Anders Kirstein Moeller proposes that the coup d’état on February 1, 2021 can be better understood as a factionalist power grab, with implications for how analysts look at the ongoing crisis in Myanmar.
The Myanmar military or Tatmadaw coup on Monday morning, February1st, 2021, shocked me. I had spent much of the previous four years living in Myanmar, and although my privileged urban life in Yangon (and later Naypyidaw) was blissfully distant from the brutality of the Tatmadaw’s ongoing wars in ethnic border regions, my work as a policy researcher had brought me close to many of the challenges of economic and political reform in a country that had barely started shaking off the legacy of military rule. The unprecedented brinkmanship of the Tatmadaw in the month leading up to the coup were an uncharacteristic warning sign, and “fraught talks” between representatives of Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing only broke down in the twilight days of January. With the exception of a handful of people, no one seriously expected a coup to be executed.
Those who claimed to have predicted the coup undoubtedly had the benefit of hindsight. Personally, I was in a state of denial; surely, I thought that morning, the Tatmadaw wouldn’t be stupid enough to launch a full coup? Surely, this was a slap on the wrist and the generals were going to return their troops to barracks soon? Surely, the army would – at the very least – maintain a nominally civilian government? On February 2nd as the “acting president” Myint Swe formally handed the reins of power to the State Administrative Council (SAC) under Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, it sunk in: Myanmar’s fledgling democracy had been overturned.
Since the coup, most international media coverage on Myanmar has been characteristically shallow. Mainstream commentaries tend to forego deeper engagement with Myanmar’s complex and heterogenous history, often reinforcing uncomplicated narratives about the monolithic nature of the Tatmadaw in particular. Epistemically, this also reproduces colonial legacies, as pointed out in an earlier Tea Circle post. Deeper engagement with Myanmar’s political landscape is needed to enable more constructive engagement, not only with Myanmar’s democracy movement but also with the Tatmadaw. Popular causal explanations for the February coup are a case in point, which I explore further below.
The February coup wasn’t only horrifying: it was bold, and defies rational explanations. I spent many sleepless nights debating its cause with friends both inside and outside Myanmar, trying to make sense of it. Many of the media and other commentaries we turned to in our search for answers had the same problem we did; they tried to pinpoint a singular cause, which inevitably fell short.
These commentaries tended to either focus on either one or both of two lines of argument. The first line saw the coup as an outcome of institutional jostling between the Tatmadaw and the civilian government, and an attempt by the Tatmadaw to serve its own long-term interests, perhaps by instituting a Thai-style “disciplined democracy.” Even if the degree of popular resistance caught the coup leaders by surprise, the international community’s response did not: access to billions of dollars in foreign reserves and development aid was placed out of the junta’s reach, and the economic disruptions harmed the Tatmadaw’s economic interests.
The second line portrayed the coup as the outcome of the competing egos of Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) and Min Aung Hlaing (MAH). This was perhaps most strongly argued in a critical piece by the New York Times. Although it was a public secret that MAH harboured presidential ambitions (and recent work by Ingrid Jordt has argued that he competed with ASSK for “karmic legitimacy”), it would be wrong to equate a vast organization like the Tatmadaw with its leader. MAH could not have executed the putsch without the support of numerous and varied key actors within the Tatmadaw. It is unlikely, however, that its entire senior leadership would not have recognized the inevitable fallout—or even that all of them were on board.
Indeed, the pre-coup status quo was immensely beneficial to the Tatmadaw as an institution. As readers of this blog are well aware, the Tatmadaw enjoyed a privileged position under the self-written 2008 Constitution. Recent overtures to the west, combined with rapid economic growth, gave them a “snug” position in the liberalization period preceding the coup. In addition to full autonomy, a veto-proof number of reserved seats in parliament, and control of three key ministries, the Tatmadaw exercised broad influence in national and local governance structures. Moreover, it has also been widely assumed that back-door deals with the NLD included a “golden parachute” protecting senior generals from prosecution for past crimes. The Tatmadaw also held vast economic assets, whether formally (chiefly, the military-owned conglomerates Myanmar Economic Corporation [MEC] and Myanma Economic Holdings Limited [MEHL]) or informally through crony companies and the personal businesses of military families. In spite of increasing pressure to reform the 2008 Constitution, the Tatmadaw faced no real threat to their privileged position in Burmese politics or markets. Barring any significant and unanticipated disruption, it was likely to maintain its political dominance for decades to come while watching Tatmadaw-linked assets grow in tandem with nationwide economic growth. It seems frivolous to gamble all of this on a blatant power grab, particularly as the Tatmadaw could hide behind the civilian government when it came to criticism over the country’s poor socioeconomic trajectory.
The coup d’état, therefore, seems altogether illogical when we take the unity of the Tatmadaw at face value and calculate their incentives from the perspective of the institution as a whole. However, the enigma is solved when we recognize that the Tatmadaw, like any other political institution, is far from a monolith. It is in fact highly fragmented and consists of competing ideological factions, as explained in the next section below. Unfortunately, most analyses that appeared in the weeks after the coup stuck to the two singular narratives outlined earlier; publications in The Interpreter and East Asia Forum and broadly focused primarily on the ambitions of MAH or its clash with ASSK. Meanwhile, The Washington Post and The Diplomat focused on the institutional power struggle between the civilian government (synonymous with the NLD) and the Tatmadaw, although the latter discussed it in the context of the Tatmadaw’s need to maintain cohesion. A piece in New Mandala concluded that “the coup was more likely the result of a combination of the above [two] factors.”
Such commentaries ignore local historical context and contingencies by treating the Tatmadaw as monolithic. Borrowing from David Brenner’s critique of Western research in his 2019 book on EAO politics, this kind of theoretical reductionism is of “little analytical value” but profoundly shape Western discourse on Myanmar and the Tatmadaw. Instead, I propose that the Tatmadaw is therefore better understood as a complex social network where no one individual actor or action can determine the outcomes we observe, including the coup. This opens up the possibility of more fruitful analyses, including the possibility that the February coup was an internal power grab by a hardline faction at the expense of reformers.
In spite of their united front, the Tatmadaw has never been internally uniform. As demonstrated by both Bo Bo Maung and Mary Callahan, factional and ideological divisions in the Tatmadaw have existed since before its inception as the “Burma Defence Army” in 1942. Indeed, the rich history of Tatmadaw divisions is often described in local analyses of how mass defections might be triggered. These factions differ over short- and long-term strategic decisions, including diplomatic priorities and the role of democracy in Myanmar’s political future. History shows several examples of drastic leadership shuffles, such as the Tatmadaw’s internal purge of eleven commanders in 1961, Than Shwe’s 1992 takeover of the ruling junta (which directly followed Saw Maung’s auto-coup in 1988), and the 2004 purge of the Tatmadaw Military Intelligence faction led by Khin Nyunt. Indeed, Myanmar’s sporadic movements towards democratisation over the last three decades can be ascribed in no small part to the rivalry between hardline and reformist factions within the military.
It is difficult to peer under the iron hood of the Tatmadaw and identify with confidence who the reformist generals are. But subtle political manifestations of their factional competition is revealing. USDP chairman Shwe Mann and his secretary-general Maung Maung Thein, for example, were famously ousted in 2015 for being too close to Aung San Suu Kyi and supporting democratic reforms. This mini-purge paved the way for the quasi-civilian President Thein Sein to stand for re-election in 2015. Thein Sein’s leanings are harder to place; although widely applauded for the economic and political reforms he introduced while in office, he was generally considered close to the old hardliners under ex-dictator Than Shwe (who ruled from 1992 to 2011) and can perhaps more appropriately be viewed as a moderate. After Thein Sein handed power to the NLD and retired, however, another faction under MAH became more influential.
