Myanmar returns to military rule after army stages a coup on February 1, the day the newly elected parliament was to convene

The army in Myanmar stages a coup yet again, on the day the new parliament was to convene, but the people have come out on the streets defying curfews and bans and courting arrest. However, the international reaction to the military takeover, the condemnation aside, has been tepid.

Published : Mar 02, 2021 06:00 IST

Graduates of Mandalay University protesting against the coup, in Mandalay on February 14.

Graduates of Mandalay University protesting against the coup, in Mandalay on February 14.

It took a couple of days for the mass of people in Myanmar to react to the brazen coup the military staged on February 1. Protests have broken out all over the country. There are reports that in some instances, soldiers have also joined in the protests. The military imposed a state of emergency and arrested the top civilian leaders—including Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), President U Win Myint, Cabinet Ministers and Chief Ministers of States—and writers and activists.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army’s top commander, was named the head of the military junta that seized power. Besides presiding over profitable army-run business conglomerates, his family has a stake in many private business ventures. The army chief was due to retire from service later this year. He supervised the brutal ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya and led military campaigns against the Shan and the Kokang people. It was no secret that the army chief and Aung san Suu Kyi were not on the best of terms though they seemed to be on the same page on the Rohingya issue.

The pretext for the military coup was the alleged rigging by the NLD in the general election held in November last year. The army leadership was upset that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party fared even better in this election than it did in 2015, getting 83 per cent of the votes cast and 396 of the 476 seats in the parliament. In comparison, the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party fared dismally: it only got 33 seats. There are reports that Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to appoint Gen. Aung Hlaing as the next President could have been an important motivating factor for the coup.

The military challenged the results, but the Union Election Commission and the country’s Supreme Court rejected the claims. International election observers, including those from the European Union and the Carter Centre, certified the November election as mainly fair and free. Myanmar, like India, follows the parliamentary “first past the post” election system. In many constituencies, NLD candidates won with a narrow margin of votes. Proportional representation would have given the army-backed party more seats. While justifying the coup, the military claimed, without providing evidence, that “national solidarity” had broken down. Also read: Struggling democracy in Myanmar

The military chose to stage its coup on February 1, the day the new parliament was to convene. It declared a “state of emergency” and pledged that it would hold “fair and free” elections in a year’s time. There were very few takers for the army’s claims and promises. The army feared that the NLD, having won its second landslide electoral victory in 10 years, would redraft the constitution to fully re-establish civilian control over the government. The 2008 constitution gives the army chief the right to assume full power in times of emergency. It was under this clause that he seized power. The constitution reserves 25 per cent of the seats in the parliament and three Cabinet posts, including the Interior Ministry, for nominees of the army, which gives the army an effective veto over the elected government. Aung San Suu Kyi is prevented from formally holding the top job because she was married to a foreigner. The NLD wanted to amend this clause of the constitution. Last year, 63 per cent of the National Assembly voted for the constitution to be amended, but the vote fell short of the 75 per cent needed.

Yun Sun, a specialist on Myanmar who works at the Washington-based Stimson Centre, is of the view that the military’s goal since ceding partial power to civilians in 2011 was to retain its privileged position in national politics and the country’s economy. The ruling party’s move last year “in the minds of the military, was not about constitutional revision, rather it was about taking away the military’s authority and privileges”. The scale of Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory in 2015 and 2020 seriously compromised the army’s position in national affairs.

There is speculation that the army proposes to draft a new constitution similar to the one imposed on the people of neighbouring Thailand, where a former army chief is in power and the army has created an Upper House in which all the members are its hand-picked nominees, making the popularly elected Lower House virtually powerless.

The widespread protests against the military, which have been continuing for more than a fortnight, have spread from the cities to the countryside. The military decided to take a tougher stance and imposed a curfew, banned large gatherings and conducted midnight raids to arrest opposition activists. It has now imposed more restrictions on the Internet and further limited personal freedoms. In the second week of February, hackers managed to gain access to the official government website and posted an ultimatum to the junta. “We want democracy! Reject military coup! Justice for Myanmar!” the message of the protesters read. Posters of the army chief plastered on the walls of cities have been defaced with insulting graffiti. Also read: The roads to Myanmar

The cascading protests and nationwide strikes were too much for the “Tatmadaw”, as the military is known in the country, to tolerate. Since independence, the military has had its way most of the time. People have not forgotten the brutal tactics it adopted to quell pro-democracy protests in 1988. More than 3,000 people were killed in that uprising. In 1990, the military government had to finally agree to hold an election. That election saw the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi as the most popular Burmese leader as her party, the NLD, swept the polls, but the military refused to cede power. Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest and only released in 2010.

