Myanmar’s military has ended its decade-long dalliance with democracy by launching a coup against the nation’s most popular political party and the former Nobel Peace Prize winner who leads it.
Early Monday morning local time, the country’s armed forces seized full control of the government after arresting Aung San Suu Kyi — the nation’s civilian leader — and top members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in a raid.
How did the military do this? What led to this? And, most importantly, what now?
How did the coup unfold?
In the early hours of Monday, the army’s TV station said power had been handed over to commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. Myanmar soldiers descended before dawn on Feb. 1, bearing rifles and wire cutters. At gunpoint, they ordered technicians at telecom operators to switch off the internet. For good measure, the soldiers snipped wires without knowing what they were severing, according to an eyewitness and a person briefed on the events.
The data centre raids in Yangon and other cities in Myanmar were part of a coordinated strike in which the military seized power, locked up the country’s elected leaders and took most of its internet users offline.
Following this, Ms Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were arrested in a series of raids. It is not clear where they are being held.
Surprisingly, as worried as they might be, the citizens are not panicked as they awoke to a nationwide communications blackout, the country witnessed two coups before Monday — in 1962 and 1988 — and so many took similar precautions as in years past, buying extra groceries and withdrawing cash from ATMs. But, they must still contend with the jarring scenes of armed soldiers patrolling the streets and the sudden disappearance of once-ubiquitous NLD flags.
Soldiers were seen blocking roads in the capital city of Nay Pyi Taw and the main city, Yangon. International and domestic TV channels, including the state broadcaster, went off the air, Internet and phone services were disrupted and banks reported that they had been forced to close
While no major violence has been reported, many fear that this could be a possibility as Suu Kyi, who enjoys a “godlike” status in Myanmar in a statement posted on the NLD’s Facebook page on Monday, stating “I urge people not to accept the coup by the military, and resist it resoundingly.”
Looped in chaos: from coup to democracy and back
To understand Myanmar’s latest coup, you need to first understand two intertwined storylines: the country’s decades-long struggle between democracy and military rule, and, more recently, the NLD’s rise under Suu Kyi.
Myanmar has toggled between military and civilian leadership since 1948, though the Tatmadaw, as the country’s armed forces are formally known, has remained the most powerful institution the entire time. In the late 1980s, a civilian pro-democracy movement gained strength with Suu Kyi as its leader.
For her efforts, the ruling military junta placed her under house arrest in 1989. The Nobel committee awarded her the Peace Prize in 1991 for her fight for democracy and emphasis on nonviolence.
The international community wasn’t happy with Myanmar’s autocratic leadership. The US, for example, placed sanctions on the country for decades, hoping those punishments would compel the generals to enact pro-democracy reforms and stop abusing human rights.
In hopes of ending that economic and political isolation, Myanmar’s top brass decided to take some modest steps toward a more democratic system hence the Tatmadaw spent five years drafting a constitution before it was accepted in 2008.
The most noteworthy provision gave the military at least 25 per cent of the seats in the legislature, no matter what. That was crucial because no amendments to the new constitution could be passed without over 75 per cent of lawmakers voting for them
In 2015, the Suu Kyi-led NLD won 77 per cent of the seats in Parliament in Myanmar’s first recognized, free and fair election in 25 years. The following year, Suu Kyi was given the title of “state counsellor” — a role created specifically for her — essentially allowing her to govern by proxy via an allied president.
Suu Kyi’s leadership wasn’t all bad for the military. Most notably, she backed the Tatmadaw’s 2017 campaign of mass killing and gang rape of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority and even defended the generals involved at the International Court of Justice.
But she did make plenty of moves that greatly troubled the ruling generals, namely her March 2020 push to amend Myanmar’s Constitution and strip the military of many of its authorities. The proposed changes — like reducing the number of allocated seats for military officers in Parliament — received majority support but were blocked by the Tatmadaw’s veto power.
In November 2020, the nation seemingly gave them the mandate to pursue constitutional reforms after voting to give the NLD 396 of 476 seats in parliament, trouncing the military-backed party.
For some in uniform, that posed an existential threat to the Tatmadaw’s authority. And something needed to be done about it.
Why launch the coup now?
No one can say the military failed to signal its intentions.
In response to the NLD’s landslide victory in November, the military and its political arm immediately claimed the elections were fraudulent, though foreign observers and the nation’s electoral commission declared there had been no significant problems. They went so far as to demand a new, military-supervised election, filed 200 complaints to local election agencies, and took their case to the nation’s Supreme Court.
Then last week, a military spokesperson warned that the armed forces might “take action” if their assertions of fraud weren’t taken seriously and notably refused to rule out a coup. Citing a provision in the constitution it drafted, the military said it could launch a coup if the nation’s sovereignty was threatened and declare a national emergency.
“Unless this problem is resolved, it will obstruct the path to democracy and it must therefore be resolved according to the law,” a military spokesperson said.
With the new parliament scheduled to hold its first session this week, where it would certify the results of the election that the military says was fraudulent, the military’s leaders finally decided enough was enough.
On Monday, they launched the coup.
At first blush, this looks like a straightforward story: Suu Kyi and the NLD were getting a lot of support, translating into growing political clout. Instead of letting the pro-democracy movement gain even more strength, the Tatmadaw decided to shut it down before it got worse for them.
Aaron Connelly, the Singapore-based Southeast Asia program director at the IISS think tank, said the military may have been blindsided by Suu Kyi’s popularity and acted out.
Myanmar’s armed forces live in separate areas from everyday citizens and have their own school system, TV station, and even hospitals. “It’s possible that they are so cosseted that they didn’t get it,” he said — that is, until the 2020 election showed just how powerful the NLD was becoming.
What has the reaction been in Myanmar?
Michael Ghilezan, a partner of a US law firm who lives in Yangon, told the BBC he had expected military vehicles and protests in the city, but there was instead an eerie calm. “The most common reaction from my Burmese friends has been anger. They feel deeply betrayed by the military and the USDP.”
This was reflected in other comments from the streets, although there have been some supporters of the army out waving flags in Yangon.
Theinny Oo, a development consultant,said: “We had a lawful election. People voted for the one they preferred. We have no protection under the law now.”
Many people feared giving their names. One 64-year-old resident of Hlaing township told AFP: “I don’t want the coup. I have seen many transitions in this country and I was looking forward to a better future.”
Author and historian Thant Myint-U tweeted that a door had opened to a “very different future”, and he feared for the millions who had been descending into poverty.
What does the future hold?
Indeed, experts appear unsure of exactly why the military acted now, as there seems little to gain.
“It is worth remembering that the current system is tremendously beneficial for the army: it has complete command autonomy, sizable international investment in its commercial interests and political cover from civilians for war crimes,” said Gerard McCarthy, a postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute.
“Seizing power for a year as it has announced will isolate non-Chinese international partners, harm the military’s commercial interests and provoke escalating resistance from millions of people who placed Suu Kyi and the NLD in power for another term of government.”