MAH was initially a somewhat unknown quantity to the public when he was appointed Commander-in-Chief in 2011. He rose to prominence within the army in 2009 for spearheading the military offense against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a Kokang Ethnic Armed Organization (EAO) in Northern Shan state, and in 2010 replaced Shwe Mann as the Tatmadaw Joint Chief of Staff. MAH generally kept a low profile during Thein Sein’s USDP government but became more assertive from 2015 onwards when he led the army’s ousting of Shwe Mann on behalf of a Tatmadaw hardliner faction. In addition to the army’s brutal crackdown in Rakhine in 2017, the Tatmadaw under MAH continued violent counterinsurgency campaigns against EAOs in Karen, Kachin and Shan States. His initially friendly relationship with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi also quickly soured as he became increasingly uncooperative and subtly meddled in civilian politics. These facts all indicate that MAH is a committed hardliner, and it is commonly assumed that he is a Than Shwe loyalist. However, it is more likely that MAH belongs to a separate faction of hardliners: multiple sources close to the Tatmadaw claim that MAH is actually a protégé of Maung Aye, the former second-in-command under Than Shwe. Maung Aye reportedly spent a considerable amount of time building his own faction, and it was him that replaced the anointed successor of Than Shwe – Thura Myint Aung –– with MAH as Commander-in-Chief. The implication would be that Senior General Than Shwe’s own hardliner faction lost most of its influence in the Tatmadaw upon his retirement, and that another wing within the Tatmadaw has been maneuvering to assert their power.
These internal machinations evidently continued under MAH. He frequently reshuffled and retired senior military leaders, most notably in May 2020 when younger loyalists such as Kyaw Swar Lin (promoted to Lieutenant-General), Saw Than Hlaing and Ko Ko Oo were appointed to key positions, followed by further reshuffling in June 2020 which also saw Thet Pone promoted to Lieutenant-General. Further steps were taken in the days leading up to the February 1 coup as the Tatmadaw leadership replaced the Minister of Home Affairs Kyaw Swe (who was widely seen as being close to Aung San Suu Kyi) in late January 2021. After the coup, MAH and his faction were able to consolidate their grip on power within the Tatmadaw with remarkable speed, removing senior figures like Sein Win (Minister of Defence) – who had hitherto been widely tipped to become the next Vice President – and Aung Win Oo (Chief of Myanmar Police Force). The so-called SAC (State Administrative Council) junta was clearly filled with MAH loyalists: it is almost entirely composed of gradates of the elite Defence Services Academy (DSA), and all of them are juniors of MAH, who graduated from DSA in 1977. While the allegiances of these officers cannot be accurately known even to insiders, sources claim that the entire current top brass of the Tatmadaw – essentially anyone with a division command and upwards – can now be characterised as some form of regime supporter, regardless of whether they are part of the inner circle or some other supportive or moderate faction.
With this in mind, the coup itself is better explained in terms of factional power struggles. MAH’s personal ambitions no doubt played a significant role, but this needs to be considered in the wider context not only of military-civilian competition for power but also the Tatmadaw’s own opaque internal dynamics. The February coup mostly benefited one faction which seized power at the expense of others within their own institution. In some sense, then, the civilian government may have only been collateral damage. Regardless, as an institution, the Tatmadaw has been placed in a precarious position by the coup (as discussed below) and its long-term interests would have been better served by further entrenching their influence over a legitimate democratic government.
This does not mean that all high-ranking generals support MAH and the SAC, but the present configuration of the Tatmadaw apparatus makes sudden change unlikely under the current status quo. Nevertheless, cleavages in the senior leadership may emerge as balances of power inevitably shift. Anecdotal evidence indicates that many commissioned officers within the military are deeply unhappy with the February coup because they see it as having backed the Tatmadaw into an uncomfortable corner. Indeed, it is possible that the coup may have been precipitated to stem the tide of change in favour of reformers, as the 2020 election results indicate that many rank-and-file soldiers voted for the NLD in November.
