Myanmar coup leader Min Aung Hlaing during the armed forces day parade in Naypyitaw in March 2022 / Cincds
Last week’s decision to execute four political prisoners has not had the effect Senior General Min Aung Hlaing no doubt hoped for. Far from cowing the population, it touched off another round of protests and international condemnations and re-energized his opponents. When the general staged his coup last year, some predicted that it would be the end of the Myanmar military in its current form. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is doing his best to prove them correct. His leadership has been cruel, immoral and devastatingly inept. The coup has brought terror, death and economic devastation to Myanmar’s population. It has also been a disaster for his own institution—the Myanmar military. The people’s opposition has only increased. The members of the Myanmar military need to wake up to the disaster of Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s leadership.
Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is a classic example of Machiavelli’s warning against rulers overusing fear as the primary means to control people. Under any circumstances, the Myanmar people would have opposed the coup and overturning of the election. But it was Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s decision to turn guns on peaceful protesters that pushed tens of thousands of people to take up arms. His exclusive reliance on firepower and “hard power” to terrorize people into accepting his rule has had the opposite effect. His orders to systematically and indiscriminately kill, torture, pillage, rob, steal, rape and terrorize unarmed civilians have hardened the people against the military as a whole. His poor leadership characteristics and exclusive focus on maintaining his personal power have consistently clouded his judgement. He is unable to grasp that the people will fight until he is removed.
In hanging on to the power he seized for himself, he is taking the military down with him. Under him the military, once known by the term of veneration, the Tatmadaw, is now reviled across the country. He has turned the national military into his own personal army to rob the power from the people.
He has inducted hardened and violent criminals into his military organization to fill the shortfall of recruits. As such, he has turned the Myanmar military into an organized criminal gang. The military under his command has experienced an unprecedented level of defections and desertions, while many still within the ranks shirk when they can. Morale has plummeted. Drug use is rampant. Chains of command and discipline are in tatters as hungry soldiers roam the countryside killing civilians. Or simply looking for food. Moreover because of the enormous popular support for those willing to fight against Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the once mighty military is now losing. It is suffering its heaviest battlefield casualties in decades. On any given day, the military is losing five to 10 times as many soldiers as its opponents. Soldiers are the single largest group of dead in the wake of Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s coup. Somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 soldiers have been killed. And for what? To defend one man’s claim to power against a population that despises him?
Internationally, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has fared no better. ASEAN wants no part of him. The bloc has broken with its own policy of noninterference to exclude him from meetings. China is not impressed. Russia is going to get tired of him as it realizes he can no longer pay for weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin declined to meet him during his trips to Russia in 2021 and 2022. Instead, he got to meet the leader of Tatarstan. Furthermore, whether Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing admits it or not, everyone knows he is running out of money—and fast. International financial sanctions have bitten hard and deep. International financial institutions suspended payments in February 2021. One after another the biggest foreign companies and foreign investors have left the country. Gems and jade sales have suffered a complete collapse. There is virtually no foreign exchange entering the country. Min Aung Hlaing has dug deep into foreign exchange reserves, which have plummeted from US$7.7 billion at the time of the coup to an estimated $2.5 billion now. How does he intend to continue paying for fuel or medicine? No one will take the kyats he is so busy printing? The desperate measures, like banning car imports, ordering businesses to default on dollar loans and forcing businesses and banks to immediately exchange dollars for kyats, are simply not going to work.
When Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing ordered his troops to shoot unarmed protesters in the head, he also put a noose around the neck of the Myanmar military. His orders were in clear violation of his soldiers’ Professional Code of Conduct. When he ordered his followers to hang the political prisoners, he also tightened the noose around the neck of the Myanmar military even further. Every time he has had a chance to exercise leadership and solve this political crisis of his own making in a smart way, he has instead chosen to use violence and brutality. Every step of the way, he has misread the operational environment and miscalculated. His latest action of executing the political prisoners was a perfect example of his ineptitude as a military and political strategist. This action awakened and reenergized everyone.
Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s poor decisions have no doubt been driven by inaccurate information and his personal isolation. People around him are unable or unwilling to provide information that is contrary to what he believes and what he wants to hear. This is a problem of his own making. As he continues to pull Myanmar further into isolation, he is also increasingly isolating himself within the walls of Naypyitaw. This increased isolation will cause him to make more detrimental decisions for the country and the Myanmar military.
Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd is a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Hawaii, and a retired US Army officer. The views expressed here are her own and do not represent those of APCSS or the US government or Department of Defense.