Myanmar’s military has seized power in a coup d’etat for the first time since 1988, seemingly terminating a decade-long process of halting and tentative political reform. Myo Nyunt, a spokesperson for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said that State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s top leader, and the country’s president, Win Myint, were both detained in the pre-dawn hours of Monday.
According to local media reports, NLD lawmakers and members of its Central Executive Committee have also been taken into custody, in addition to other known critics of the military. (These include, according to one report, the Karen reggae singer Saw Poe Kwah.) Party officials and activists were also detained in other parts of Myanmar as lines of communication such as radio and the internet were cut.
The army swiftly announced a year-long state of emergency, with former General Myint Swe, current vice president and former head of the Yangon military command, to serve as acting president. Myint Swe has transferred legislature, executive, and judicial power to the army’s commander in chief, Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing for the duration of the emergency.
The announcement, which follows days of swirling reports about the threat of a military coup and military denials to the same effect, came just as the country’s new parliament was to be sworn in for the coming five-year term. This meant that most of the NLD’s leadership were in Naypyidaw for the induction ceremony, while those not in the capital were detained in their home states, suggested a considerable degree of coordination and planning on the part of the military.
The military claims that it is taking control under Section 417 of Myanmar’s Constitution, in order to investigate alleged fraud at the country’s November 8 election. The election saw a thundering victory for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, which won an astonishing 83 percent of the parliamentary seats up for election, while the military’s electoral proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), won a paltry 6.9 percent.
The Tatmadaw and USDP have since claimed that there was massive voting fraud in the election, and last week claimed to have identified 8.6 million individual cases of fraud, though neither has provided proof. The Union Election Commission last week rejected its allegations.
Amid the bickering over the claims, the military last week ramped up political tension when a spokesman at its weekly news conference, responding to a reporter’s question, declined to rule out the possibility of a coup. “We do not say the Tatmadaw will take power,” he told reporters in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw. “We do not say it will not as well.” Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing doubled down the following day, claiming that the military could revoke the constitution.
The coup represents the sudden culmination of a civilian-military tensions that have simmered beneath the surface of the country’s politics since Myanmar’s military-dominated government began to initiate the dramatic political and economic opening of the country in 2011. In some ways, these tensions are baked into the country’s 2008 Constitution, drafted and promulgated by the military junta, which guarantees the Tatmadaw the control of three powerful ministries, as well as a quarter of the seats in the Union Parliament.
Even after Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD won a landslide victory at national elections in 2015, these constitutional provisions ensured that long-standing tensions between the NLD government and the military would continue.
The NLD’s massive victory at November’s election, and the increasing loss of support for the army-backed USDP, seems to have dramatically sharpened the civilian-military divide, and convinced the army leadership that the Constitution no longer offered sufficient protection against political challenge. Another important factor is the personal ambition of Min Aung Hlaing, who has long harbored ambitions of leading the country, and is slated for mandatory retirement in June.
The military takeover was met with an immediate wall of condemnation from foreign governments and human rights groups. In a short statement, White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki said the U.S. it was “alarmed” by the reports coming out of Myanmar and urged “the military and all other parties to adhere to democratic norms and the rule of law, and to release those detained today.” She added, “The United States opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition, and will take action against those responsible if steps are not reversed.” Similar statements followed from Australia, India, Singapore, and United Nations Secretary General António Guterres.
These statements are likely to be followed by harsher measures by Western governments, which threaten to tip Myanmar back into the international isolation that preceding the country’s long years of junta rule. But the developments in Myanmar represent a daunting challenge for the Biden administration and other Western governments. A strong response is warranted, but as in the past, an ambitious China will be looking to capitalize on the likely alienation between Myanmar and the West, advancing its customary line that the military’s actions are the country’s own “internal affair.”
Having viewed the relative acquiescence to the military coup that happened in neighboring Thailand in 2014, the military leadership seems to be gambling that it can weather the storm of condemnation that is sure to follow in the coming days and weeks. Min Aung Hlaing was already sanctioned by the U.S. government in 2019 over the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslim communities from western Myanmar, and he is probably gambling that Western powers will hold back on reimposing more sweeping sanctions out of fear for pushing his country closer to China.
But the military actions are not necessarily a clear win for Beijing, either; the senior Tatmadaw leadership harbors a deep suspicion of the Chinese government’s intentions, to say nothing of the increasing Chinese economic and migratory presence in the country. There was also a sense in which Aung San Suu Kyi, as a political leader with popular legitimacy, was better able to sell the Myanmar people on Chinese-backed infrastructure projects.
More broadly, recent events in Southeast Asia have shown that with China’s growing power, and democratic backsliding in the West, the U.S. and other Western countries no longer have the moral authority or economic and political means to set the normative agenda in the region. While the coup will no doubt come with costs, the army clearly views them as affordable, given its perceived domestic interests. The ones who will suffer the most, of course, are the people of Myanmar, who are due for another year – at least – of airless military dictatorship.
With reporting from the Associated Press.