Myanmar’s coup was clearly long in the making judging by the characters who have emerged at the regime’s forefront
The funeral on Sunday of Mya Thwet Thwet Khine, the 19-year-old woman who was shot on February 9 in the Myanmar capital of Naypyitaw and died ten days later drew huge crowds.
She had taken part in a demonstration against the military’s takeover of power on February 1 and was the first to be killed by security forces since demonstrations against the coup swept the nation.
At least two more anti-coup protesters were shot and killed on Saturday, including Wai Yan Phyo, a 17-year-old boy who was bringing wounded gunshot victims to safety by pushcarts as soldiers shot even at ambulances.
Much of Myanmar is now at a standstill as workers and government employees refuse to serve the new coup-installed government. That’s raising key questions about whether the government and the blandly named State Administration Council (SAC) junta behind it will ever be able to actually administer the country.
The new government is a mix of serving and former military men and officials who held various positions in the Union Development and Solidarity Party (USDP) administration of ex-general Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president from 2011 to 2016.
While the coup makers have tried to instill confidence in the government by selecting certain known names, widespread rejection of the coup and outrage over the recent killings both at home and abroad means the new line-up lacks legitimacy.
The West has given the coup makers a universal thumbs down, with the US, Canada and United Kingdom all slapping targeted sanctions on coup makers, and New Zealand severing all ties with the military leaders. The European Union is considering similar action while Norway has cut all state-to-state development projects.
Junta-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, who held the same post under Thein Sein, will thus have his diplomatic work cut out for him.
He is known for his pro-China and anti-Western views, making him a good fit to reject new Western sanctions and boycotts, and draw the new military government closer to China, which is already widely expected to be its most reliable partner in trade, politics and diplomacy.
The new minister of information, Chit Naing, is a soldier-turned-writer whose authorship is better known for the quantity of books he has produced than their quality.
Vendors who used to sell his writings on pavements in the old capital Yangon have stopped doing so, while pictures on social media show the books being torn apart both by booksellers and angry customers.
Thet Thet Khine, the new minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement, is a wealthy businesswoman who once was an NLD member but broke with the party in 2018 to set up her own.
That, however, doesn’t mean she is popular. She contested the 2020 election in a Yangon constituency and won only 7,000 votes – or 7% of the number gained by the winner, NLD member May Win Myint.
Civil society organizations are now calling for a boycott against Thet Thet Khine’s jewelry stores in Yangon and elsewhere.
The minister of international cooperation, Ko Ko Hlaing, is a former military officer who served as a political advisor to Thein Sein after he assumed the presidency in 2011.
In 2004, when Myanmar was still under strict military rule, Ko Ko Hlaing served with the Ministry of Information’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, the chief pre-publication censorship agency at the time.
Among the brighter spots in the new cabinet are Finance Minister Win Shein and Minister of Investment and Foreign Cooperation Aung Naing Oo.
A former naval officer, Win Shein won high marks during his tenure as chairman of the government’s investment commission under Thein Sein. Aung Naing Oo also has a military background and worked to lure foreign investment even under the NLD government.
Their appointments are a bald attempt by the junta to instill foreign investor confidence in the regime’s economic stewardship. But given the new sanctions imposed against the coup makers, luring in new Western investment will be an uphill task.
Foreign investors already in the country are headed for the exit. Thailand has not imposed any sanctions on neighboring Myanmar, but Amata, its largest industrial estate developer, announced the day after the coup that it has suspended work on a US$1 billion project in Myanmar because the coup will drive investors out of the country.
Demonstrations have already been held against companies from Singapore, Myanmar’s main foreign investor and one of its top trade partners.
Those country-specific protests prompted Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan to issue a February 18 statement saying that the use of live rounds against unarmed civilians was unacceptable “under any circumstances.”
The sheer size of the new coup government – with 20 ministers and eight deputies backed by the 18-member SAC junta which also has an advisory board of seven people – shows clearly it was planned long in advance.
It was not, as some pundits have suggested, a knee-jerk reaction to Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to accept the terms the military outlined in a letter days before military commander Senior General Min Aung Hlaing made his fateful move.
Myanmar insiders believe the military initially tried to reach out to her National League for Democracy (NLD) soon after last year’s November polls, which the party won in a landslide against the military-aligned USDP.
That outreach, the insiders say, did not seek to establish an equal partnership but rather sought to tame if not control the NLD. Those discreet military overtures, the insiders say, were apparently spurned.
Sources with access to inside information say plans for a military takeover began as early as January, when military officials started to seek and vet potential suitable candidates for top government posts.
In line with that plan, military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun held a press conference in Naypyitaw on January 26 where he claimed that the November election was marred by irregularities and fraud.
No evidence was supplied to back the claim and his assertions ran contrary to findings of international election observers, including the Carter Center, the Asian Network for Free Elections and the European Union’s Election Observation Mission, all of which had declared the election a democratic success.
The EU’s preliminary statement noted that 95% of observers had rated the process “good” or “very good.” Three days later, an overtly military-manufactured demonstration was held in Yangon against the supposedly “fraudulent” election.
At the time, most observers dismissed it as a “rent-a-crowd” event and few took the warning signals seriously. In fact, Zaw Min Tun had refused to rule out a coup when asked about the military’s intentions at the press briefing.
The new junta is a straight blast from the country’s authoritarian and mismanaged past, with many members known for their ties to former military-dominated regimes.
They include Yin Yin New, who served as chief education officer to Thein Sein’s government and was once married to Phyo Wai Win, a son of long-time (1962-88) dictator Ne Win.
Another SAC member, Yin Yin Oo, saw government service under Thein Sein while her father Maung Maung, a loyal Ne Win supporter, was president for a month during the country’s 1988 turmoil.
More controversially, SAC advisory board member Andrew Ngun Cung Lian is a US citizen and as such is believed to be in violation of executive orders under Washington’s sanctions, the local The Irrawaddy reported.
He and at least two others who have become US citizens but are advising the SAC in unofficial capacities are now reportedly being investigated by legal international experts.
The coup’s final outcome, however, will hinge more on how China, the only foreign power that wields any influence over the generals, reacts and less on the West’s punitive responses.
On the one hand, China has refused to refer to Suu Kyi’s overthrow as a “coup”, opting instead to call it a “cabinet reshuffle.”
In an unusually strongly-worded article in China’s Communist Party mouthpiece The Global Times on February 19, Chinese policy gurus lashed out at the US and Canada for imposing sanctions, branding them as an intervention in Myanmar’s domestic affairs.
They suggested hostile foreign forces are behind the nationwide uprising, including “local NGOs” that receive funding from the West, among them “the notorious US government-backed National Endowment for Democracy.”
The supposed grand conspiracy also allegedly comprises what they called “Hong Kong secessionists” and unidentified people from Taiwan.
That rhetoric aside, there is no doubt that Beijing must be worried about the situation in Myanmar, including near daily demonstrations outside of the Chinese embassy in Yangon that have criticized China’s longstanding support for the military.
It is not in China’s interest to see such a high degree of instability in a strategically important neighbor. Yet it remains to be seen whether that concern will lead to some kind of behind-the-scenes intervention, including a possible call for compromise.
What is clear is that coup maker Min Aung Hlaing’s miscalculations have sparked a highly unpredictable situation where almost anything may happen. As one Yangon-based Myanmar analyst puts it: “They are at a loss how to handle the situation.”
But whatever the ultimate outcome of Myanmar’s evolving coup-fueled crisis, the country and its people will never be the same after its biggest-ever popular uprising against military rule.