What’s Next for Myanmar
State leader Min Aung Hlaing, who was due to retire as commander in chief when he turns 65 in July, could now extend his hold on power.
YANGON, Myanmar—In the week leading up to the coup executed in the early hours of Monday, Myanmar’s military issued a series of vague threats undermining the credibility of the Nov. 8 national elections. Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, the armed forces’ spokesperson, refused to rule out whether the military would seize power, in response to a journalist’s questions. Military chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing floated the idea of abolishing the 2008 constitution, which was drafted by the military itself.
On Sunday, hours before the newly elected parliament was set to convene for the first time, the military sent shockwaves through the country with a more aggressive statement once again rejecting the election results. Shortly afterward, the military detained state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, at least 42 other members of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, and 16 activists.
The brazen coup comes after a monthslong campaign to discredit the elections based on unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud. The NLD’s second consecutive electoral victory made it clear that the military, known as the Tatmadaw, had no path back to power through the polls. Its refusal to recognize the results had already sparked a political crisis. Military allies had filed complaints with Myanmar’s Supreme Court against civilian government leaders, threatened to boycott parliament, and demanded a new vote. The Tatmadaw leadership has now declared a one-year state of emergency, vowing to reshape the national election commission and oversee a new “free and fair” multiparty election.
The military so carefully crafted the country’s current political landscape that some observers initially dismissed the possibility of a coup. While the 2008 constitution allows for democratic elections, it also gives the Tatmadaw an inordinate amount of power. Under the constitution, it remains outside civilian control, receives a guaranteed 25 percent of parliamentary seats, and retains control over key institutions such as the police. The status quo maintains the military’s political power and protects its economic interests—all while shielding it from international scrutiny and domestic accountability.
With Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD pledging to institute a federal democratic union and the military steadfastly vetoing any constitutional reforms, the arrangement was unsustainable. But the ongoing political crisis may have less to do with the military as an institution and more to do with Min Aung Hlaing, now Myanmar’s state leader. As commander in chief, the senior general would be required by law to retire when he turns 65 in July, undermining his outsized political and economic influence. Retirement could also leave him vulnerable to international justice—for his key role in spearheading the 2017 campaign of atrocities against the Rohingya minority, which the United Nations has described as genocide.
Khin Maung, the head of the Rohingya Youth Association, condemned the coup and called for swift action from the international community. He voiced concerns about how the military takeover would shape the repatriation process for Rohingya in Bangladesh and for the safety of the Rohingya who have remained in Rakhine state, in western Myanmar.
“We are citizens of Myanmar. We have the same feeling as the Myanmar people. … Our whole community is very worried,” he said, speaking from the refugee camps in Bangladesh. “If they [the international community] delay, it will be a worse impact for our people—not just the Rohingya but all the people in Myanmar.”
Uncertainty permeated the streets of Yangon, the country’s commercial center, on Monday. For many residents, mobile data signal and wireless internet cut out intermittently. People flocked to street markets to stock up on essentials such as rice and eggs. Long lines formed outside grocery stores, banks, and pharmacies as people prepared to hunker down if necessary. “In the future, we don’t know what’s going to happen, so we need to have cash in hand,” said one young woman in line for an ATM, who declined to give her name out of safety concerns.
The United States was one of the first countries to react to the coup, with White House spokesperson Jen Psaki saying that the United States “will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed.” While the United States may not opt for blanket countrywide sanctions as it did when Myanmar was under previous military leadership, expanded sanctions against the military are expected. The sanctions could target the Tatmadaw’s substantial business holdings, including in the oil and gas sector, said Hunter Marston, a regional political analyst based in Canberra, Australia.
For now, NLD supporters and pro-democracy activists have stayed off the streets. While a statement attributed to Aung San Suu Kyi calling for protests was posted to an official NLD Facebook page, some party officials said they no longer have control of the page. The incident has left many members of the public wary that the military may try to goad them into a trap. If there are mass protests, “the military has prepared for these by deploying troops in various major cities and detaining potential community organizers as well as journalists,” Marston said.
The political crisis is certain to set back Myanmar’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic effects. The country had just begun to bring its own outbreak under control. “Already in the middle of the worst economic crisis in 100 years and the most dangerous health threat, this political crisis—no matter how it turned out—was going to set back recovery for months if not longer,” said Mary Callahan, a Yangon-based analyst with decades of experience working on Myanmar issues.
And while Myanmar seemed to have finally turned a corner in its democratic development, the coup has yanked the country back toward its dark past under decades of military dictatorship. Last week’s threats alone traumatized many citizens, again. “Mentally I got hit even before I noticed. I was conscious that my body and mind were responding the same, just like the 2017 Rohingya crisis,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a Yangon-based pro-democracy activist who described a “feeling of helplessness.”
Thinzar Shunlei Yi was in the process of planning voter education campaigns for local elections expected in March, but their future is now in doubt. “Our political system is failing,” she said.