Recent shake-ups in the Tatmadaw show that it may not be as monolithic an institution as it portrays itself to be. The State Administration Council has gradually turned into a shell entity with power becoming more concentrated in the hands of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Almost a year following the military takeover in Myanmar on February 1 2021, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s rationale for the coup remains clouded in mystery. Regardless of whether the coup was more Min Aung Hlaing’s personal undertaking or the Tatmadaw’s collective decision, or whether some other reason exists, recent shake-ups in the Tatmadaw’s senior posts show that the State Administration Council (SAC) junta is gradually becoming a shell entity, while the junta chief concentrates power in his hands.
A day after the coup, the Senior General instituted the 11-member SAC as the country’s highest-level governing body. The junta’s 11 members counted eight active-duty military officers holding the most senior positions in the Tatmadaw’s hierarchy at the time of the coup. All but one concurrently held their military posts when they assumed their SAC appointments. Thus, at the time of its formation, the SAC’s military membership and the Tatmadaw’s hierarchy overlapped significantly. In the following days and months, the SAC expanded its membership to the current 19 — nine military officers and ten civilians.
Almost one year after its formation, only four SAC members still hold their military posts. They are: Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services; Vice Senior General Soe Win, Vice Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services and Commander-in-Chief of the Army; Lieutenant General Moe Myint Htun, Chief of Staff of the Army; and Lieutenant General Ye Win Oo, Chief of Military Security Affairs, who also serves as the SAC’s Joint Secretary. Lieutenant-General Soe Htut was inducted into the SAC on March 30 2021. The military officer does not hold any military post but has been heading the important Ministry of Home Affairs since February 2020.
The other four officers appointed to the SAC remain junta members, but other officers have taken over their senior military posts. The first officer to lose his military post was General Mya Htun Oo who was the Joint Chief of Staff of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the third most senior position in the military. Right after the coup, he was given the defence portfolio, and General Maung Maung Aye replaced him as Joint Chief of Staff. Even though Mya Htun Oo had to give up his military position, he was still given a seat on the SAC at its formation, presumably not to antagonise him at a critical time for the junta. He was thus the only officer without a military post at the time of the junta’s inception on February 2, 2021. The day after that inception, Admiral Tin Aung San, Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, the fourth most senior personnel, was transferred to the cabinet as the Minister of Transport and Communications. He remained an SAC member, but his military post was taken by Admiral Moe Aung.
The opening month of 2022 has seen further shake-ups in which two more SAC members lost their military posts. Lieutenant General Aung Lin Dwe, who was the Judge Advocate General and secretary of the SAC, retains the latter role, but was transferred to the reserve force. Lieutenant General Myo Thant Naing assumed Judge Advocate General duties. A similar fate befell Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force General Maung Maung Kyaw, whose military position is now held by General Tun Aung. Maung Maung Kyaw remains on the SAC. However, none of the younger officers who now hold senior posts in the Tatmadaw are members of the SAC.
Although the Tatmadaw’s internal dynamics are opaque, these recent developments show that it may not be as monolithic an institution as it portrays itself to be. Whatever holds the generals together — whether collective interest or fear — is not always a constant.
Even though the stated reason for the removal of these generals from their military posts is that they have reached retirement age or the end of their assignments, the real story may be more complex. These moves can be seen as Min Aung Hlaing attempting to consolidate his Tatmadaw power base even more. Apart from the Senior General and Vice Senior General, who retain both their SAC and military posts, Moe Myint Htun and Ye Win Oo, are, like almost all the younger generals who have climbed up the Tatmadaw’s hierarchy in the past year, about ten years junior to the Senior General. Moe Myint Htun is believed to have a close relationship with Min Aung Hlaing and is perceived as a potential successor to the Senior General. Min Aung Hlaing’s reasons and sense of urgency in replacing older generals with younger ones remain unclear. He could be consolidating power to secure his position, or there could be more internal dissent than meets the eye.
Although the Tatmadaw’s internal dynamics are opaque, these recent developments show that it may not be as monolithic an institution as it portrays itself to be. Whatever holds the generals together — whether collective interest or fear — is not always a constant. Since the coup, the Tatmadaw has faced unprecedented pressures on multiple fronts: intensifying armed clashes in border areas, guerrilla attacks in urban centres, a collapsing economy, rank-and-file defections, and severe reputational damage. How external circumstances will affect the Tatmadaw’s internal dynamics and how changes in those dynamics will affect external factors will have serious implications for Myanmar’s future. Efforts to understand the SAC regime need to take these implications into account.
While the real power among Tatmadaw officers lies in the military posts, more than half of the SAC’s military members have now been stripped of those posts. The younger generals replacing them in these senior Tatmadaw posts are not SAC members. Furthermore, the separation of the SAC and the cabinet further dilutes the power of those who no longer hold their military posts and are not given a ministerial portfolio. The SAC might well be the country’s highest governing body, but it might no longer be the place where real decision-making happens. In other words, the SAC has gradually become a shell entity composed of individuals without real authority.
Htet Myet Min Tun is an ASEAN Undergraduate Scholar at Yale-NUS College.