CHIANG MAI – By nearly all accounts, Myanmar’s military ruler Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has comported himself in unstatesmanlike ways since launching a democracy-suspending coup on February 1, 2021.
But nearly one year since his putsch tilted the country towards unprecedented revolt, where nationwide protests have frequently pilloried and lampooned the senior general’s likeness in colorful demonstrations of anti-coup resistance, there are certain signs the 65-year-old coup maker is losing his grip.
In the immediate days after the coup and massive anti-coup response, Min Aung Hlaing appeared insecure of himself in a state TV appearance, where he read a prepared manuscript with a flickering gaze in what many saw as a feeble attempt to justify his unpopular military power grab.
He has since often appeared oblivious to the chaos and violence that have engulfed the country. The Irrawaddy news site reported on May 4 that Min Aung Hlaing said at a meeting with health officials amid a raging Covid-19 outbreak that “walking is the best and cheapest form of exercise.”
On an inspection tour of northern Shan state a month earlier, the soldier expressed amazement at the efforts of a chief engineer from the Ministry of Construction to ensure that rainwater drained off roads properly.
In a speech published in the military mouthpiece the Global New Light of Myanmar on November 2 — as a virtual civil war was raging across the country — Min Aung Hlaing requested “the public to encourage traveling by bus and train. Similarly in connection with edible oil, oil crops are grown in Myanmar including sesame, niger, sunflower, soya bean and oil palm.” (sic)
Such incoherent ramblings, sometimes colored by his known devotion to astrology, have raised questions among many observers about the coup leader’s mental health.
Min Aung Hlaing and his wife Kyu Kyu Hla are known to be close to Ashin Kovida, also known as Vasipake Sayadaw, a monk, astrologer and occult practitioner in Kengtung who is known as “the silent monk” because he has taken a vow of silence.
Even so, he is believed to be Min Aung Hlaing’s foremost spiritual adviser. The two became close when the general served as chief of the military’s Kengtung-based Triangle Command in the early 2000s.
U Kovida became the target of public anger when after the coup he advised Min Aung Hlaing to tell his soldiers to shoot protesters in the head.
At a ceremony in the old temple town of Pagan in February 2020, Min Aung Hlaing and his wife — with U Kovida present — placed a “hti” umbrella on the top of the ancient Htilominlo Temple, an act that is meant to get divine blessings for the believers.
On the other hand, Linn Nhyo Taryar, or Hein Min Aung, a well-known astrologer and fortune-teller, prayed for Min Aung Hlaing’s downfall following the coup. For that, he was charged with anti-state rebellion and in December was sentenced to two years in prison.
Andrew Selth, an Australian analyst and Myanmar expert, wrote in a paper published last year entitled “Myanmar’s military mindset: An exploratory survey” that Myanmar’s generals may be superstitious and have consulted astrologers but “it would be a mistake to assume that Myanmar’s military leadership is incapable of making sensible and rational decisions.”
That may be true, and it certainly would be wrong to explain Min Aung Hlaing’s peculiar behaviors solely on the basis of his superstitious beliefs and practices, but nor should the role of astrologers be discounted or underestimated.
Indeed, Min Aung Hlaing follows in a long line of superstitious military dictators renowned for their erratic behavior.
General Ne Win, the country’s dictator from 1962 to 1988, was widely known to believe in what soothsayers predicted. In September 1987, influenced by his belief in mystic numerology, he ordered the introduction of 45 and 90 kyat banknotes while demonetizing pre-existing notes because the digits four and five added up to his lucky number nine.
Ne Win was also a firm believer in yadaya, a traditional Myanmar exercise of attempting to control one’s fate not only through the use of charms and combinations of lucky numbers but also by “cheating” unfavorable prognostications by performing an act slightly related to the predicted one.
For example, when Myanmar was threatened by a rightist insurgency in the mid-1970s, Ne Win suddenly shifted all driving from the left-hand side of the road to the right in a mystic bid to neutralize the political threat.
Ne Win’s successor, Sein Lwin — who ruled for only 17 days in 1988 — was told by his astrologer that he would be shot. To neutralize that threat, Sein Lwin reportedly shot his own image in a mirror.
General Saw Maung, who became the country’s dictator after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, became increasingly erratic in his behavior when it became clear that the regime he headed was deeply unpopular.
The then-military organ and the predecessor to the Global New Light of Myanmar, the Working People’s Daily, published in the late 1980s and early 1990s almost daily reports of Saw Maung attending various ceremonies and visiting Buddhist monasteries across the country — similar to Min Aung Hlaing today.
The deterioration of Saw Maung’s mental health became obvious on December 21, 1991, when he was set to be the first to tee-off at a tournament held at a military golf course in Yangon. In front of the country’s military top brass and government officials, he began screaming: “I am King Kyansittha! I am King Kyansittha!” while patting his holstered pistol. The leader then warned onlookers to be “careful” or “I will personally kill you!”
Saw Maung’s reference to a powerful warrior-king of the ancient Pagan empire was especially eccentric. Kyansittha’s name is often interpreted as “the remaining soldier” or “the one who was left behind” and he is the main character in a Moses-like story of a man who survived multiple assassination attempts and later became king. Saw Maung may have seen himself as the only member of the then-junta who also served in the pre-1988 regime.
A month later, Saw Maung’s erratic behavior was repeated on Myanmar television while addressing a meeting of local military officers. His rambling speech also contained references to Kyansittha — and, in the middle of the speech, he exclaimed: “Today the country is being ruled by martial law. Martial law means no law at all!”
Saw Maung was forced to leave his post as junta chairman in April 1992, and was replaced by General Than Shwe, another military leader and firm believer in astrology. His lucky number was eleven and during his hard-line rule a number of dissidents were sentenced to prison in November (the 11th month) 2009 (2+0+0+9=11).
To emphasize the importance of the magic number, the sentences were symbolically pronounced at 11am.
In Myanmar’s Buddhist tradition, there are “eleven fires”— greed, hatred, delusion, birth, aging, death, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow and despair — all of which have a special spiritual meaning.
To be sure, Min Aung Hlaing has not yet reached the level of erratic behavior seen by Ne Win, Saw Maung and even Than Shwe. Nor is anyone suggesting that the military commander at the apex of the military establishment will be replaced by an ambitious deputy any time soon.
But what is clear is that as pressure mounts at home and abroad over his disastrous coup and subsequent abysmal and erratic performance as state leader, the more whimsical, unpredictable and incoherent the coup maker general has become.