If there was any hope that Myanmar’s military junta might be willing to negotiate an exit from the crisis set off by its shock seizure of power on February 1, it was hastily dispelled by a press conference held by the junta in Naypyidaw yesterday afternoon.
During the conference, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun accused the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government of running “an undisciplined, authoritarian” administration. He also said that the military junta was investigating senior NLD leaders of corruption, all but confirming that they will be sidelined from formal politics for the foreseeable future.
The press conference came as security forces shot dead at least eight more people, in an attempt to suppress the protests that continue to simmer across the length and breadth of the country. The total death toll from the crackdown now stands at 73, mostly protesters in their twenties, while some 2,045 people have been arrested, charged, or sentenced in connection with anti-coup dissent, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Asked by a reporter whether the escalating political crisis could be solved through negotiations with the NLD, Zaw Min Tun said the military had chosen the current path specifically because negotiations had failed. He added that in seizing power the military was trying to create “a genuine, disciplined democratic system.”
The press conference added further flourishes and elaborations to the junta’s claim that its takeover was constitutional, and justified because of the NLD government’s refusal to investigate the military’s allegations of massive electoral fraud at last November’s national election.
Zaw Min Tun said members of the Union Election Commission, many now in custody, had admitted to investigators that the commission had not “operated freely and independently” while overseeing the election, which saw a massive victory for the NLD and the waning of support from the military’s stale proxy party.
To this claim of electoral fraud it also added one of corruption. Zaw Min Tun claimed that Myanmar’s Anti-Corruption Commission, now stacked with junta appointees, was investigating senior NLD officials for possible financial crimes. In particular, he said, Yangon Region Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein had admitted to handing over $600,000 in cash along with 11.6 kilograms of gold to NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi between December 2017 and March 2018. A charity linked to Aung San Suu Kyi is also under investigation for corruption.
In a statement posted on social media, Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer Khin Maung Zaw rejected the accusations, describing them as “the most hilarious joke.” He added, “She might have other weaknesses but she doesn’t have weakness in moral principle.”
Even if the allegations were true, they are dwarfed by the scale of the illicit shadow economy in which the Tatmadaw has long been ensconced. The senior leadership has long been involved in the plunder of natural resources, especially jade and logging. The jade industry alone is estimated to be worth between $8 and $40 billion per year, much of it untraceable and unaccountable to the state. It also grows fat on kickbacks from a narcotics trade of a similar scale, conducted under the aegis of the dozens of small pro-Tatmadaw militias that pepper the conflict zones of eastern Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi already faces four relatively minor charges, including illegally importing six walkie-talkies and flouting coronavirus restrictions, but these, in addition to the corruption charge, could see she and her party sidelined from politics.
When it took power, the military said it would hold a “free and fair” election within a year. There was never much chance that this would allow the NLD free to compete, which, given the current public anger toward the military, would see it win an even more comprehensive victory than the past two elections, but now there is little hope of the NLD playing any future political role whatsoever. Having chosen its path, the military seems set to follow it through – whatever the cost for the people of Myanmar.