Taiwan: In the days after Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was ousted in an early morning coup, the wide modern boulevards of the country’s Potemkin capital Naypyitaw remained silent and empty.
A few military roadblocks and patrolling armoured vehicles were the only sign of the sudden army takeover that threatened to wipe out the country’s recent democratic progress in one audacious swoop.
A Burmese protester living in Thailand holds a picture of Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing.Credit:AP
On Wednesday, carefully orchestrated television footage showed a diminutive figure in military uniform conducting government business from a golden, throne-like armchair. Those searching for motives behind the Monday morning putsch that imprisoned Suu Kyi and plunged Myanmar back towards oppressive junta rule need look no further than the service ribbons on the chest of General Min Aung Hlaing.
The authoritarian general, who is accused of overseeing an ethnic cleansing operation against the Muslim Rohingya minority, is now at the centre of power in the former British colony that, until recently, projected such hope in its fledgling attempts to establish democracy.
Experts say the timing of the coup lies in Hlaing’s ruthless personal quest for power and the military’s deep paranoia that the popular civilian government could erode the unrivalled political dominance it has enjoyed for decades.
There was no grand speech by the 64-year-old General declaring himself as new ruler. Instead he turned to Facebook, which was later turned off, to hector the country. The coup had been “inevitable,” he said, after the National League of Democracy, which won 83 per cent of votes in a November poll, failed to respond to the military’s grievances over alleged electoral fraud. The election commission has rejected the army’s case.
Aung San Suu Kyi, left, Myanmar’s then foreign minister, walks with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, right, in 2016Credit:AP
The army chief has now imposed a state of emergency, pledging fresh elections in a year – a claim that few believe. Kelley Currie, former deputy US ambassador to the UN, and a Myanmar specialist, described a glimpse of Hlaing’s calculating personality in 2018 during a UN Security Council fact-finding mission into the military’s atrocities against the Muslim Rohingya minority the year before.
The General had overseen a military campaign of rape, murder and arson that United Nations investigators have since said was executed with “genocidal intent.” The 15-member UNSC team had flown over burned down villages as they were being bulldozed, but as he met them, Hlaing downplayed accusations of serious crimes, saying the military operation was an internal matter to root out terrorism and blaming “bad apples” for alleged atrocities.
“I think he is a sociopath,” Currie said. “He sat there with this ridiculous smirk on his face the entire time. He was very smooth… you could tell that he thought he was very charming. He had a lot of confidence and he felt really good about himself and what he had done.”
Protestors make three-finger salutes during an anti-coup march on Saturday in Yangon.Credit:Getty
The upper ranks of the military, known as the Tatmadaw, are conditioned by Bamar Buddhist nationalism. They had a sense of entitlement and were “completely paranoid,” said Currie.
Insulated in the fortified capital, Naypyitaw, which was built to replace Yangon in 2005, they believed they were “the ones who can keep the country together” and were deluded about being adored by the population.
“They were already a state within a state, especially the leadership, and once they moved up there, they became even more isolated from the people,” she said. “If you spend all your time in a bubble like Naypyitaw, with people saluting you and kissing your arse then of course you’re going to think that you are God’s gift to the world,” she added.
Hlaing was personally convinced he was born to rule. “Everybody has been telling him that for the past 10 years,” said Currie.
Analysts say the General’s deadline to retire on his birthday is likely to have triggered his decision to launch a coup. He would have been keenly aware that stepping down would have left him more vulnerable to prosecution over his role in the brutal crackdown on the Rohingya in 2017. The International Court of Justice in The Hague is already considering his criminal responsibility over alleged genocide, and he is currently subject to targeted US sanctions.
Other observers wonder if the coup really makes any sense at all considering the considerable clout the generals already have in ruling Myanmar. Despite Suu Kyi winning elections in 2015, in reality, the army always retained control over the powerful ministries of defence, home and border affairs, plus 25 per cent of unelected seats in parliament.
The possibility of a coup had always been “a sword of Damocles that has been hanging over all of our heads,” said Currie. Suu Kyi is currently believed to be under house arrest in Naypyitaw. She had already fallen from grace as darling of the West over the last few years when she defended the Rohingya crackdown.
Currie, who first met her in 2002, said foreign policy mistakes by the US and other nations towards Myanmar had left her isolated. Her requests for sanctions on generals bent on destroying the democratic process had been overlooked by the State Department, she said. “We took tools from her that she could have used to fend them [the generals] off,” said Currie. At times she felt she had been used as a “foreign policy vanity project”.
After the coup, the military would likely return to its usual playbook, she predicted, by arresting the opposition, trying to disband the NLD, and sidelining Suu Kyi. She has already been charged with allegations of illegally possessing walkie-talkies, which could lead to her jailing.
The military will likely double-down on election fraud charges, attempting to pave the way for Hlaing to become head of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and be elected as president.
The Telegraph, London
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