Myanmar’s Coup d’État

Myanmar’s Coup d’État

What about the Democracy?

02/2021  | Reading time: 7 minutes

On 1 February 2021, a military coup occurred in Myanmar, as Min Aung Hlaing took power from the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi and her party and declared a one-year state of emergency. The uproar from the nation for democracy culminated in a series of protests, which made the Tatmadaw—the country’s armed forces—counter them forcefully and even brutally in some cases. In the meantime, the government, which had won the election in November by a landslide but has not yet been sworn in, got detained, and, now, all of its members are under house arrest. But how did the coup unfold exactly? What caused the military to take action, and why now? What is the national and international opinion on the matter? And, most importantly, how long may the military dictatorship last?

 A decade after the military agreed to hand the governmental power over to a democratically elected leadership, the Tatmadaw has once again seized power by attempting a coup d’état. That makes the Burmese population uneasy because, until 2011, the nation was subjected to a military dictatorship that lasted almost fifty years. In 2011, however, the military junta had been officially dissolved after the 2010 general election, which led to the installation of a civilian government for the first time since 1962. Although this election was won by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is backed by the military, in the following years, Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) became a forceful alternative and could finally score a huge election win in 2015. Still, the military could cling on to power quite forcefully, since it was granted 25% of the parliament seats automatically by the 2008 constitution, which was drawn up under the previous army leadership.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the mother of the nation
Source: Wikimedia Commons, author: Claude TRUONG-NGOC, licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

Due to the tight grip of the army’s leadership on domestic politics, the democratic government had to function with a parliament where the constant presence of the military personnel accounting for one-quarter of the elected officials made it hard to push through more serious democratic reforms. Given the fact that at least 75% of parliamentary votes are necessary for amending the constitution, the only way for the National League for Democracy to achieve something that resembles a more mature democracy was by winning over that portion of the population which had voted for the military-backed USDP. And so Aung San Suu Kyi did.

In November 2020, the NLD won more than 80% of the popular votes, which meant that even the personnel with ties to the military and their family members voted for the party. This, obviously, caused an immense opposition from the USDP, which claimed that the election had been rigged. Of course, these allegations were baseless, but the shame of losing by such an enormous margin can explain why the military was dissatisfied with the results. The war of words continued until 1 February 2021, when the military finally acted upon its accusations. The coup was bloodless and happened in a matter of hours. The civilian politicians were detained, while the top leadership, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, were put into house arrest.

But why did the coup take place now? The reason is simple. The USDP’s demand for rerunning the election and its allegations of fraud gave Min Aung Hlaing and his clique a chance to act and to seize power once again. However, that had to happen before the new parliament was sworn in; thus, the coup was timed for the day before the new government was put in power, denying the results of the democratic elections.

Senior General Min Aung Hliang, the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw, the national army of Myanmar
Source: Wikimedia Commons (Republic of the Philippines, Presidential Communications Operations Office), author: Marcelino Pascua, licence: public domain

The unexpected seizure of power caught the nation of Myanmar off guard. Since the coup, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest against the military’s actions, and a civil disobedience campaign has been launched, as well. While the protest started with many medical workers going on strike, it extended to local businesses, regular families, and eventually to the members of the police force, the fire departments, and other civil services, as well. The public was not ready for accepting that their democracy crumbled before their eyes, and they did not want to let it happen.

On 8 February, the military decided to disperse the protestors, and, when the water guns and tear gas seemed ineffective, it used rubber bullets and even live ammunition in some cases. Many people were injured during the crackdown, and some people even died because of the brutality. The population, however, did not give in and continued its rally on the streets of the Burmese cities. The most conspicuous part of the protests—besides the disobedience campaign, of course—is the banging of pots and tins every night at 8 pm, which has become a tradition since the coup happened.

The coup also triggered international denunciation, mostly from the West. While Boris Johnson condemned the actions taken by the military in a tweet, the new president of the United States, Joe Biden threatened to resume sanctions which were formerly in place against Myanmar. The UN Security Council, however, was not as quick to pass judgement. On 2 February, the council could not manage to agree on a statement, since China and Russia did not seem to share the concerns of their Western counterparts. A good example of that was the official state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua, which referred to the coup as a “major Cabinet reshuffle” and completely ignored the military takeover. Nevertheless, on 4 February, the UN Security Council finally issued a statement which “stressed the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence, and fully respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.”

Meanwhile, the ASEAN member states’ adherence to the strict principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of member states only led to a statement by Brunei, the current chair of ASEAN, which called for “dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy” in Myanmar. However, the proclamation was not self-evident, since ASEAN member states are quite divided on the issue: Vietnam and Laos, for example, have not issued a formal statement on the coup yet, as of the middle of February. From ASEAN’s perspective, sanctions are a non-starter, since the close cooperation of the South East Asian nations cannot be affected by the internal affairs of a member nation; otherwise, disagreement on the proper way of conducting domestic policies would halt the shared progress of the whole association. However, there has been a call for a special meeting on Myanmar by the Indonesian president Joko Widodo, but the talks are only expected to bring about limited success.

The military promised to hand back power to the civilian government after the one-year state of emergency, while the leader of the coup claimed that his interim government would be different from that of the previous military regime’s. If Min Aung Hlaing intended to keep his power after February 2022, his actions would run significant risks, mainly because there is a chance for international sanctions and violent domestic uprisings in the future, which could happen sooner than previously expected. Many protesters expect a in the near future, and one of their prominent members even claim to be ready to fight against oppressors by whatever means necessary.

Nevertheless, the military can certainly not expect the people of Myanmar to accept this forceful taking of power in the long term, and constant protests could lead to a national-level crisis in a matter of weeks. If that was the case, the military government could only maintain power by even more forceful means, which would make the regime similar to Myanmar’s former dictatorship. Thus, the authoritarian rule could well be very short-lived, since it would quickly collapse if everybody went out on strike, while the Western sanctions could lead to even more severe economic hardships. In the long run, there is hope for Myanmar to return to a proper democratic rule, but, for the time being, the new regime seems to use every means necessary to retain power while accusing Aung San Suu Kyi of crimes based on the military’s allegations.

However, if the revolt of the civil sphere continues while the pandemic is raging across the globe, Min Aung Hlaing could find himself in a very weak position soon. If the coup failed in less than a year, it would send a signal to the military leaders to conduct themselves more carefully in the future. That could ultimately lead to the erosion of power among the ranks of the USDP, and, with enough democratically elected civilian politicians in the parliament, even an amendment to the constitution would be possible for the government, so it could finally get rid of the obligatoryquota in the parliament that requires at least 25% of elected officials to be chosen by the military. Thus Myanmar could ultimately transform into a well-functioning democracy. The coming year will be a test for the military leadership beyond doubt, but the Burmese people will certainly not make it easy for Min Aung Hlaing and his political faction to cling on to their power for very long.

 

The opening pic is from Wikimedia Commons (Voice of America), authored by VOA Burmese Service, and licenced under public domain.

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