The inclusion of civilians on the country’s latest junta is impossible to understand without a clear appreciation that that this junta is above all an anti-NLD project. This article examines the profiles of the civilians co-opted into the junta.
As it seized power on 1 February 2021, Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, arrested National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, her hand-picked incumbent Union President Win Myint, and senior members of her party and of the government that it led. The following day saw the constitution of a junta, christened the State Administration Council (SAC), to rule the country under the chairmanship of coup leader and Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
At the time of its formation on 2 February, the SAC comprised 11 members – eight officers from the Tatmadaw’s top echelons and three civilians. The appointment of eight additional members, seven civilians and one military officer, followed. By the end of March, the SAC’s membership totaled 19; it remains at that strength at the time of writing. That the membership of Myanmar’s new junta has included civilians from the time of its formation and that civilians now comprise more than half of its members represent sharp breaks with the precedents set by the country’s earlier military regimes.
The present article offers preliminary data on the civilian membership of the SAC. Intended to stimulate further study of Myanmar’s new military regime, the article complements an earlier article on the SAC’s military members. It also offers tentative analysis of the logic underlying the noteworthy and precedent-breaking inclusion of such a numerous contingent of civilians on the junta that would now govern Myanmar. That analysis suggests that it is impossible to account for the inclusion of civilians on the SAC or for decisions taken on which civilians to include, without understanding Min Aung Hlaing’s and the Tatmadaw’s determination to buttress the anti-NLD project that is the SAC’s raison d’être.
Table 1. Civilian Members of the SAC.
Allegations of impropriety in the conduct of Myanmar’s November 2020 elections and the NLD government’s unwillingness to entertain those allegations served as the pretexts for the Tatmadaw’s seizure of power three months later, But that stand-off — and the possibility that the SAC regime might dissolve the NLD — came in a longer historical context.
Since the time of the party’s establishment during the nationwide pro-democracy protests of 1988, the NLD has presented a fundamental challenge to the Tatmadaw, calling into question the armed forces’ domination of the polity, vision of their supremacy among national actors, and privileges. It was against this backdrop that Min Aung Hlaing and his generals regarded the campaign for Myanmar’s most recent elections and confronted the results of those polls, with their implications for the use to which the NLD might put a renewed popular mandate. November’s polls saw the party equal or best the 2015 electoral performance that propelled the party and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi into power in Myanmar. Sources in Yangon suggest that, months before those polls took place, Min Aung Hlaing had already received advice on the political dimension of seizing state power at some moment in the future. That advice included incorporating into any post-coup regime a number of the civilians now on the SAC.
CIVILIANS OF NON-BAMAR ETHNIC NATIONALITY ON THE SAC
Of the ten current civilian members of the SAC, seven or eight are of non-Bamar ethnic nationality. The junta includes members of each of the eight major “national races” specified in Myanmar’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution. In this regard, its membership is an exercise in apparent inclusion.
The Tatmadaw’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), was not alone in its disappointment over defeat at the hands of the NLD last November. In the months preceding the elections of that month, observers raised the possibility that consolidated ethnic-nationality parties in several of Myanmar’s states would prove formidable challengers to the NLD. But the latter party defied those predictions in a number of ethnic-nationality states. In 2020, as in 2015, the NLD often swept up pluralities and even majorities of state- and Union-level legislative seats, defeating or unseating ethnic-nationality politicians. The results at the Union level made real the likelihood that the party would again appoint either its own members or figures with close affiliations to it as chief ministers in each ethnic-nationality state. In tandem, these factors combined to deny a critical mass of Myanmar’s ethnic-nationality politicians a seat at the table at which political decisions would be made over the next five years.
Understanding the ethnic-nationality civilian membership of the SAC benefits from a focus on the leading ethnic-nationality political parties in Rakhine, Shan, Mon, and Kayah States, and on their 2020 electoral performance relative to the NLD juggernaut.
Table 2. The Performance of the NLD, the USDP, and the Strongest Ethnic-Nationality Party in Elections for the Rakhine, Shan, Mon, and Kayah State Parliaments in the 2020 Elections.
