Myanmar’s Coup Shouldn’t Surprise Anyone
With Washington and much of the world preoccupied, the generals have calculated they can get away with it.
Since last week, events in Myanmar have unfolded like a chronicle of a coup foretold. The army warned about it, hinting that a coup might happen. The army chief demurred and foreign embassies duly protested. The United Nations, too, cautioned against a coup. Then, early on Monday as the new parliament was about to meet, troops were seen at strategic locations in the capital, Naypyidaw, and the country’s largest city, Yangon; military vehicles plied major avenues; and one by one, leading parliamentarians including state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and dozens of others were detained. Among those arrested are regional chief ministers, writers, a singer, and former student leaders of what is known as Generation ’88—the young people who rose against the army that year. Finally, in an official statement released earlier today, the military declared a one-year, nationwide state of emergency and confirmed that power had been handed to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Already last week, the international community was alarmed by signs of the impending coup, as Western diplomats in Yangon expressed concern. The Tatmadaw, as the Burmese military is known, issued a self-righteous rebuttal reeking with injured innocence, reprimanding the foreign diplomats for speaking without sufficient knowledge. But the diplomats’ fears turned out to be justified.
By late last week, as the date for the newly elected parliament’s first session neared, military supporters had become more assertive. Eyewitnesses reported seeing military supporters marching in the streets and beating up civilians. The military urged everyone to adhere to the constitution. Photographs showed some of the activists with conspicuous earpieces, suggesting they were part of the armed forces. A pro-military politician was also seen directing protesters on the streets.
The military and the demonstrators were opposing the convening of the new parliament, which they claimed was not representative. Much like the truth-denying supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, they insisted that the November parliamentary election that saw the National League for Democracy (NLD) return to power with an overwhelming majority was fraudulent because of an alleged mismatch between the electoral rolls and votes cast. While the Myanmar election had some flaws, the national election commission has rejected claims of widespread irregularities. Sources I spoke to in Yangon said that even if votes were counted based on the earlier electoral rolls, pro-military politicians would have lost overwhelmingly.
The results of the November vote were unambiguous. The NLD took 138 of the 224 seats in Amyotha Hluttaw, the House of Nationalities, and 258 of 440 seats in Pyithu Hluttaw, the House of Representatives—adding six more seats to the party’s 2015 tally. The pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won only seven and 26 seats, respectively, in the two chambers: altogether seven fewer seats than its 2015 total. The USDP’s performance was abysmal, considering that the NLD is not as popular today as it was in 2015.
Still, the durability of the NLD’s popularity is remarkable. In 1990, it easily triumphed in the first truly representative election the military allowed, in which the party won 392 of the 492 seats in parliament. It was an outcome the generals immediately annulled, detaining lawmakers and placing Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for years. The logjam was broken only in 2012, when Myanmar held by-elections in which the NLD fielded candidates. The mood was festive in the country at that time, and I vividly remember Aung San Suu Kyi’s face on posters, billboards, and stickers on the dashboards of Yangon’s rickety cabs. Unsurprisingly, her party swept the polls, winning 43 of the 44 seats for which by-elections were held, paving the way for democracy. It seemed like a fairy-tale ending.
But fairy tales are fiction, while reality is much harsher. While Aung San Suu Kyi was an outstanding champion of Myanmar’s democracy during those years and won a raft of international honors, she was careful to keep the army by her side. An early indication of her thinking was her interview on the popular BBC radio program, Desert Island Discs, when she chose among her favorite pieces of music a Burmese martial song, and reminded listeners that her father had founded the Burmese army, and as such, all the soldiers were her kin. Her remarks came as a surprise to many, considering how the same army had treated her. She became a global democracy icon, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, was celebrated in a song by the band U2, and became the subject of a Luc Besson film.
But she disappointed many with her initial equivocation about—and refusal to condemn—the atrocities the army committed against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, and her subsequent strident support for the military when it was accused of committing genocide. During my visit to the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, the many Rohingyas I met were stunned that she would not support their plight. Even as the NLD consolidated power, she looked the other way as civil liberties were eroded, journalists were arrested, and a conflict in Rakhine state escalated. She strongly defended the military at the International Court of Justice when Gambia brought a case accusing Myanmar of genocide. By essentially becoming the face of the Myanmar military, she destroyed what remained of her credibility in the international community. She may have calculated that the favors she did to the military would get rewarded, and that she would be able to establish complete civilian rule in Myanmar one day. But that would have required the military to give up control.
A crucial part of Myanmar’s democratic transition has been the preeminent role the military has continued to enjoy, as well as a constitutional provision that prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president because she was married to a foreigner. She is now 75; her husband, the British academic Michael Aris, died in 1999. Under the constitution—which the military has not annulled—the military retains a quarter of the parliament’s seats, which makes it nearly impossible to amend key parts of the constitution.
But the NLD’s astounding performance in the November elections meant the balance of power was tilting towards her. At the same time, it was widely known that Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s new leader as of today, had been coveting the presidency following the end of his tenure as commander-in-chief this year, when he turns 65 in July. To have gained the presidency legitimately, he would have needed the support of a majority in parliament. But following the USDP’s disastrous performance in the election, even the 25 percent of parliamentary seats reserved for the army by the constitution would not have been enough to make his elevation certain. And so the generals have reverted to old form: jailing the elected leaders; closing the airport; shutting off internet services in some parts of the country; declaring a state of emergency; and establishing control.
The coup should not surprise anyone. The generals have calculated that they can get away with it: The new U.S. administration is preoccupied with settling in (although it has warned Myanmar that it will be punished), China is busy with its own priorities, the European Union is in flux, much of the world is focused on combating the pandemic, and Aung San Suu Kyi no longer captures the global imagination as she did during the 1990s because of her acquiescence over the Rohingya crisis.
The coup leaders’ calculation may well be sound. But the cost will not be borne by the Buddhist monks, some of whom incited violence against the Rohingyas, nor by the army, which continues to fight battles on several fronts within Myanmar, nor by Aung San Suu Kyi, who finds herself detained and with diminished international support. The real cost will be borne by Myanmar’s long-suffering people, whose collective desire for a representative democracy has been thwarted once again. For their sake, the international community must do what it can to help restore the democratic process in Myanmar.