Setbacks raise question of whether Myanmar’s leader can maintain control

Low public and international support and regular reports of soldiers surrendering leave the junta with few choices.
By RFA Burmese
Setbacks raise question of whether Myanmar’s leader can maintain control Myanmar’s junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted the elected government in a coup on Feb. 1, 2021, presides at an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, March 27, 2021. An apparent lack of support and some military setbacks may question his standing.

UPDATED at 10:17 A.M. ET on 02-05-2024

Recent battlefield setbacks and little apparent public support are raising the question of whether the leader of Myanmar’s junta can expect to maintain influence within the military and his hold over the country, several observers told Radio Free Asia this week.

Myanmar’s two other post-independence military dictator generals – Than Shwe and Ne Win – ruled the country for decades following their own coup d’etats. 

But just three years after Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and the military took control of the government in February 2021, the junta continues to be faced with regular reports of military officers and soldiers who have either surrendered to rebel groups or voluntarily switched sides.

“There aren’t many choices left for them,” said Jason Tower, country director for the Burma program at the United States Institute of Peace. “At some point, the Burmese military will have to surrender or find some way to escape from the current situation.”

Entire regiments and numerous senior military officers switched to the opposition in the months after the 2021 coup  – something that wasn’t true following the 1962 and 1988 military coups, both of which encountered some armed resistance.  

Reports of junta forces surrendering to rebel groups, or switching sides, are not uncommon. Here, Myanmar soldiers perform during a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of Independence Day in Naypyitaw, Jan. 4, 2023. (Aung Shine Oo/AP)

Since then, junta troops have abandoned more than 30 border towns and hundreds of military outposts, including several strategic regional headquarters. 

Junta battlefield losses have accelerated since the rebel ethnic armies that make up the Three Brotherhood Alliance launched a coordinated offensive in October.

In November, junta Acting President Myint Swe warned that the recent attacks – known as Operation 1027 – could “break Myanmar into pieces.” The comments at an emergency meeting of the National Defense and Security Council in the capital Naypyitaw seemed to be a plea for public support of the military for the sake of stability.

‘No public legitimacy’

But regular air force and artillery bombings of civilian populations that have killed thousands have pushed public opinion of the military to unprecedented lows.

Since the coup, nearly 80,000 homes have been burnt down or destroyed, more than 20,000 people have been arrested, and 2.5 million residents have fled their homes, according to the United Nations and human rights groups.

“The Burmese military has no public legitimacy. They have also lost international support,” Tower said. “And on every battlefield, they are facing losses.”

Under the leadership of Sen. General Min Aung Hlaing, the junta has faced battlefield losses. Here, Arakan Army troops stand in front of the captured Paletwa Township General Administration Department office after seizing Paletwa, Jan. 14, 2024. (AA Info Desk)

Discontent within the military is also driven by long standing corruption practices that the current regime has continued and in some cases even increased, according to Hla Kyaw Zaw, a political analyst based in China. 

“Min Aung Hlaing is different from Than Shwe and Ne Win,” he said. “He’s more notorious for his corruption.”

A soldier affiliated with the anti-junta Civil Disobedience Movement, or CDM, told RFA that every member of Myanmar’s junta is expected to contribute a certain portion of their salary to Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, a fund managed by junta leaders. 

They also must pay a monthly fee to a life insurance company owned by top junta leaders under threats of punitive actions, the CDM soldier said.

‘The mood is so dark’

Much of Myanmar’s current turmoil and chaos could be blamed on Min Aung Hlaing’s ambition to be president, several observers told RFA.

He wasn’t content to just be the country’s top military leader, and apparently couldn’t accept the poor showing that the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party received in the 2020 election, said Win Htein, a senior aide to Aung San Suu Kyi, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison by the junta in 2021.

Suu Kyi is the former de facto leader of Myanmar and Nobel laureate who was also sentenced to prison by a junta court.

In Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, protestors attend a demonstration against the rule of Min Aung Hlaing on the third anniversary of Myanmar’s 2021 military coup, Feb. 1, 2024. (Jay Ereno/Reuters)

Junta leaders may have also been surprised by the response to the 2021 coup from ethnic armed organizations, anti-junta People’s Defense Forces and pro-democracy groups, said Ko Naung Roo, a member of the CDM military. 

“Without understanding the changes in the modern system, they went with the tradition of a coup d’état,” he said. “Min Aung Hlaing should be called the weakest dictator rather than the worst dictator.”

Attempts by RFA to contact a junta spokesperson for comment went unanswered this week.

Former lawmaker Tint Swe told RFA that if things get worse, Myanmar’s leader could face a fate similar to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who was found guilty of crimes against humanity and executed in 2006, or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who was captured and killed in 2011.

“It is still difficult to predict how Gen. Min Aung Hlaing will end up,” he said. “But I do see that the entire military power and economic system is headed for collapse.”

Tun Kyi, a former political prisoner, predicted that Min Aung Hlaing will eventually be put on trial for war crimes.

“The last breath of dictators is ugly, and the mood is so dark for the country,” he said. “If you look at the world, from Hitler to Saddam Hussein, and so on, if you look at their essence, their paths are the same at the end of time."

Translated by Aung Khin. Edited by Matt Reed.

Correction - An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed junta Acting President Myint Swe's comments to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the junta's chairman.


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