It could not have been a worse day for the ambition and standing of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s increasingly maligned armed forces.
On August 27, United Nations-appointed investigators announced that the country’s top military commanders, including Min Aung Hlaing, should be investigated for what they claimed are crimes against humanity under international law, including possibly “genocide.”
The mission called for Min Aung Hlaing to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague for a crackdown that has driven over 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas across the border into Bangladesh and alleged security force crimes committed in other rebellious ethnic areas.
Adding insult to injury, US social media giant Facebook announced that same day that it had removed 18 military-related Facebook accounts – including Min Aung Hlaing’s – an Instagram account and 52 Facebook pages followed by almost 12 million people for posting incendiary and false materials.
An ICC Pre-Trial Chamber ruled on September 6 that the court “may exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh.” Many observers, however, are skeptical that the case will ever go before the ICC and that it will take years to decide whether it has sufficient evidence to take it up.
The Facebook ban may actually have hurt Min Aung Hlaing more, as it has served as his main platform for reaching out to the population and promoting the military as a national guardian. Before Myanmar began opening to the outside world in 2011, only a handful had access to social media.
Now, at least 18 million of Myanmar’s 53 million people are regular Facebook users, with many equating the social media platform with the wider internet. Min Aung Hlaing wasted no time setting up a new account on VKontakte, a Russian social networking site, but that will hardly repair the damage the Facebook ban has had on his local prestige.
The one-two punch of the UN report and Facebook ban may also have hurt his chances of pursuing a political career after his retirement from the military. Some international observers have suggested he may have even had his eye on the presidency after the 2020 election.
Other sources inside Myanmar say that he has no such immediate plans and will, as an incumbent or retired commander-in-chief, remain content with pulling political strings from behind the scenes.
Either way, the double jolt has prompted political observers in the old capital Yangon to begin speculating about what may happen when Myanmar goes to the polls in November 2020. It is not only Min Aung Hlaing who has taken a hit to their standing amid the rising international opprobrium.
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), led by State Counselor and previous pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, has so far failed to live up to popular expectations after winning power from a military-backed government in a landslide in 2015.
A sense of disappointment is palpable across various constituencies. The business community is disappointed with the government’s lackluster performance in managing the economy, according to a Yangon-based Myanmar entrepreneur.
Pro-democracy civil society groups and media were appalled by the sentencing of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two local Reuters journalists, to seven years in prison on what many consider trumped-up charges. Suu Kyi’s government may argue that it has no power over the courts, but it could have granted them a presidential pardon.
The NLD is also losing support in ethnic regions that voted it into power. Ye Myo Hein of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies, a local think-tank, says that ethnic parties and non-Bamar nationalities “are frustrated with the NLD and its popularity has diminished tremendously” since the 2015 election.
People there voted for change and against the old order represented by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) but Ye Myo Hein says the NLD has failed to live up to their expectations.
Civil war is still raging in many ethnic minority parts of northern Myanmar and a government-initiated peace process is apparently headed nowhere, with the federalism ethnic parties and armed groups desire still a distant dream.
Even if the NLD won all the seats in Myanmar’s heartland, where it still enjoys a high degree of popularity, without the electoral support of ethnic areas it would not be able to form an absolute majority government after the next polls.
That’s in large part due to the fact that 25% of parliament’s seats are constitutionally reserved for military members and slightly more than 30% of all voting constituencies are situated in ethnic areas.
The military may be crippled to some extent by being blocked from Facebook’s previous open propaganda channels, but local observers in Yangon believe that it will still try to influence the 2020 election in other ways.
The NLD may not be able to repeat its landslide of 2015, when it captured 390 out of 491 contested seats (elections were not held in seven constituencies because of the civil war), but Ye Myo Hein and others believe that the USDP has only a slim chance of winning the next election.
Its only hope would be to make an alliance with the ethnic parties, but as he says, “the problem is that most of the ethnic parties are reluctant to ally themselves with the military because of its record of human rights abuses” in their areas.
A USDP bargaining chip could be that representatives of the ethnic parties are promised chief minister posts in their respective states. The chief ministers of the seven states and seven regions are not elected, but appointed by the government. But that is highly speculative and observers caution that anything can happen between now and 2020.
What is clear is that the UN report and Facebook ban have widened the already strained relationship between the military and mostly civilian government. The armed forces reportedly see a conspiracy where the NLD wants to dent Min Aung Hlaing’s prestige and therefore may have had a hand in cooperating with Facebook on which accounts and pages to ban.
That is likely why government spokesman Zaw Htay said that neither the government nor its social media played any part in Facebook’s decision to ban the military. Still, that may not have been enough to mollify the military’s suspicion of a plot, where the NLD was involved in one way or another, and may have made it more determined than ever to cling on to the power it has.
Under the 2008 constitution, the military has not only the right to appoint a quarter of all parliamentarians, but it also has effective veto power over any amendments to the constitution, which requires more than 75% of all lawmakers to vote in favor. The military also appoint the key ministers of defense, home affairs and border affairs.
The UN genocide allegation and Facebook’s ban may also have prompted the military to consider who their preferred candidate for the presidency and vice presidency would be. Neither position is elected by a popular vote, but rather by an electoral college comprised of a mix of elected representatives and a group formed by the military.
The president would most likely come from the winning party and one of the two vice presidents is expected to be someone nominated by the military. Currently, Myint Swe, a former general, serves as first vice president while a civilian, Henry Van Thio is second vice president.
The question now is whether Min Aung Hlaing would really want the job as president if a military-backed coalition takes over after the next election. Even without a formal conviction at the ICC, the military commander’s name has been tarnished, while the UN report has effectively turned him into an international pariah.
Myanmar is not a signatory to the 1998 Rome Statute, under which the ICC was established, and is under no obligation to hand Min Aung Hlaing or other commanders over to the court.
Even if convicted in absentia, the decision would at most restrict, not stop, Min Aung Hlaing’s international travels. Before the UN report and Facebook ban he was an avid jet-setter, taking 46 trips to 23 countries since taking over as commander-in-chief in March 2011.
Most of Myanmar’s closest strategic and trade partners are not Rome Statute signatories, including China, Russia, Belarus, India, Israel, Thailand and Singapore. But he would face the threat of arrest in signatory countries, which could inhibit him from traveling to many international fora staged in the West if he ever became national leader.
The only thing that is certain in Myanmar’s volatile political landscape is that the military has been rattled by recent international events and that top brass have likely started to plot and plan how best to retain their grip at and after the 2020 election.