Myanmar’s generals have largely remained out of the spotlight since their February 1 military coup, secluded in the country’s ghost town capital of Naypyidaw.
The generals have shut out the rest of the country in both a figurative and literal echo chamber that is the cavernous halls of the now-emptied parliament, supported by a surplus of yes-men, as they justify deadly crackdowns crushing anti-coup protests.
Reporters from outside Myanmar have been barred from entering the country until now. A Southeast Asia Globe journalist reporting for Al Jazeera was invited, along with CNN, on a weeklong tour of Yangon and Naypyidaw that ended on April 6, in an unlikely step that appeared to be intended to highlight the military’s control of an increasingly desperate situation.
The tour, organized by Ari Ben-Menashe, a notorious military PR man, provided insight into the outlook and workings of a military government cut off from the majority of the country’s people. Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun never wavered from the military’s message of righteousness – in overthrowing the country’s civilian government and using terror to consolidate power in the two months after – during an hour-long interview with the Globe on April 4.
He declined to say when Myanmar’s military, also known as the Tatmadaw, would allow the country to return to some kind of civilian rule. He retracted the one-year timetable, implying that the military could prolong the current state of emergency order for up to two years.
“Within one year we are trying to stabilise the country, but if we can’t we will have to extend it six more months. And after that, another six months but that is it,” Zaw Min Tun said, referencing the maximum extension permitted by the military-drafted 2008 constitution.
“So two years maximum and after that, we will invite international actors to monitor a free and fair election.”
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army’s commander-in-chief and Myanmar’s de-facto ruler, has repeatedly cited allegations of electoral fraud in last year’s November 8 elections in an effort to justify the power grab as well as the brutality used against civilians. The election commission, on the other hand, claims that the charges are false.
According to Zaw Min Tun, all political parties will be allowed to run in the upcoming election. When asked if that pledge included now-detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) faction, which won a landslide victory over the military’s political proxy in November, he refused to respond.
Instead, the brigadier general cited the ongoing investigation into military prosecutors’ charges against the deposed state counsellor, including the import of allegedly unregistered walkie-talkies, bribery charges, and alleged breaches of COVID-19 safety measures, which have been used to justify both the coup and Aung San Suu Kyi’s current house arrest.
“I don’t have any comments on the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or whether she is allowed to run in the upcoming elections, it depends on what she did in the past. If we find that she did bad things she will be punished,” Zaw Min Tun said.
“The NLD as a whole is also part of this ongoing interrogation but it will take time. For example, if someone has committed murder it will take time to determine if they are guilty.”
The Tatmadaw’s post-coup messaging has been consistent with its hardline rhetoric. Even as its troops have arrested much of the popularly elected government and killed over 550 of its own people, the military has continued to represent democratic values.
The military’s playbook has also included fabricating charges and dragging out court proceedings, especially in its attempts to suppress Aung San Suu Kyi, a longtime symbol of Myanmar’s democracy, and her party. Zaw Min Tun predicted that neither would be able to get away from the Tatmadaw anytime soon.
Whether the NLD participates or not, holding a new election has been widely condemned by the Myanmar people, who have requested that the November election be respected and that Aung San Suu Kyi be published in the aftermath of the protests.