On the morning of February 1st, 2021 several members of Myanmar’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were deposed by the military, which proclaimed a year-long state of emergency, and handed the power to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, General Ming Aung Hlang. The military declared the November 2020 General Election invalid, claiming the vote was fraudulent. By February 2nd, 400 members of Parliament had been placed under house arrest, confined to their government housing complex, and guarded by soldiers.
For some westerners, this coup d’état may have come as a surprise, but Myanmar’s high-ranking military officers have been threatening this for months.
What led to the coup?
On November 8th, 2020, Myanmar held General Elections that resulted in a landslide victory for NLD. The military and the Union Solidary and Development Party (USDP), which hold close ties, as many party officials are former military personnel, began making allegations of widespread voter fraud following their defeat. They even threatened to take decisive action if these matters were not properly addressed.
All allegations were dismissed by the election commission, on January 27th General Min Aung Hlaing publicly announced he would not rule out the possibility of a coup d’état and the abolition of the constitution if the constitution would fail to be upheld.
Then, on February 1st, one day before the scheduled swearing-in of the new government and members of parliament, the coup d’état was carried out.
How was the coup carried out?
The military placed various members of the NLD under house arrest, as well as other civilian officials, such as Ms. Aung Saan Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint. Furthermore, the military quickly gained control of the country’s infrastructure and telecommunication services, suspending television broadcasts, as well as telephone and internet coverage in most major cities.
As soon as February 2nd, people started flooding the streets in protests against the military. Hospital staff, teachers, and government officials joined civil disobedience movements threatening to strike until the elected government was restored. The protests escalated daily, with information being shared through Twitter and Facebook, leading the military junta to shut down the internet.
By February 9th, the police were using crowd control tactics to disperse the masses, such as water cannons and rubber bullets to clear the streets. This day was also marked by the shooting of Mya Khaing, a 19-year-old protester, shot by police while seeking shelter from water cannons under a bus stop. The shooting was recorded by bystanders. She was declared brain dead on February 12th and was taken off life support on the 19th. Mya’s death sparked national outrage, which further fueled the protests.
The military junta tried to deescalate the situation by promising to hold new elections as soon as the state of emergency is lifted. This promise failed to appease the masses, as they continued to flood the streets by the hundreds of thousands. This defiance of the military’s orders was confronted with an escalation of violence by the police and armed forces, who launched a brutal crackdown.
As of March 20th, the international press reported that over 2100 people were arrested, including 29 journalists, and over 120 have been confirmed dead. The deadliest day was the 3rd of March when at least 38 people were killed during protests, with witnesses saying the police and the military were using live ammunition against unarmed crowds. On the evening of the 6th of March, NLD party official Khin Maung Latt was pronounced dead while in police custody, following his arrest by the military earlier that day. Official sources state he died of a heart, but family members quickly questioned the various bruises found around his head and neck, arguing their family member was beaten to death.
The historic role of the military in Myanmar
Following Myanmar’s (then called Burma) independence from Britain in 1948, a democratic system was instituted until the 1962 coup d’état orchestrated by General Ne Win, who ruled the country for 26 years. General Ne Win tried to implement a new ideology, which became known as “Burmese Socialism”, where Marxist views were influenced by Buddhism.
General Ne Win was ousted in 1988 following a wave of protests against the dire economic situation Myanmar was facing in the 1980s. These protests resulted in 3000 deaths, and Ne Win was forced to resign, being replaced by another military junta, but maintaining an active presence behind the scenes.
Myanmar’s military junta was officially dissolved in 2011, following the 2010 General Elections, which were widely dismissed as fraudulent by western nations. For a country that, at the time, was celebrating 63 years of independence, this marked the end of 49 years of military rule. However, the military continued to hold a substantial amount of power, as according to the constitution, it has the right of holding 25% of the seats in the House of Representatives, as well as in the House of Nationalities. Furthermore, the ministries of home, border affairs, and defense must be headed by a serving military officer.
The role of Aung San Suu Kyi
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, an instrumental figure in Burma’s independence from Britain and considered the “Father of modern-day Myanmar”, was under house arrest for a total of 15 years between 1989 and 2010, on charges of undermining the community peace and stability.
In 1991, as the leader of the NLD and under house arrest, she won the national elections but was restrained from assuming power by the military junta. Ms. Suu Kyi was an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression and was therefore awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, while under house arrest.
After her 2010 release, she contested and won the 2015 general elections, the first openly contested General Elections of the 21st century, by a large margin. As Ms. Suu Kyi was married to a foreign national and has children who have foreign nationalities, the constitution forbids her from becoming president, and she assumed the role of state counselor to President Win Myint.
Her international image was tarnished by her defense of the military during the Rohingya Crisis, where Myanmar was accused of genocide by the International Court of Justice, for crimes against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
This support of the military did not save her during the coup, as she was one of the first politicians detained by the military. She is once again under house arrest and faces obscure charges that could land her in prison for up to 6 years. She is accused of violating import restrictions, as six walkie-talkies were found in her villa compound, as well as contravening a natural disaster management law by interacting with a crowd during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ms. Suu Kyi has been denied legal representation during her trial, and this process is widely seen as a pretext to keep her under detention.
It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it
Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991
The upcoming weeks will be decisive for the prospect of democracy in Myanmar. If the military junta is able to maintain its firm grip on power, we could expect another chapter in the history of military oppression of political and individual freedoms in Myanmar. However, if the masses can resist and depose the increasingly violent military junta, this could be a major step in the development of their freedom, as it could lead to a clear separation of powers within Myanmar’s political system, paving the way towards democracy.
Sources: Al-Jazeera, BBC, CNN, Nikkei Asia, Reuters, The New York Times