How probable is a coup d’etat by the Tatmadaw?

State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi says whether another seizure of power by the military is probable is a question best put to the military.


STATE COUNSELLOR Daw Aung San Suu Kyi delivered the 43rd Singapore Lecture in the city-state on August 21. Interesting matters about Myanmar’s politics and economy were raised in the lecture and the question and answer session that followed, including the issue of the Tatmadaw’s involvement in politics and how the state counsellor plans to tackle it.

At the lecture, a Singaporean wanted to know if there was any possibility of the Tatmadaw launching a coup d’etat. Aung San Suu Kyi replied that it was a question best put to the Tatmadaw. “They will be able to answer better,” she said. “But I’m not worried about it. In politics anything can happen. Our relationship with the Tatmadaw is not that bad. Please don’t forget that our cabinet includes three men who are in fact military men, generals, and they’re all rather sweet,” she said.

Aung San Suu Kyi has not guaranteed that a military seizure of power would never happen again in Myanmar; in fact, she has warned that anything can happen in politics. In answering a different question about how she would transform Myanmar into a democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi said she would rely on step-by-step negotiations towards national reconciliation. There were undemocratic provisions in the constitution that gave rights to the Tatmadaw and they needed to be changed by negotiation. Aung San Suu Kyi said her government wanted change that did not hurt the people. “We do not want to encourage the kind of revolutions that [could] turn our country upside down. We will be patient but we will be persistent.”

The 2008 Constitution ensures that the Tatmadaw retains power by controlling three key ministries and having a veto on charter change. The 2008 Constitution was meant to ensure that the Tatmadaw retained power for the next 20 to 25 years. However, after the military-backed Union Development and Solidarity Party took power following a rigged election in 2010, a split emerged and contributed to the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy in the 2015 election. The former generals were forced to hand over power to the NLD – an outcome that certainly wasn’t part of their roadmap.

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As the state counsellor said in Singapore, the question of the probability of a seizure of power by the military is best put to the Tatmadaw. But by studying the attitude of Tatmadaw leaders since the NLD took office, we can deduce the Tatmadaw’s likely intentions.

The current attitude of the Tatmadaw offers no indication that it is moving towards becoming a professional army that shuns politics. At the latest 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference, Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said that any amendment to the 2008 Constitution had to be according to its provisions. This means that the constitution cannot be amended without the Tatmadaw’s approval.

In the basic principles of the union outlined in chapter one of the constitution, section 6(f) states that a consistent objective of the union is enabling “the defence services to be able to participate in the national political leadership role of the state”.

Min Aung Hlaing has pledged to abide by and uphold the constitution. It is clear, when all is considered, that there is no likelihood of the Tatmadaw surrendering the rights it enjoys under the constitution. On the other hand, there is no constitutional provision that gives the Tatmadaw the right to seize power. The constitution provides for the president to hand power to the Tatmadaw in the event of foreign aggression or a situation that the government cannot control. However, as the current president was chosen by an elected party, such a scenario is unlikely.

This means that as long as the Tatmadaw abides by the constitution, a complete seizure of power by the military is not probable. The probability of a military takeover, then, depends on whether Tatmadaw leaders are committed to the constitution they drafted, or whether they are willing to seize power by any means possible.

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