World

Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. The army leader acts after claiming widespread voter fraud. Joe Biden threatens to reinstate sanctions. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Military coup ends Myanmar’s transition to democracy

Protesters hold images of Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, outside the country’s embassy in Bangkok this week.
Credit: Lauren DeCicca / Getty Images

The takeover

On Monday morning in Myanmar, internet and phone services were cut, state-run television and radio stations were unable to broadcast, and troops set up roadblocks and enforced a nationwide curfew. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s leader, was detained and reportedly placed under house arrest, along with the president and other members of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party. A statement was then read out on military television, announcing that a one-year state of emergency had been imposed. And so Myanmar, which was tightly ruled by the military from 1962 to 2011, had ended its transition to democracy.

The swift military takeover occurred hours before parliament was due to hold its first session since an election in November, which the NLD had won in a landslide. It won 83 per cent of the 476 available seats, up from 79 per cent at the election in 2015. The military-backed opposition won just 33 seats.

Justifying the coup, the military claimed there had been widespread voter fraud at the election. It alleges there were 8.6 million instances of fraud – a claim the election commission last week rejected.

The coup may have been prompted by the military’s concerns that Aung San Suu Kyi, whose official title is state counsellor, would push to become president. Currently, the constitution bars her from the office because her late husband – the British historian Michael Aris – was a foreign citizen, as are their two sons. Some NLD members have also proposed changing a constitutional clause that gives 25 per cent of seats in parliament to the military. Either of these constitutional changes would have required the support of 75 per cent of MPs and would be impossible to achieve under the current parliamentary make-up. But a clamour for reform could have placed pressure on the military, whose public standing had already been weakened by the election result.

A Burmese journalist, Aye Min Thant, believed the coup was prompted by the military’s embarrassment rather than a genuine threat to its control. “They weren’t expecting to lose,” the journalist told BBC News.

“You need to understand how the army views its position in the country. International media are quite used to referring to Aung San Suu Kyi as ‘mother’. The army considers itself the ‘father’ of the nation.”

The general

The decision to launch the coup was made by Min Aung Hlaing, who has been the head of the military since 2011. He faces mandatory retirement from the military when he turns 65 later this year and was widely believed to be considering entering politics, possibly with an eye to becoming president. But the NLD’s election win demonstrated that his rival, Aung San Suu Kyi, remained hugely popular and that he had little chance of competing with her as a civilian politician.

Even before the coup, Min Aung Hlaing was subject to sanctions by the United States and others for his role in the crackdown against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya in 2017, which included mass killings, gang rapes and arson and prompted more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. In 2018, a United Nations inquiry said he and other military leaders should be prosecuted for overseeing the operation with “genocidal intent”.

Analysts believe Min Aung Hlaing may now be planning to hold fresh elections and to compete as head of a military-aligned party under new electoral measures that would prevent Suu Kyi from running and ensure that he wins. On Tuesday, he said the coup was “inevitable” because the NLD had failed to address the military’s concerns about voter fraud.

Aung San Suu Kyi

In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father had led the push for independence from British colonial rule, returned to Myanmar after years living abroad. She began to lead the country’s pro-democracy movement but was arrested within months and placed under house arrest. In the past 33 years, she has spent 15 years under house arrest.

Until this week, Aung San Suu Kyi’s triumphant release from house arrest in 2010, which occurred as the military began to allow a transition to democracy, appeared to mark an end to her repeated periods of captivity. Five years later, she was finally allowed to contest the elections.

The 75-year-old, who won the 1991 Nobel peace prize, remains popular domestically, but her international reputation as a champion of human rights was destroyed by her defence of the country’s Rohingya atrocities. Appearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019, she did not use the word “Rohingya”, reflecting the nationalist Buddhist claim that the Rohingya people are Bengali. Her stance kept her onside with the military and was backed by a majority of the country’s 57 million residents, 88 per cent of whom are Buddhist. It also confirmed she is, as she always insisted, a politician rather than an activist, fervently committed to securing power for herself and the NLD, apparently at almost any cost.

Following her arrest this week, the NLD released a statement by Suu Kyi, which included a call – similar to those she has issued for decades – for an end to military rule. “I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military,” the statement said.

NLD officials said this week that she was in good health and was being detained at her official residence in Naypyidaw, the capital.

The deposed leader

Myanmar’s democratic transition had led to growing engagement with the international community, including the lifting of US sanctions in 2016 and visits by Barack Obama in 2012 and 2014.

Following the coup this week, US President Joe Biden said he will immediately consider a resumption of sanctions. “The United States will stand up for democracy wherever it is under attack,” he said.

Australia took a more equivocal position, expressing concern about the coup but emphasising the need to work with regional partners, many of whom are reluctant to interfere. This week, Labor called on the Coalition to review Australia’s military co-operation with Myanmar. Australia, unlike the US, the European Union and others, has maintained its military links since the Rohingya crackdown.

China, which has close ties to Myanmar, simply “noted” the coup. “We hope that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately handle their differences,” said a foreign affairs spokesperson.

Other countries in the region such as Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines said the coup was an “internal matter”.

Professor Nicholas Farrelly, an expert on Myanmar and head of social sciences at the University of Tasmania, told The Saturday Paper that Australia should consider imposing targeted sanctions against the military but should not expect such measures to lead to political change. He said the devastation from Cyclone Nargis in 2008 – and the regime’s struggle to provide relief – played a much greater role in prompting the transition to democracy than international sanctions.

So has the shift to democracy been a failed experiment? “It is a hard question,” Farrelly said. “There is now going to be a possibility that much of the [democratic] institution-building will be unwound. To wind it back up again will be incredibly laborious. Myanmar’s leaders may never return the country to where it was, at least in this generation.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2021 as "Military coup ends Myanmar’s transition to democracy".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.