In spite of the Tatmadaw’s continued crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, they nevertheless face considerable threats to their rule. The National Unity Government (NUG) is working on a political and military alliance with EAOs) to take on the Tatmadaw, and has been training a rank-and-file army of their own. Add to this scores of local “People’s Defence Forces” or PDFs, small bands of grassroot militias, many of which have adopted guerrilla warfare tactics including targeted assassinations of junta-appointed local officials, even at the hamlet level. EAOs have seen a steady stream of new recruits, and together with NUG-aligned forces have been inflicting increasing casualties on the Tatmadaw. While exact figures are unknown, a recent report indicates that around 2,000 members of the junta’s security forces have defected since the start of the conflict.
Having said that, the Tatmadaw has a standing army of at least 300,000 active-duty soldiers and can maintain simultaneous counterinsurgencies on multiple fronts for considerable periods of time. They also have sizeable foreign cash reserves, with a report by IEM claiming they can access at least US$4 billion. To avoid a long and bloody civil war, the democratic opposition will need a catalyst to turn the tide, such as defections by high-ranking officers. Would-be defectors need not necessarily belong to a reformist faction but simply self-serving individuals, as recently pointed out by Terence Lee and Gerard McCarthy, Or, if the international community finally begins to meaningfully clamp down on the regime’s access to finance and arms, more far-sighted hardliners may come to recognise that a regime change will better serve the Tatmadaw’s long-term interests. Indeed, recent history – be it from relative success stories such as Egypt and Sudan or the failed uprisings in Syria and Belarus – demonstrate that the democratic resistance in Myanmar will need to collaborate with opportunist elements within the army to achieve success.
Lee and McCarthy argue that both low- and mid-ranking officers are already hurting from corporate losses and business boycotts. The latest World Bank projections indicate an 18% contraction in GDP for the year 2021 which, coupled with an on-going banking crisis and dollar shortage, shows that Myanmar’s economy is in dire straits. Everyone in the country – including military-linked families – has seen the economic gains of the past two decades wiped out almost overnight. In turn, this undermines informal cash flows to the army. Although it is unlikely to cause a shift in the balance of power in the short term, multiple pressures may come to bear and change the strategic calculus of higher-ranked officers. There may be benefits in exploring potential cleavages amongst dissatisfied faction leaders, such as self-serving regional commanders or perhaps generals in the navy or air force which have been traditionally side-lined by the army.
While foreign audiences are not attuned to the diverse history of Myanmar, even political analysts often treat political organizations as monads with visible and rational incentives. As David Brenner points out, however, not only the Tatmadaw, but most key groups and institutions in Myanmar’s political landscape are fraught with internal cleavages. We need to pay better attention to these complexities, both the known facts and the “known unknowns.” This will enable constructive engagement with the conflict in Myanmar by the international community, including diplomats and multilateral aid agencies.
Although many historians have written about the Tatmadaw and its key players, there is a dearth of research on this institution’s contemporary internal power dynamics. Clearly, more work is needed by both local and international academics to better understand the military and the motivations of its varied factions.
In this article, I have suggested that the February coup can best be characterised as a power grab within the Tatmadaw, which, although clearly hierarchical in structure, is also a complex and fluid social network. Assuming the Tatmadaw is a monolith obscures the competing ideologies and interests of its factions. Research attuned to elite social networks can help illuminate these opaque allegiances and moreover show how ideas are transmitted through the network to become policy.
Lastly, this article has tried to contribute to the ongoing postcolonial critiques of Myanmar studies. Far too often, we analysts (including myself) take our assumed neutrality for granted, which creates blind spots. The events of February 1, 2021 are a wake-up call for Myanmar studies researchers to engage more deeply with their own positionality. Access issues have once again relegated much of “Burma Studies” to research-at-a-distance, through hastily transcribed phone interviews and low- paid research assistants. Foreign scholars have a role to play in analysis and awareness, but this must be alongside – and led by – the local scholars who will force us to avoid the pitfalls of easy generalisation.
We owe it to the democratic resistance in Myanmar to accentuate rather than appropriate their voices.
(Featured image by ilmari hyvönen from Flickr)
Anders Kirstein Moeller is a development economist and a 2017-2019 ODI Fellow in Myanmar. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Urban Geography at the National University of Singapore.