In November 2020, the Arakan National Party (ANP) captured more seats than the NLD in the Rakhine State hluttaw or assembly, as it had done five years earlier. However, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), the Mon Unity Party (MUP), and the Kayah State Democratic Party (KySDP) enjoyed no such success in Shan, Mon and Kayah States. The civilian members of the SAC include leading figures from the ANP and from two of those other three parties: Aye Nu Sein, vice chairman of the ANP; Banyar Aung Moe, a member of the central executive committee of the MUP; and Saw Daniel, vice chair of the KySDP. The SNLD declined the Tatmadaw’s offer to include one of its members on the junta. The military then invited the Shan Sai Lone Hsaing — a member of its own electoral vehicle, the USDP — to join the SAC.
Table 3. The Performance of the NLD, the USDP, and the Strongest Ethnic-Nationality Party in Elections for the Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House of the Union Parliament) in Rakhine, Shan, Mon, and Kayah State Constituencies in the 2020 Elections.
Table 4. The Performance of the NLD, the USDP, and the Strongest Ethnic-Nationality Party in Elections for the Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House of the Union Parliament) in Rakhine, Shan, Mon, and Kayah State Constituencies in the 2020 Elections.
The results of elections for seats at the Union level in Rakhine, Shan, Mon and Kayah States followed a pattern similar to the state-level polls. Among major ethnic-nationality-party challengers to the NLD, only the ANP managed to best Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.
Established ethnic-nationality-party rivals to the NLD do not figure in the electoral politics of Kachin or Chin States. Nevertheless, the Tatmadaw reportedly invited members of the Kachin State People’s Party and the Kachin National Congress Party, as well as the Chin National Party and the Chin National League for Democracy, to join the junta — only to meet with refusal in all cases. Jeng Phang Naw Taung, a Kachin, and Moung Har, a Chin, do count among the civilian members of the junta, but neither has a party-political affiliation.
While no ethnic-nationality party has proven a strong rival to the NLD in Kayin State, the Tatmadaw nevertheless included Mahn Nyein Maung on its new junta. A well-known Kayin revolutionist and veteran Karen National Union (KNU) leader who joined the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) after the KNU signed the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) forged under President Thein Sein, Mahn Nyein Maung entered electoral politics in November 2020. Running on the ticket of the Kayin People’s Party (KPP), a party allied with the Tatmadaw’s USDP, he contested a seat in the Pyithu Hluttaw or Lower House of the Union Parliament representing Pantanaw in Ayeyarwady Region. Mahn Nyein Maung lost to the NLD candidate in that Kayin-majority constituency.
The most recent civilian appointee to the SAC, Shwe Kyein, is apparently a member not of a major national race but rather of a smaller group called the Ta’ang or Palaung. While very limited data on Shwe Kyein are available, he is believed to have chaired a USDP committee — perhaps at the township level — in the Palaung Self-Administered Zone of Shan State until 2020.
BAMAR CIVILIANS ON THE SAC
The membership of the SAC has included two prominent Bamar civilians from the time of its formation. Each leads a political party that originated from a break with the NLD prior to Myanmar’s SPDC-organized 2010 elections. Both the New National Democracy Party (NNDP), of which junta member Thein Nyunt serves as chairman, and the National Democratic Force (NDF), in which SAC member Khin Maung Swe holds the same post, participated in those elections, while the NLD boycotted them. These men’s and their parties’ break with Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were extremely acrimonious. While suffering diminished political stature since the NLD’s rise to power in 2015, Thein Nyunt and Khin Maung Swe helm parties enjoying sympathetic relations with the both the USDP and the Tatmadaw. The former is even reported to have argued for a coup before the November 2020 had taken place.
PARTY CONSIDERATIONS, PERSONAL CONSIDERATIONS
The two prominent Bamar civilians on the SAC lead parties whose explicit mission is to challenge NLD electoral supremacy. Neither of those parties has proved successful. But one cannot say the same of the parties in which three out of the ten ethnic-nationality members of the junta have played roles. These parties have proven strong, if not uniformly victorious, electoral rivals to the NLD in the states in which they are active. A further two civilian, ethnic-nationality members of the SAC have no political party affiliations, while one more has run for a seat representing a constituency outside Kayin State under the banner of a Kayin party whose leader is now an SAC-appointed minister. Two other ethnic-nationality SAC members — if one includes Shwe Kyein — have run under that of the Bamar-dominated USDP for seats in Shan State.
