM, SAC vice chair and deputy commander-in-chief.

In May, the regime fired the electricity and energy minister, Aung Than Oo, and replaced him with Thaung Han, a former military officer. The ministry was also separated into two – one to cover electric power and the other focused on energy, a decision the military said would improve implementation.

Guillaume de Langre, a former adviser to the ministry, branded the reshuffle as “part of the recent ‘bunkerisation’ of the junta”.

“They have effectively replaced a ‘ministry man’ with a military man, reflecting the low confidence that the junta has in the bureaucracy, exacerbated since the civil disobedience movement. It is also the replacement of a Thein Sein [Former army chief who was president from 2011 to 2016] technocrat by a Min Aung Hlaing loyalist,” he told Al Jazeera.

Myanmar’s energy crisis is mostly the result of the country’s political and economic crisis, triggered by the generals themselves, he adds.

“A change of minister has little effect on the fact that power lines and power plants are now battle targets, bill collectors and repair crews are being killed, the ministry is incurring record losses, key foreign partners have left and they’re struggling to meet 60 percent of demand half of the year,” de Langre warned.

Aung Than Oo is just the latest senior official to be booted out.

Earlier dismissals include the Yangon region’s chief minister, Hla Soe, and economic minister Aung Than Oo (who has the same name as the fired electricity and energy minister but is unrelated), who were charged under the anti-corruption law. Yangon’s mayor, Bo Htay, was also detained and questioned, adding to speculation of a dispute between the old guard from previous military eras and the current ruling generals.

The former Yangon economic minister was detained for granting land to retired Joint Chief of Staff General Hla Htay Win’s family. According to a well-connected businessman in Yangon, his arrest is the result of a rivalry between Myanmar Economic Corporation Chairman Lt General Nyo Saw’s group, and cronies close to former General Hla Htay Win, who became a member of parliament for the pro-military party after retirement.

Tycoons targeted

The sackings have been accompanied by a crackdown on business grandees.

Chit Khine of the construction to resources conglomerate Eden Group as well as Khin Shwe of communications and construction company Zaykabar and his son Zay Thiha were arrested and detained earlier this year. Chit Khine was charged with corruption and accused of tax evasion for his coal mining business.

“They [the generals] aren’t happy that people who they thought were their friends are staying away from them. If rightly or wrongly they suspect them of supporting the opposition, they will use opportunities to nail them if there are corruption cases, particularly if that corruption case can also implicate NLD people,” said a source close to some of Myanmar’s tycoons who declined to be named for fear of reprisals.

“Chit Khine is a classic example of that, dobbed in by reliable crony Nay Win Tun with whom he has had years of crony-wrangling,” the source added, referring to the gemstone and real estate magnate.

Min Aung Hlaing probably targets those who could become a threat preemptively, as well as making an example of anyone who commits the slightest transgressions, according to Myanmar politics researcher Kim Jolliffe. “The general’s entire gambit from day one has been to demonstrate his willingness to go one step further than anyone else with threats and coercion. It is ‘rule by fear’.”

Historically, Myanmar’s military rulers have been notorious for purging any potential opponents or opposition within their own ranks.

‘survival at any cost’: myanmar generals move to cement power

Myanmar has a long history of military rule, but analysts say previous military leaders such as Than Shwe were more politically savvy than Min Aung Hlaing [File: Adrees Latif/Reuters]

Military strongman Than Shwe, who ran Myanmar for nearly two decades from 1992 to 2011, purged the military intelligence chief and his prime minister Khin Nyunt as well as several intelligence officers in 2004. Than Shwe himself rose to power after a ‘palace coup’ in 1992, removing his predecessor General Saw Maung, who also took over after toppling General Ne Win in September 1988.

The primary difference this time around is political savvy, said Khin Zaw Win, director of the Yangon-based Tampadipa Institute.

“All the Bamar (Myanmar’s ethnic majority group) generals share the caudillist mindset but the earlier cohort understood the political landscape much better,” he told Al Jazeera.

Min Aung Hlaing is a graduate of Mandalay’s Defence Service Academy, an officer training institute set up more than 60 years ago.

“The present problems stem not only from the military but particularly the Defence Service Academy [DSA]. Min Aung Hlaing is the first chief of staff from the DSA, and DSA graduates think of themselves as a breed apart. But this ‘apartness’ moulded a worldview that is removed from the Myanmar people,” Khin added.

“The 2021 coup and its bloody aftermath can be seen as a direct consequence of this disparity and divergence.”

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