Army launches crackdown

On the night of February 14, 2021, the military removed its velvet glove and deployed the army all over the country along with armoured vehicles. Troops surrounded the houses of opposition leaders and trade union leaders who had called for nationwide protests. According to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, more than 350 people were arrested immediately after the army seized power. Thousands more have been arrested after the army launched its nationwide crackdown in mid February.

The military granted amnesty to 23,000 prisoners soon after the coup. This has freed up prison space that will be soon filled with civilian pro-democracy protesters and opposition politicians. One of the largest protest demonstrations the country has witnessed since the latest coup was on “Union Day”, which marks the day (February 12, 1947) Burma became a unified country. According to media reports, hundreds of thousands of people participated in the protests held in cities and towns all over the country. Protests have been reported from areas in the country dominated by minority ethnic groups such as the Kachin and the Shan where the army leadership had claimed that the NLD had massively rigged elections.

Economy virtually paralysed

Those participating in the protests include students, professionals, civil servants and large sections of the working class; the economy has been virtually paralysed. The decision of civil service workers to go on strike is unprecedented in the country’s chequered political history. Workers in key industries, including those in which the army has a stake, have gone on strike. A strike by railway workers paralysed the railway system. Doctors in many hospitals also joined the protests. The strike and protest actions have taken place despite the army authorities authorising the use of force, including the use of live bullets, against protesters. Many people have lost their lives since the protests began.

The international community unanimously condemned the military takeover, and many countries are threatening sanctions. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the coup had dealt a “serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar”. The Indian government issued a short statement expressing “deep concern” over the events in Myanmar. “India has always been steadfast in its support of the democratic transition in Myanmar. We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld,” the Indian External Affairs Ministry said. Also read: Justice for Rohingyas

The Narendra Modi government has a good equation with Gen. Aung Hlaing, who was in Delhi on an official visit last year. The Indian Army and the Tatmadaw have been cooperating closely in counter-insurgency operations in the north-east. India provides training to army officers from Myanmar. India and China are the country’s two biggest neighbours. In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi was viewed in Delhi as being closer to Beijing. Both India and China were among the few countries that were viewed as being generally supportive of the Myanmar government’s policies against the Rohingya. Gen. Aung Hlaing had described the operations against the Rohingya as “the unfinished work of the Bengali problem”.

The United States has been the most vocal in its criticism, with the Joe Biden administration imposing additional sanctions after the February coup. But history has shown that sanctions have little impact on the hyper-nationalistic army of Myanmar. After the 1988 pro-democracy revolt, the U.S. had imposed wide-ranging sanctions. The Tatmadaw responded by arresting Aung San Suu Kyi and ruling with an iron fist for another two decades. In those days, Myanmar’s economy was not that dependent on China. Today, China is the country’s biggest trading partner and the second biggest source of foreign direct investment.

After the army loosened its tight grip on power at the beginning of the last decade, the U.S. invested a lot of diplomatic capital to cultivate special ties with Myanmar. In 2011, the then U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made a visit to Yangon. President Barack Obama visited in 2012 and 2014. This was part of the U.S.’ efforts to wean the country away from China’s sphere of influence. Obama had already announced his military “pivot to the East”—a plan to strategically encircle China.

China has no reason to be happy with the turn of events in Myanmar as it shared cordial relations with both the military and the civilian leadership. Aung San Suu Kyi was a frequent visitor to Beijing, and Myanmar is a crucial member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The BRI corridor between Kunming in China and Myanmar’s port of Kyaukphyu will help China bypass the choke point of the Strait of Malacca through which much of its trade is currently conducted. The two countries signed 33 major economic deals last year, when Aung San Suu Kyi was calling the shots. Also read: Hounding Rohingyas

“China is a friendly neighbour of Myanmar. We hope that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said. Political turmoil in Myanmar is the last thing China wants. As it is, China is wary about the political crisis that has gripped another of its neighbours, Nepal, where a friendly government is riven with political infighting. The U.N. Security Council, of which China is a permanent member, issued a statement expressing “deep concern at the declaration of the state of emergency” in Myanmar.

The ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) grouping of which Myanmar is a member was cautious in its criticism of the military takeover. Two ASEAN members, Cambodia and Thailand, said the developments were an “internal matter”. Singapore is the biggest foreign investor in Myanmar. Japan, South Korea and Thailand have also invested heavily in the country. Despite strongly criticising the military takeover, the Japanese government has since been quiet on the issue of imposing sanctions on the country.

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