The Myanmar military’s coup is a gluttonous grab for still more power despite the generals’ already entrenched role in the recent civilian governments. The country voted overwhelmingly for another Aung San Suu Kyi government last November and was already struggling under the impacts of COVID-19 and a recent surge in its civil wars.
In the early morning of February 1, the Myanmar military detained State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint, cabinet members and other top officials of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing seized power with the announcement of a nighttime curfew and a one-year state of emergency, after which the military will hold elections. Nearly all communications to the capital Naypyidaw were cut off and internet access has been sporadic and restricted around the country.
Over a decade after leaving its last junta behind, Myanmar is once again facing military rule just hours before its newly-elected Parliament was set to convene. The power grab constitutes a major liability for the military and the public as Myanmar grapples with the impacts of the pandemic and a resurgence in internal armed conflict.
As one 25-year-old resident of Yangon told the BBC on condition of anonymity, “Waking up to learn your world has been completely turned upside down overnight was not a new feeling, but a feeling that I thought that we had moved on from, and one that I never thought we’d be forced to feel again.”
The military’s primary motive is likely to preserve its power as the NLD, along with ethnic parties representing millions of voters, has worked to reduce the military’s influence by amending the 2008 Constitution, which the military drafted. This has so far failed as constitutional amendments require the support of over 75% of Parliament to pass, but the constitution guarantees the military 25% of seats in the legislature.
The takeover also may be tied to the impending retirement of military chief and accused war criminal Min Aung Hlaing in July, according to an AP analysis. Though the military’s power was already entrenched in the civilian government, a changing of the guard could jeopardize its hold on the country.
But the coup itself has jeopardized Myanmar’s stability at a time when the country can’t afford to gamble. Though the country has fought an impressive and relatively effective battle against the pandemic, its economic toll is pushing swaths of the country into poverty and precarity. Myanmar’s internal armed conflicts are at a tipping point, as ceasefires collapse and violence has broken out in Karen and Shan states.
The military is also no longer looking at the same country it ruled until 2010. The past decade has seen a boom in journalism, outspoken civil society and successful efforts to build new alternatives to junta rule. Min Aung Hlaing has doubled down amid a populace that’s fed up with the country’s overweight military and has seen it can do better—be it through the NLD, federalism and ethnic parties or armed struggle.
Military alleges voter fraud, moves to “protect the constitution”
The takeover came after weeks of tension as the military alleged widespread voter fraud in the November 2020 election, threatening in the past week to launch a coup in the name of protecting the country’s constitution. The military claimed there were over 8.6 million “irregularities” in November’s vote.
Nearly all election observers say the voting was free and fair and Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) concluded in late January that there is no evidence of voting fraud—neither of “voting malpractice” nor of citizens casting more than one ballot. The UEC also concluded that any attempt by the military to alter the outcome of the popular vote would violate the 2008 Constitution.
The election saw the NLD win in an even greater landslide than in the previous general election in 2015. The opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a military proxy and continuation of Myanmar’s last junta which was phased out in 2010, won even fewer seats in November than in 2015. The USDP has supported the military’s claims of voter fraud, filing a complaint with the Supreme Court.
Myanmar’s coup is a dangerous gamble
In the run-up to the February 1 coup, some analysts in Myanmar doubted that the military would seize power as it would violate the constitution. The charter does allow the military chief to hold sovereign power, under Article 40(c), but only if the president enacts a state of emergency. To do so, the president must consult with the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), a military-dominated panel which the NLD chose never to convene between 2015 and 2020.
As such, the military forced President U Win Myint’s hand and replaced him with previous Vice-President U Myint Swe, who helped run the country’s last junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
“This is a military coup attempt, but they can claim it is not, by forcing the President to call an urgent national security meeting for an official handover of power to them,” said NLD spokesperson Myo Nyunt.
The generals’ decision to push ahead with the coup undermines the military’s legitimacy, as since the 2010 election, it has maintained its power as well as a political mandate by sharing control with the civilian government.
As the dynamics inside Myanmar are still taking shape, analysts are looking to stakeholders outside the government to assess the situation. Governments from the Global North, including the US and Australia, have strongly condemned the coup. ASEAN is maintaining its stance of non-interference, despite having played a role in supporting the country’s transition to quasi-democracy in 2010. Member states called for restraint and peace.
China, a key patron of Myanmar and a player in the country’s peace process over the years, “noted” the coup and expressed hope that the parties would resolve differences and maintain stability. Japan and India similarly called for dialogue while not condemning the generals’ actions.
Myanmar’s rapidly growing civil society has immediately responded and called for specific actions from the international community. Though not representative of the whole of Myanmar, their response offers a framework for international allies.
“The military should immediately and unconditionally release all detained and return to Parliament to reach a peaceful resolution with all relevant parties,” read a statement from a broad list of veteran organizations inside Myanmar and abroad. “How the military has acted has proven it has never been committed to any democratic change. It has always been interested in preserving power.”
The groups called for Parliament to resume, for the UN Security Council to establish an arms embargo, for the Internet and all communications to be restored and for the international community to impose sanctions. The statement also called on Facebook and media companies to suspend the account of USDP and military leaders as they have used social media to spread hate speech and misinformation in their efforts to garner support for the coup.