Table 5. The Participation of Civilian Members of the SAC in Myanmar’s 1990, 2010, 2015, and 2020 Elections.
Several civilian members of the SAC have suffered electoral defeat at the hands of NLD candidates. Having resigned from the KNU to contest the 2020 elections as a KPP candidate Mahn Nyein Maung lost to his NLD opponent in his home-town constituency of Pantanaw. The case of Saw Daniel, a man whose participation in the peace process left the Tatmadaw confident in his willingness to cooperate, is similar. Running first on the KNDP ticket and then on that of the KySDP, the Kayah politician lost two elections to NLD candidates — one for a seat in the Amyotha Hluttaw or Upper House of the Union parliament and one for a Kayah State hluttaw seat. Thein Nyunt tasted victory on the NLD’s ticket in 1990 before breaking with the party two decades later when it boycotted Myanmar’s 2010 elections. He won a seat in the Pyithu Hluttaw in those elections, only to meet with electoral defeat at the hands of candidates representing his former party in both 2015 and 2020. Similarly, while he himself did not run in 2015 or 2020, the NDF of Khin Maung Swe, who also won election as an NLD candidate in 1990, did not win a single seat in either of those years of tremendous electoral success for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.
Sai Lone Hsaing won the election to the Shan State hluttaw in both 2010 and 2015, running each time under the banner of the USDP. In the 2016-2020 period, that body included more members from both the USDP and the SNLD than from the NLD, and Sai Lone Hsaing served as its speaker. In a reversal, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party outpolled both the USDP and SNLD in races for the Shan State hluttaw in the 2020 elections, which Sai Lone Hsaing did not contest.
Aye Nu Sein and Banyar Aung Moe received the endorsement of, respectively, the ANP and MUP for their appointments to the SAC. Even beyond historic Rakhine unease with Bamar dominance, pronounced antagonism has marked the ANP’s posture toward the NLD since 2015-2016, when the government led by the latter party imposed a chief minister on Rakhine State despite the former party’s plurality in the Rakhine State hluttaw. The decision of the Union Election Commission to cancel voting in large parts of Rakhine state in advance of the November 2020 elections only exacerbated this antagonism. Widely recognized tensions have also defined relations between the MUP and the NLD.
Both partisan and personal considerations thus provide useful background to the willingness of civilians — both Bamars and non-Bamars — to join the SAC. The NLD’s electoral triumph on 8 November 2020, with all that it signaled about the party’s enduring hegemony, was just one feature of that background. Nevertheless, as of 31 January 2021, that hegemony represented for the foreseeable future a challenge not only to the Tatmadaw but also to other Bamar-dominated and ethnic-nationality parties and to figures associated with them.
Having paid these prices, civilian members of the junta, and to some degree the parties with which they are associated, now have a stake in the survival of the SAC regime.
The willingness of members of those parties to sign on to the anti-NLD project that is the SAC regime is not without risk, as that regime’s unpopularity and ongoing struggle to impose its authority on Myanmar make clear. But bearing that risk is the price of enjoying relevance that the NLD’s electoral prowess has long denied those parties and their leaders. It is also perhaps the price of leverage to achieve ends important to those parties, to politicians associated with them, and to their supporters. Having paid these prices, civilian members of the junta, and to some degree the parties with which they are associated, now have a stake in the survival of the SAC regime. In return, that regime must hope that these civilians can help rally support for it. How good either of these bets is will become clearer with time.
A “FEDERAL” MODEL?
The recruitment onto the SAC of obscure figures like the Kachin Jeng Phang Naw Taung and the Chin Moung Thar suggests both the Tatmadaw’s determination to see notional representatives of each of Myanmar’s major “national races” on the junta and its rather pro forma attachment to time-worn understandings of the nature of the Union of Myanmar. The implications of this inclusiveness merits consideration.
Almost immediately after last November’s elections, the Tatmadaw established a Peace Talks Committee, effectively creating a process for treating with Myanmar’s numerous ethnic armed organizations separate from the process centred on the 2015 NCA. Facing the prospect of the NLD’s return to power, the armed forces opened the door to participation in talks to organizations that were signatories to the NCA as well as those who were not.
