As a policy pronouncement marking six months since the February 1 coup d’etat, Myanmar’s military chief and head of the State Administration Council (SAC) Senior General Min Aung Hlaing exhibited the same strained relationship with the real world since he seized power.
In perhaps the longest and most detailed exposition of the SAC’s “performance of the responsibilities of the State” – calling it a coup has been outlawed – Min Aung Hlaing in rare mufti touched on electoral fraud, tackling Covid-19, the importance of agricultural development, the perfidy of the now-outlawed National League for Democracy (NLD) and their descent into terrorism, the peace process and occasional foreign affairs.
The newly self-appointed prime minister in a SAC caretaker government (there is no constitutional provision for a PM position), Min Aung Hlaing also committed to holding new elections sometime after 2023, signaling he would extend the state of emergency under Section 421 of the 2008 constitution.
Like any of the pledges Min Aung Hlaing has made in the decade he has been commander-in-chief, no one should believe a single syllable of what he claimed and said.
The six-month speech is a clear signal of continued ad-hocracy in Myanmar, as the country is ravaged by the pandemic, growing armed resistance against the SAC, economic collapse, humanitarian emergencies involving millions and now flooding. Min Aung Hlaing’s version of Myanmar simply doesn’t fit the reality.
Quite rightly, the devastating “third wave” of Covid-19 dominated the address. But having done so much to destroy the fabric of society, his claims of directing a resolute response to the pandemic with oxygen supplies, hospital treatment, masks purchased and distributed, and vaccines again belied ground realities.
Claims to be able to vaccinate 50% of the population with Chinese and Russian vaccines by the end of the year are hardly credible. And there are numerous reports of vaccinated public servants testing positive for the virus.
Not mentioned is how to extend vaccines and Covid treatment and mitigation to insurgent-controlled areas throughout Myanmar, where health facilities have been attacked and the Myanmar army continues to target civilians and humanitarian assistance.
The blame for the rapid spread of the virus in the past several weeks was not attributed to the violent chaos the SAC has unleashed against protesters and the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), the attacks on health professionals and the arrest warrants issued against doctors and nurses. Rather it is the fault of the NLD and the protesters themselves, and to rumors spread on social media.
Min Aung Hlaing claimed his enemies are “using Covid-19 as a tool of bioterrorism. Applying such ways for their political gain might be very guilty on the religious ground…Protests staged across the nation after February 1 were transformed into anarchic protests and then armed attacks. Innocent people were killed by surprise. Why did they kill the people? Why did they attack the people living in peace? We cannot accept it.
“Violent protests were responded under the law in accord with the international community. Action must be taken against those who used attacks of fetal (sic) weapons and mines.” And then the most ludicrous falsehood of the entire speech: “At present, the whole country is stable except for some terrorist attacks.”
As an address to assuage fears over the pandemic and to console so many bereaved people who have lost family members, Min Aung Hlaing fell flat. But then it was purposefully devoid of concern or sincerity.
Along the principle of telling a lie big enough and keep repeating it that it eventually becomes the truth, Min Aung Hlaing once again presented the spurious claim to over 11 million rigged votes in the November 2020 elections.
When the SAC-controlled Union Election Commission annulled the results of the polls in late July, it came as no surprise as the Tatmadaw had spent several months compiling its fabricated case for NLD electoral fraud.
The Five-Point Roadmap of the SAC was raised to illustrate the promise of the final point: “…to hold the free and fair multiparty democratic elections in line with the 2008 Constitution and hand over State duties to the winning party as per democratic standards.”
This is unlikely to fool anyone inside Myanmar, especially those who voted, and the political parties such as the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) who are furious their significant support from the election has been torn asunder.
Promises of elections are more likely motivated to mollify Myanmar’s exasperated interlocutors in the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN), which recently appointed former deputy foreign minister Virasakdi Futrakul as its special envoy to Myanmar.
The appointment, delayed due to internal ASEAN disagreements, will unlikely make much impact on political developments inside Myanmar, either in reversing the coup, releasing political prisoners, prioritizing the pandemic response, and actually negotiating with the disparate political forces unleashed by the February putsch.
And yet from Washington, to Canberra, Brussels and beyond, the West’s craven abandonment of Myanmar to ASEAN’s diplomatic fumbling is as cynical as the support extended from China and Russia.
Min Aung Hlaing’s adoption of the prime minister position is likely designed to make him blend in better with regional diplomacy efforts, which further undermines ASEAN’s credibility.
The most ominous sections of the speech, cribbed perhaps from the Khmer Rouge’s “Year Zero” experiment, involved plans to expand the agricultural sector: “With regard to the livestock, encouragement will be given to poultry, pig, goat, cow and fish farming tasks…(t)he country needs intellectuals and intelligentsia for modernizing the agriculture and livestock breeding tasks.”
What should be very concerning for Myanmar’s people looking to travel abroad for work in Thailand, Malaysia and China, and for many millions of households who rely on migrant workers’ remittances, “Employment opportunities should be created within the country so as to lessen the number of migrant workers seeking jobs outside the country.”
There are echoes of previous despotic development initiatives, such as Than Shwe’s destructive biofuel scheme which demanded all people plant a certain quota of “jatropha” physic nut throughout the country.
Min Aung Hlaing has been notable for cherry-picking from past military regimes, and the announcement of the current caretaker government and talk of future elections have already raised comparisons to the post-coup promises following 1962 and 1988 military takeovers.
Compounding the dishonesty and dictatorial delusion was Min Aung Hlaing’s fake attempt at earthiness. Myanmar military rulers, and Suu Kyi as well, have often expressed insincere homilies, like a fusion of a Benito Mussolini speech, a 1950’s English phrasebook and self-help advice from Tony Robbins.
That’s seen in terms such as “collective strength”, first used by Suu Kyi in speeches, and appearing again in Min Aung Hlaing’s text, and the ever-present exhortation to “unity”, and “No Man Above the Law.”
Just as prayer is the last refuge of the scoundrel, Min Aung Hlaing also appealed to Buddhist values, intimating the NLD had upset the dhamma. “The Buddha devotees were disheartened in their faith in Buddhism during the previous five years.” And no dictator’s speech would be complete without some mention of physical fitness: “Uplifting the sports brings honor to the State. It uplifts not only the physical strength but the mental one, as well.”
The only logical conclusion from a textual analysis of the speech is that it is clearly the work of an unhinged mind. It would behoove the UN and Western diplomats to remember that whenever they vouchsafe future “points of engagement” with the SAC, the sanity of people extending any credibility to Min Aung Hlaing as a legitimate political actor must be equally in question.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, peace and human rights issues on Myanmar