Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attends a Union Day reception in Nay Pyi Taw on February 12, 2019. (AFP)

Min Aung Hlaing’s constitutional crisis

The results of the November election finally convinced the Tatmadaw chief he will never become president under the rules of the constitution, so he opted for force instead.


On February 1, the Tatmadaw arrested President U Win Myint and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, along with senior leaders of the elected National League for Democracy government in a coup launched on the same morning the new parliament was to begin. Former general Vice President U Myint Swe – a Tatmadaw appointee to the deposed NLD government – was quickly promoted to interim president. In this capacity, he declared a one-year state of emergency and transferred all state powers to commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Analysts have since been scrambling to understand how all this came to be.

The roots of the current crisis lie not on November 8 or in the ensuing weeks, but several months before election day. On August 14, leaders of the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party and several other political parties met with the Tatmadaw chief and complained to him that the Union Election Commission was administering the election unfairly.

U Thein Nyunt, chair of USDP ally the New National Democracy Party, suggested at the meeting that Min Aung Hlaing could intervene in a manner similar to 1958, when a Tatmadaw takeover was followed by a credible election and a quick transition back to civilian rule in 1960. This two-year interregnum was started when Prime Minister U Nu declared an emergency and constitutionally handed over power to commander-in-chief General Ne Win. However, the subsequent election was followed by another, non-constitutional coup in 1962 that ushered in a period of military rule lasting decades. (Shortly after the February 1 coup, Thein Nyunt was appointed to the military’s new State Administration Council, chaired by Min Aung Hlaing.)

Min Aung Hlaing told the party leaders at the August meeting that he respected the outcome of the 2010 and 2015 elections, even though the NLD won the latter resoundingly, but would need to closely observe the process before recognising the 2020 results. Ominously, he told them, “there is nothing I won’t dare to do”, since he was concerned with “anything that could have a negative impact on the country, the people and the future of the military”.

People got nervous when the commander-in-chief publicly criticised the UEC in the week before the election, but were reassured when he told reporters on November 8, “I’ll have to accept the people’s wish and the results that come with it,” suggesting he was committed to respecting the outcome. However, after the NLD won more than 80 percent of seats, the Tatmadaw and USDP undertook a campaign to discredit the election results that culminated in the coup.

After the UEC ruled out investigating the military’s claims that voter lists errors had led to more than 10 million potentially fraudulent votes, the Tatmadaw took its complaint to the president and demanded a meeting of the Nation Defence and Security Council, where the military has a majority. When this was also refused, alongside a request to convene a lame duck session of the outgoing parliament in January, the Tatmadaw demanded that the convening of the newly elected parliament on February 1 be postponed until its fraud claims were addressed. The NLD government’s refusal to countenance a postponement provided a pretext for seizing power. He had kept his word to his political allies: there was “nothing” he “would not dare to do”.

Following the coup, the commander in chief said the military government would hold “free and fair” elections once it has restored the country from its current “state of emergency”, then hand over power to the winner. However, we have seen how these arrangements have gone in the past.

The 2008 Constitution was written to allow military generals, serving or retired, to hold power from one administration to the next, beginning with the dictator Senior General Than Shwe’s handover of power to ex-generals in 2011. The constitution allows the president to wholly appoint the election commission, along with other Union bodies and state and regional administrations. The Tatmadaw assumed that one of their own would always have this prerogative, with the elected lawmakers of the USDP able to partner with the Tatmadaw MPs that automatically make up 25pc of parliament in appointing the president after each election. However, the NLD’s landslide victory in 2015 upset this whole arrangement, and the party’s even greater win in 2020 must have felt like the last straw for Min Aung Hlaing, proving that the constitution was not working as it should.

For several years, Min Aung Hlaing has been rumoured to harbour presidential ambitions – ambitions he has personally hinted at to the media before. November’s election made him realise that all hope of occupying that role short of a coup was now an illusion. He seems to regard it as his duty to regain full state power for the military. With his ability to do this under the constitution finally shattered, he resorted to an old Myanmar tradition.

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