After its coup, the SAC expanded the membership of its Peace Talks Committee and established several new structures for negotiations. Whether these structures are to serve as fora for further talks or as vehicles for the realization of a vision for Naypyitaw’s relations with Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities is the question. That question lies outside the scope of the present article. Yet the composition of the civilian membership of the SAC is not irrelevant to its answer. At least some of the Tatmadaw’s ethnic-nationality collaborators clearly prioritize their own narrow objectives over the cause of Myanmar democracy. Their stances may point to a rough and rather perversely “federal” model. In enlisting ethnic-nationality partners, is the Tatmadaw endeavoring to draw on shared enmity toward the NLD as a resource for managing and even channeling ethnic nationalism?
The data on the civilian members of Myanmar’s SAC presented in this article point to three broad conclusions. First, the inclusion of civilians on the country’s latest junta is impossible to understand without a clear appreciation that this junta is above all an anti-NLD project. Second, the Tatmadaw’s decision to shatter precedent through the incorporation of civilians onto the junta from the time of its establishment, along with the number and composition of civilians incorporated, underlines both how daunting an enemy it considers the electorally formidable NLD and how determined it is to extirpate it. Third, in acting on that determination, Min Aung Hlaing and his generals have opted for a strategy of what one may term as “ethnic balancing”.
In forming its junta, The Tatmadaw offered elements in ethnic-nationality states a bargain: in exchange for their collaboration they would gain seats at the table that the NLD’s electoral prowess had long denied them.
Practical considerations may have determined the adoption of that strategy. Seeking acceptance for its dictatorship from at least a segment of Myanmar’s population and aware of the difficulty of finding that acceptance in the central regions of the country in which the NLD enjoyed strong support, the Tatmadaw turned to ethnic-nationality states in which political opposition to that party’s rule was most significant. It also turned to parties, and to individuals affiliated with them, that had a record of getting along with the USDP. While figures in the USDP itself may have recommended some of these men to the Tatmadaw, in fact, such recommendations were hardly needed. As a general matter, the civilian members of the SAC — Bamar and non-Bamar alike — appear, in the words of one close observer, to be “a group of people who have always been on the same page”. Further, in considering the composition of that group, one must not discount the possibility that, the enduring electoral supremacy of the NLD notwithstanding, many of the civilians who joined the SAC simply believed that it could govern the country more capably than Aung San Suu Kyi and her party.
In forming its junta, The Tatmadaw offered elements in ethnic-nationality states a bargain: in exchange for their collaboration they would gain seats at the table that the NLD’s electoral prowess had long denied them. With those seats might come a chance to pursue their goals and interests, and perhaps access to resources or even economic opportunities. The long history of civil war between the highly Burmanized Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organizations fighting on behalf of non-Bamar ethnic-nationality populations would seem to make the armed forces’ quest for acceptance from those populations and their leaders a long shot.
It is not clear that shared opposition to the NLD can be the basis for trust between the soldiers and civilians on the SAC or that those civilians will bring a critical mass of the people whom they purport to represent with them to support the junta. Equally uncertain is whether the military members of that body will in fact prove willing to offer their civilian counterparts a say in decision-making or accede to those counterparts’ demands in exchange for their cooperation. The data presented here suggest that, in a country already scarred by decades of ethnic warfare, the SAC’s adoption of strategy of ethnic balancing to buttress its overarching anti-NLD project is a high-risk undertaking, not only for the civilian members of the SAC but also for the Tatmadaw and for Myanmar itself. Observers have in fact suggested that it is uncertain how many of the civilians who signed on to the junta in the days following Min Aung Hlaing’s coup would have done so a month or two later, after the high degree of popular resistance to the return of military rule had become clear. As of late August, however, civilian members of the junta apparently remained committed to the SAC regime and its cause, or at least eager to demonstrate to their military peers that they were.
This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2021/119 published on 8 September 2021. The paper and its footnotes can be accessed at this link.
Htet Myet Min Tun is an ASEAN Undergraduate Scholar at Yale-NUS College.
Moe Thuzar is Fellow and Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Michael Montesano is Associate Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.