After months of fanfare about holding elections in August 2023, Myanmar’s junta chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, suddenly changed course. On February 1, he extended the junta’s illegitimate rule by another six months acknowledging that the military does not control enough of the country to administer an election. This development represents a setback for those in the international community who had naively believed that sham elections would pave the way to a stable Myanmar.

Protest posters against Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. International actors must understand that the mafioso mentality of the country’s generals does not recognize the value of compromise, only of brute force, says USIP’s Ye Myo Hein. (The New York Times)
Protest posters against Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. International actors must understand that the mafioso mentality of the country’s generals does not recognize the value of compromise, only of brute force, says USIP’s Ye Myo Hein. (The New York Times)

The junta’s official admission that it lacks control indicates that it has failed to achieve its objective of resurrecting a military government. With a cloud of uncertainty hovering over the elections, the generals are now searching for other possible pathways to consolidate power.

Many in the international community who had pinned their hopes on the junta’s elections as a pathway to peace in Myanmar wrongly believed that the pattern of previous coups — military atrocities paired with a rigged election — would dictate the trajectory this time and lead to stability. It is clear to anyone engaged with the people of Myanmar that things are different this time.

The past 10 years of relative freedom awakened powerful forces in the population that are the bedrock for a movement that remains committed in the face of a murderous mafia junta intent on terrorizing and dividing it. The international community should recognize that the practical path to peace and stability in Myanmar lies through supporting resistance efforts, not the junta.

Reinventing the 2008 Military Constitution

The day before Min Aung Hlaing’s announcement, the regime’s National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) concluded, without any legal justification, that Myanmar had yet to achieve “normal circumstances.” This declaration gave Min Aung Hlaing the justification he sought to extend the junta’s rule.

Provision 425 of the 2008 military constitution authorizes the NDSC “to normally permit two extensions of the prescribed [emergency] duration for a term of six months for each extension” beyond the initial one-year period of martial law mandated by a declaration of a national emergency. (The military declared a state of emergency following the February 1, 2021, coup.) At the end of this two-year-period, the constitution requires that elections must be held within six months. Because these are not “normal” circumstances, the NDSC arbitrarily determined it had the authority to extend its rule by another six months.

Defiance of their own constitutions is nothing new for the military in the history of modern Myanmar. Gen. Ne Win, the father of Myanmar’s military dictatorship, often proclaimed his firm allegiance to the 1947 independence constitution before annulling it in the 1962 coup. Similarly, Gen. Saw Maung, the leader of the September 1988 coup, maintained that the military adhered to Ne Win’s 1974 constitution until it no longer served him — repealing it after his 1988 coup. Myanmar’s latest coup leader is now following in their footsteps.

Dashing Naive Expectations

The junta set the August 2023 election date in hopes that it would provide international legitimacy for its power grab and divide the resistance movement. Junta propaganda stressed the importance of its proposed elections and played up election preparations, making them a focal point for debate within the international community.

Some international observers were lured into believing that the elections would provide an exit for Min Aung Hlaing, disregarding ample evidence that the coup master does not see the elections as an exit, but rather as a means of dividing the resistance, furthering his military objectives and consolidating control. Others made hollow legal arguments, asserting that the military regime had no option but to hold elections according to the constitution — arguments that overlooked the blatant unconstitutionality of the coup itself in 2021.

Despite his repeated attempts to portray the military as the guardian of the 2008 constitution, Min Aung Hlaing’s actions have proven that he is ready to violate the constitution to maintain his own power. Just a few days before the coup, he publicly said that he was prepared to revoke the constitution if need be.

A Military Motivated by Self-Preservation

Myanmar’s modern history is a dark chronicle of the ways a power-hungry military will contort itself and shift its agenda to hold onto power by whatever means necessary. This is truer now than ever because many within the military believe that losing power would mean certain death for themselves and the military itself.

