The (Few) Generals That Don’t Exit in Myanmar

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The (Few) Generals That Don’t Exit in Myanmar

Myanmar’s military took a bashing in the polls on November 8, but it will continue to play a role in politics.

The (Few) Generals That Don’t Exit in Myanmar
Credit: Alexander Mak via

The extent of the electoral loss suffered by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has surprised many observers, including the most high-profile members of the party themselves. Among the old guard of the former junta and the hybrid government that succeeded in 2011, many faced a humiliating defeat, including Thura Shwe Mann, the outgoing speaker of the lower house, Wai Lwin and Hla Min, two former defense ministers, and Htay Oo, the party chief.

Out of the 170-odd retired military officers (including about 150 USDP members) who were candidates to an elective office on November 8, only 28 have been able to secure a seat in one of the sixteen upcoming legislative bodies. A few prominent retired officers and local strongmen retained their seats or were elected for the first time, and will sit in the new legislature starting January. In that respect, the triangular relations between the last bit of these USDP politicos (especially those with a military background), the massive National League Democracy (NLD) parliamentary bloc and the 388 military-appointed legislators, under full control of the top brass of the armed forces, or Tatmadaw, will be interesting to follow.

Among them, there are a handful of former Tatmadaw big shots, including 20 senior officers who graduated from Myanmar’s top military academy, the Defense Services Academy (DSA). Hla Htay Win (DSA-20th intake), the recently retired Joint Chief of Staff will be the only 4-star general in the new Union legislature. He stood for a constituency in Naypyitaw. Three former chiefs of staff of the Myanmar Navy also grabbed a seat: Soe Thane, a former minister in the presidential office took a seat in the upper house (as an independent), as did Thura Thet Swe for the Coco Islands constituency and Nyan Tun (DSA-16), who also happened to be one of the two outgoing Vice-presidents of the Union.

Unlike his counterpart in the lower house, the speaker of the upper house of the Union parliament, Khin Aung Myint, kept hold on his seat in Pyawbwe, a rural constituency north of Naypyitaw. A retired major-general, he was the Joint-Secretary of the National Convention that drafted the 2008 Constitution and one can expect him to act as a sort of “minority whip” in the upper house, unless he is propelled towards a presidential nomination by the military parliamentary bloc next February – and thus becomes one of the two Vice-presidents. Pyawbwe, a city harboring the headquarters of the Tatmadaw’s armoured operations command, also reelected another retired general, Thaung Aye (DSA-20), a former Military Inspector General.

At the provincial level, three outgoing chief ministers with a military background escaped defeat. Ex-Major Gen. Maung Maung Ohn (DSA-22) ran for a seat (Ann constituency) in the Rakhine state assembly and won. In June 2014, he had been appointed Chief Minister in the aftermath of the communal violence that ravaged parts of the Rakhine State. His constituency also elected in the lower house Thein Swe (DSA-13), a former minister of transport of the junta (2004-10) and USDP high-ranking official. In the Shan provincial parliament (which will be next year the only local assembly, out of fourteen, dominated by military appointees and the USDP), Sao Aung Myat, also a DSA graduate, was re-elected. He may seek, if not in position to retain his chief ministership (all fourteen chief ministers will be appointed by the NLD-elected president, according to the constitution), at least to be appointed speaker of the provincial house, headquartered in Taunggyi.

In Bago region, Nyan Win, the former minister of foreign affairs of the military regime between 2004 and 2010, won his seat back at the Bago regional hluttaw but will not be in position to grab any position of power in a region almost fully controlled by the NLD. In the same constituency where he won (Zigon), Nyan Tun, one of Myanmar’s ex-Navy chiefs and a former IMET student at the U.S. Naval War College, was elected in the lower house. Furthermore, three outgoing army-appointed ministers for Security and Border Affairs (respectively in the Shan state, and in Yangon and Mandalay regions) were also elected provincial legislators.

Several other military retirees and local strongmen snatched a victory in conflict-ridden areas, especially near China’s lawless borders, where they obviously were able to freely canvass voters. Aung Than Htut, the recently retired Chief of Bureau of Special Operations No. 2 grabbed a regional seat in the constituency of Laukkai, at the heart of the war-torn Kokang region. T. Khun Myatt in neighboring Kutkai in northern Shan State (for the lower house) and Zakhung Ting Ying in the Kachin State’s northern areas bordering China and controlled by his militia (formerly known as the New Democratic Army-Kachin, now a Border Guard Force under Tatmadaw command) also won seats.

Only two retired officers will stand in the next legislature as independent legislators: Soe Thane (in the upper house), the ambitious minister in President Thein Sein’s outgoing office, and Tin Aye (an eponym of the chairman of the electoral commission) in the lower house. It will be interesting to see whether they will play politics along with the military parliamentary bloc, the USDP or remain effectively autonomous and even join hands with the NLD. Among its new legislators in the lower house, the NLD will count on three DSA graduates. Observers will soon wonder whether their names will top the list of NLD’s presidential hopefuls – according to the 2008 Constitution indeed, presidential candidates should be “acquainted with security affairs”. Soe Htay was elected in the constituency Kawkareik in Kayin state, where he defeated another ex-colonel, who was deputy minister during the junta heydays; Aung Win won a seat in the constituency of Hmawbi, a military base north of Yangon; and Tin Nu in Manaung, Rakhine State. The NLD also pushed forward a current member of a Union parliamentary commission, with an educational military background (a Master in Defense Studies). He won a seat at the upper house for the Sagaing region No. 8.

With the exception of the NLD victors, very few of these 30-odd strongmen or prominent retired military officials will be in position to capture key positions in the new legislatures or governments early next year, when all posts will be distributed according to the NLD’s wills and whims. At best some can get a parliamentary committee chair or secretariat in the Union parliament. It would not be surprising to see a former Navy chief being appointed chairman of a waterways committee, for instance. This will depend on the choices the next speakers in the house will make. Still, this is nothing fancy for a former military chief.

How will they behave in parliament – provided they regularly attend assemblies overtly dominated by their most vocal opponents? A cynic would argue that they will seek to defend their own vested interests through legislative means. Many a retired officer and USDP leaders is also a manager, a member of a wealthy familial enterprise, or a local notable in a remote constituency. But the NLD now holds a super majority in both chambers of the Union parliament, and only three provincial parliaments do not fall under the party’s full control. So if these former members of Myanmar’s ruling elite can be expected to behave as conservative rule-followers, they may not be strong contenders to the majority rule imposed by the NLD inside parliament. They can disrupt parliamentary debates, though legal legislative means, as in any other lawmaking body in any democratic society. But not much more.

The military appointees in all legislative bodies might be more straightforward, notably if the NLD starts the next legislature with a contentious constitutional debate, and appoints (through the two speakers and the president of the Union) proactive and vocal members in the new constitutional tribunal. However, long-term challenges to the NLD political and legislative agenda might instead come from below in coming months: from the strongholds the defeated strongmen, or the few ones still sitting in parliament, kept closely under their watch in Myanmar’s remote peripheries; from the armed forces itself, as they no longer seem to consider valuable the use political proxies; but even more significantly from the burgeoning civil society.

Renaud Egreteau (@R_Egreteau) is a 2015-2016 Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC.