The man who stunned the world by bringing Myanmar’s democratic experiment crashing down has made just two public appearances on state television to explain himself.
Looking nervous in front of the teleprompter, General Min Aung Hlaing made no mention of his coup, the detention of the country’s elected leaders, the mass demonstrations against military rule in all corners of Myanmar and from all walks of life, the storm of international condemnation and the threat of renewed sanctions.
Instead he repeated tired old military slogans about the need for discipline and unity, and his still unsubstantiated allegations of electoral irregularities in last November’s poll. Aside from his evident uneasiness in the unfamiliar role of trying to assuage a furious public, Min Aung Hlaing betrayed no awareness of the dangerous crisis into which he has dragged his country by seizing power.
From the point of view of the rest of the world, and the millions of Burmese who turned out in unexpectedly large numbers to vote resoundingly for a second term of office for Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy last November, the coup is a brazen power-grab by a military which has failed spectacularly at the ballot box, and by a commander whose career after mandatory retirement in July this year looked a lot less promising after that result.
But the generals themselves do not see it that way. They spent years shaping the current constitution to preserve the dominant role of the armed forces after a transition to what they still call a “discipline-flourishing democracy”. They always reserved for themselves the right to step in if the project was heading in a direction they did not like.
“Every time I met Min Aung Hlaing, he kept insisting the military’s job is to protect democracy,” one senior diplomat, who lived in Myanmar for several years, told the BBC. They spoke on condition of remaining anonymous.
“From their point of view, the armed forces had to step in because there were irregularities in the country’s democracy. That is their justification. They believe they have acted according to the constitution. I think they believe the rest of the world will understand that. They do not think what they have done was a coup.”
The 2008 constitution, drafted during the last period of military rule by an assembly of hand-picked delegates, created a hybrid democracy, in which the Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are known, retained a guaranteed one quarter of the seats in the lower and upper houses of parliament, had continued control of the three most powerful ministries, no matter what government was in power, and controlled much of the provincial administration.
The charter also barred anyone with a non-Burmese spouse or children from the presidency, excluding Aung San Suu Kyi from the top job.
I remember asking the Minister of Information at the start of the drafting process in late 2006 what examples Myanmar intended to follow in its path to democracy, and he told me, quite sincerely, that they saw Suharto’s authoritarian regime in Indonesia as the most appropriate model.
So when the generals began their democratic opening at the end of 2010 with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, they expected to retain the whip hand. They expected their proxy party, the USDP, to do well enough in the 2015 election to be able, in combination with the unelected military MPs, to prevent the NLD from forming a single party government, and were shocked by the scale of their defeat.
Last year they fully expected a better result, after five years of sometimes disappointing NLD administration, only to see their share of the seats whittled down even further, to less than seven percent. It is quite possible Min Aung Hlaing genuinely believes his allegations of substantial fraud as the only possible explanation for his party’s dismal performance.
Now that the armed forces have seized power, in the name of protecting their version of democracy, what will their next step be?
Dealing with what is turning into a national resistance movement against the coup is their immediate challenge. On everyone’s minds in Myanmar is whether they can do this without killing large numbers of protesters, as they have in the past.
But the junta needs a path back to political legitimacy. It has given itself a one-year state of emergency to fix the problem of the NLD’s persistent popularity at the ballot box, although that could be extended.