The predominant motive of power-hungry generals is the quest for absolute control of state power, not to protect the constitution or rule of law, seek stability or promote the peoples’ welfare. Indeed, the generals are better understood as a sort of mafia dedicated not to the welfare of the state, but rather to self-preservation and self-interest, regardless of the damage it might cause the country or its people.

The generals are ready to embrace a pyrrhic victory if it assures their survival, no matter how illegitimate, gory and limited it turns out to be. These generals live in their own universe isolated from the civilized world. They embody a mafioso mentality, primarily driven by cynicism, megalomania, bigotry, insecurity, hostility, self-preservation and self-interest. The regime believes it can only survive by dividing the resistance forces and inflicting mass human suffering to pacify the population.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that military rule has never been stable, and the military is widely reviled, including by those not directly involved in the current resistance. When considering a path to stability in Myanmar, the will of the people should dictate. How can a genocidal and incompetent military that has spent two years committing atrocities against its own people be involved in a future government?

Misconceptions Driving International Responses

Many policymakers in the international community tend to view Myanmar’s junta through the prism of their own experience as government actors beholden to a constituency and national interest. No matter how bloodstained and barbaric the junta has been, the international community — particularly Myanmar’s neighbors — cling to hope that military leaders can be reasoned with. The international community mischaracterizes the generals as “rational state actors,” expecting they will act in the interest of Myanmar.

This is a deep misunderstanding of the military, which is a paranoid clique of battle-hardened ultranationalists radicalized and traumatized by decades of warfare. Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew labeled Myanmar’s military government that ruled the country before 2010 as “dense” and “stupid,” saying that dealing with the regime is akin to “talking to dead people.” Because Myanmar has been an isolated and distant concern in global politics, it is understandable that relatively few in foreign governments have much experience with the country and its people, let alone its hermetic military leaders. 

Misunderstandings about the military have led to mistaken conclusions and harmful actions. They underlie the idea that the junta will engage in a political dialogue process in good faith. And they are the basis of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) five-point consensus, which has achieved nothing. Despite agreeing to the five-point consensus in 2021, it is no surprise that the junta openly discounted its legitimacy in February saying, “Myanmar views the ASEAN five-point consensus as not a legally binding document.” The junta’s recent extension of emergency rule and relentless violence have made a mockery of the ASEAN plan, which includes an immediate end to violence and dialogue among all parties concerned.

Pathways to Stability

In contemplating the prospects for a negotiated settlement in Myanmar, international actors must understand that the mafioso mentality of the country’s generals does not recognize the value of compromise, only of brute force. Under the current conditions, the generals prefer endless war to negotiation. They will only come to the table when they see they have no path to military victory.

Furthermore, the military has demonstrated repeatedly throughout its history that it will only engage in dialogue with those it sees as its military equals. The military blocked involvement of the Arakan Army (AA) in peace talks, for example, until the AA demonstrated military strength and controlled territory. During the pre-coup peace process, the author once witnessed a general harshly challenge the representative from a small ethnic armed group, asking “how much strength do you have to negotiate with me as an equal?” In recounting the collapse of peace talks in 1981, Brang Seng, the former rebel leader of the Kachin Independence Army, concluded, “We realized that we have been negotiating from a position of weakness. Only when we are united with all the other ethnic groups would we succeed [in negotiation with the military].”

Like ethnic minority communities which have endured decades of military violence, the Myanmar people have suffered deeply at the hands of the generals and understand that the military will only engage in dialogue with their military equals when they see no path to military victory. The people are, therefore, forced to make a painful decision to take up arms to fight against the military.

Without accepting these basic facts, the international community will continue to engage and support the junta’s governing State Administration Council, deepening the military’s delusional belief that it can win and undermining efforts by Myanmar’s people to save their country. Efforts that strengthen the junta only prolong violent conflict and suffering for the Myanmar people. Efforts that strengthen the resistance bring us closer to a negotiated outcome.

There is no path to stability in Myanmar that involves these generals in government. They are reviled by the population. Instability and violent conflict will afflict Myanmar as long as they are in power.

Ye Myo Hein is a visiting scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a global fellow at the Wilson Center.

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