“The world is watching.”
These four words, employed in the joint statement issued by the embassies of the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada along with 11 other nations to condemn the 2021 military coup in Myanmar, truly reflect the political reality of the nation. The February coup shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone remotely acquainted with contemporary Burmese politics. Free elections had been allowed by the military junta in 1990 with the presumption that it enjoyed popular support. However, much to the dismay of the generals, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a large margin. The narrative henceforth followed a trajectory jarringly similar to the one we see today. The military, steadfast in its refusal to part with power, placed Suu Kyi under house arrest.
The military, known as Tatmadaw, enjoyed power for 22 years till 2011. As part of the ‘7-Step Roadmap’, the third constitution of Myanmar was drafted in 2008 and the nation took its first steps towards achieving democracy. The 2015 elections general elections resulted in a victory for the National League for Democracy. Yet the achievement could not be appreciated in all its due regards, as the military continued to exert significant influence. It enjoyed the right to appoint one-fourth of the members of the parliament. History repeated itself when the results of the 2020 November elections witnessed the NLD's victory, with the party winning 396 out of 476 parliamentary seats. It had surpassed its previous margins achieved in the 2015 elections. On the other hand, the Union Solidarity and Development Party representing the military junta could win only 33 seats. This electoral result has been attributed as the spark which ignited the coup d’etat.
A Chronology of the Coup
At about 3 AM on February 1, 2021, Suu Kyi and Han Thi Myint, who is the party spokesperson of the NLD were placed under detention, and communication channels were severely disrupted. The army's TV station declared that power had been handed over to commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and that an emergency was being imposed for the next year. Such kill switch tactics, usually reserved for the Rakhine State, were replicated all over the nation. The roads to the Burmese capital Naypyidaw were blocked by soldiers. 400 elected members of parliament representing the NLD were placed under house arrest. Social media users called for holding a parliament within the same government guest house where they were forced to reside. This was a convincing argument as the number of MPs present in the guest house was meeting the quorum.
The two sides have locked horns even though the military clearly has an upper hand when it comes to hard power. Defying military dictates, 70 NLD MPs took the oath of office on February 4. The military also announced on February 4, 2021 that 24 ministers and deputies had been removed from office and 11 replacements had been appointed.
The coup also received a religious tint with the soldiers detaining several Buddhist monks who had led the 2007 Saffron Revolution. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has identified 133 officials, 14 civil society activists who had been detained by the military since the coup's inception. Min Aung Hlaing, head of the Tatmadaw, has established the State Administration Council to establish direct control of state affairs and has also imposed a curfew from 8 PM to 4 AM in all major cities.
On February 13, a shocking violation of the freedom of the press was noticed as the military administered Ministry of Information (MoI) exerted pressure upon the press to delete the phrases “junta” and “regime” to describe the coup. The recent military order involves facing 20 years of prison if an individual is found encroaching on the work of the security forces. This order also bestows the power to make arrests, carry out searches and even detain individuals for a period of more than 24 hours without trial or right to proper judicial recourse.
The military had carried out their first coup d'etat against a civilian government in 1962. But the present action may be studied in the context of the time in which it has occurred. This week was to witness the first session of the parliament in which the new democratically elected government would have been officially anointed to power. It is noteworthy that more than 70% of the voters had challenged the pandemic scenario to vote and elect Suu Kyi. This is particularly noteworthy considering the flak that she had been receiving for the genocide against the Rohingyas. Public resentment against the military government is thus inevitable. The primary opposition levelled by the military is that the election was marked by fraud, blaming the UEC (Union Election commission) for voter list irregularities. Sounds familiar? Trumpian? Gotcha.
And yes, there's no evidence to support the claim.
The business and financial interests of Min Aung Hlaing's family too have been a cause of contention. He oversees the twin military conglomerates: Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanma Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) with his daughter, son and daughter-in-law holding substantial business interests in each. Moreover, a few days prior to the coup, the International Monetary Fund had released $350 million in cash to the Central Bank of Myanmar as a COVID-19 relief package. It didn't contain any clause for refund. The misuse of this fund seems to be a likelihood in the near future.
The way ahead
The manufactured emergency holds little ground legally. The president can declare an emergency only after due consultation with the National Defence and Security Council. The military has proven itself to be enjoying a stature above that of the constitution. The military states that it would rule only for a year and then hold a fresh election. It doesn't require too much political clairvoyance to predict that such an election would be completely orchestrated by the military. The public perception regarding the military has indeed undergone a setback. Burmese Twitter account holders used #RespectOurVotes, #HearTheVoiceofMyanmar among others. Myo Ko Ko, a Burmese student activist articulates the anxiety as he says “We strongly believe in democracy and human rights. We know that it's risky.” The coup has elicited mixed reactions from the nation's diverse ethnic groups. While the Restoration Council of Shan State has strongly condemned the coup, the Kachin Independence Organisation with a large population has remained silent about it. The coup has attracted international reactions, including Jacinda Ardern severing New Zealand's diplomatic ties with Myanmar. The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting upholding the resolution of restoring democracy in Myanmar. The statement however couldn't garner the support of all the members, with permanent members China and Russia refusing to back it. The regional implications in South Asia are, however, muted, with nations including India resorting to soft tactics and not being vocal about the situation. The ASEAN nations continue to stick to their non-interference tactics.
Meanwhile, the uncertainty persists amidst the three-finger salute in Myanmar. The gesture of defiance against the spectre that has returned back to haunt the nation, yet again. Democracy, the elusive D-word rests in agitation.
Subscribe to The Pangean
Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox