The motives for the Myanmar military coup so far has been far from clear but this report from Al Jazeera may help to enlighten us.
Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, are fully integrated into the country's economy. The key to their wealth are Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) through which the military has been able to gain a monopolistic control over core sectors of the economy, including some of the country’s most lucrative industries. Their influence and holdings represented an elaborate system of patronage that the army generals uses to maintain power. When privatisation of nationalised businesses happened with the asset sales in 2011 senior generals and their families were able to take advantage of the opening of the economy to secure ownership over many of Myanmar’s companies. The United Nations Fact-Finding Mission, set up in the wake of the Rohingya crackdown, detailed the military’s business interests in a 110-page report that was published in August 2019. The report laid bare the extent of the armed forces’ involvement in the economy – exposing 106 MEHL and MEC-owned businesses as well as 27 close affiliates to the military – and the armed forces’ domination of Myanmar’s natural resources, including jade mining.
The Tatmadaw’s web of commercial interests enabled it to “insulate itself from accountability and oversight,” the UN said. “Through controlling its own business empire, the Tatmadaw can evade the accountability and oversight that normally arise from civilian oversight of military budgets.”
“During the NLD period, the military’s businesses empowered them and enabled their campaign of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The military is able to use funds from business to support military units, including those committing atrocity crimes, and it meant they were not reliant on the defence budget allocation from parliament.” explained Justice for Myanmar, an activist group.
However, in 2019, the NLD managed to secure civilian control of the general administrative department, which oversees key bureaucratic appointments, and had also introduced changes to the law on gemstones and jade. The military had been forced to relinquish much of their control.
Htwe Htwe Thein, an associate professor at Australia’s Curtin University, said, “It was a sign of the weakening grip of the military over the government administration and patronage – which had been at the heart of its ability to accumulate and protect its wealth.”
“The military’s tentacles spread across the board,” said Montse Ferrer, the business and human rights adviser at Amnesty International, which published a report last year estimating the military enjoyed dividends from MEHL alone of some $18bn in the 20 years until 2011.
The Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, which tracks transparency and standards of corporate governance in Myanmar through its annual Pwint Thit Sa report described MEC as a “military owned enterprise controlled by the Tatmadaw”, subject neither to civilian control, or the oversight. MEHL had seven directors, and one alternate director, all of whom were active or retired military personnel. About one third of shares were held by battalions, with individuals owning the rest. The company’s constitution, it noted, also showed the existence of a “Guiding Board” – to oversee the Board – headed by Min Aung Hlaing.
Anna Roberts, executive director of the Burma Campaign UK, pointed out that concerning some sanctions upon individual generals, "Min Aung Hlaing led a genocide against the Rohingya and the international response has been almost nothing really. He’s probably calculated that there will be a small response, but that it will be a price worth paying.” Roberts continued, "He feels he will get away with it. That’s why the international response needs to be strong; stronger than he was calculating.”
For foreign governments, it is time to get tough with Min Aung Hlaing and his generals. Campaigners say efforts to identify military revenues – from legal and illicit sources – and investigate the way in which the military’s money passes through the global financial system must be stepped up in order for sanctions to work effectively.