On 1st February 2021, the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) released a statement; Citing article 417 of the constitution, which ‘permits’ a military takeover of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the Union in the event of an emergency that threatens Myanmar’s sovereignty. The statement followed a night of arrests, where senior governmental leaders, including the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were detained. The Tatmadaw, under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing assumed control of all branches over government, declaring a state of emergency for one year from the day of promulgation.
In reasserting their power over the country, the Tatmadaw has rolled back the tide of democracy, which had broad support. There has been a groundswell of civil disobedience and protests supported by prominent civil society members in response. However, the Tatmadaw, which has a history of responding to civil unrest with an iron fist, has responded in kind. On 6th February, the Myanmar military reportedly ordered telecommunications companies to entirely shut down internet and 4G services, which is likely to suppress protesters’ ability to organise effectively. Additionally, in responding to initial protests, the military has deployed water cannons and rubber bullets, a ban on protests, and set ominous conditions, threatening anyone who breaks the “rule of law”.
As the dust settles, the international community’s reaction will bear real importance in determining the crisis’s trajectory. Of particular importance will be China’s reaction, which has grown closer to the democratic government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. However, as we have seen, China rarely misses an opportunity to expand its influence. There have been rumblings that China tacitly approved the coup in a meeting last month between China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, and General Min Aung Hlaing of Myanmar, and it is possible China was both supportive and complicit in the coup. The proceeding weeks and months will be illuminating in determining what direction this crisis will take, as the grip of democracy slips from the people of Myanmar’s fingers once again.
Democracy in name only
Despite the introduction of free and fair elections in 2011 and the successive victory of the NLD with vast majorities, the country’s military had its hands firmly on the reins of power. Most evident in the Tatmadaw’s control of the extractive industries. Myanmar has vast oil, gas, various minerals, precious stones, and gems, which has received significant foreign investment since it became a democracy. However, this recent Foreign Direct Investment, rather than benefiting the populace has filled the military brass’s coffers, as the rate of investment commitments skyrocketed with commitments made in the 2010/11 financial year, approximately 30 times the rate of commitments made on average for the previous 22 years.
The Tatmadaw also have maintained influence and control over the legislature. As a result of the 2008 constitution, a quarter of all parliament seats are filled with unelected soldiers, allowing the military to prevent any real change through the legislative procedure. For instance, when NLD MPs attempted to amend the constitution in 2019 to gradually remove the military from politics, the move was voted by the military MPs.
This control of the legislature allowed the Tatmadaw to maintain complete control of the security apparatus. The military prevented an amendment to the charter within the 2008 constitution, which granted the commander-in-chief the power to appoint the ministers for border affairs, home affairs, and defence. Subsequently, the military has maintained carte blanche over the region’s security and troop activity. Since 2011, the Tatmadaw has launched military offensives against insurgents in Shan State in 2011 and Kokang State in 2015. In 2017, the military launched an offensive in Rakhine State, directly attributing to the Rohingya refugee crisis, which led to hundreds of thousands of civilians’ deaths and displacement. In effect, the military has maintained almost complete control over the country despite its so-called democratisation in 2011. Therefore, the generals seizing power is not a surprise; however, the coup’s timing and motivations are.
The pretext for the coup is alleged electoral fraud during the federal elections in November 2020. It occurred a day before the first sitting of parliament after talks between the government and Tatmadaw fell apart over the persistent claims of electoral fraud made by members of the military in response to the election where the NLD secured 80% of the recorded vote.
However, the question remains, why now? As we have seen previously, despite allowing democracy with free and fair elections, the military has remained in control of the reins of power. The rationale behind the decision is somewhat perplexing. It does not seem to benefit the military in the long run, with the US already announcing a resumption of sanctions against the military. One motive could be the greed and ambition of Min Aung Hlaing, who is expected to retire in 2021 with no constitutional way to return to power. NLD patron U Win Htein, arrested on 5th February on the charge of sedition, said to reporters two days prior that Hlaing had given “priority to power and his personal desire“. Therefore, these actions could be based on Min and the Tatmadaw’s desire to maintain their influence and control over politics, seeing huge landslide to the NLD in the November elections which left the military’s party with just a handful of seats as a direct threat to their continued control over the country.
Both Aung San Suu Kyi and deposed President U Win Myint are likely to face criminal charges that would be a devastating blow to the NLD. Under Myanmar’s election laws, it would require the party to remove them as members or face the prospect of de-registration. This fits into the argument that the coup was engineered to reassert the Tatmadaw and Hlaing’s power over the political apparatus, as by removing the NLD’s most popular and influencing figures from politics, it will likely be easier to suppress the groundswell of domestic civil disobedience which has erupted in response. However, unlike in previous coups, where the Tatmadaw drew Myanmar back into isolation, the vested economic interests of China and the ASEAN countries plus a population which is predominately young, more sophisticated, angrier, determined and more aware of the potential freedoms of democracy, will make it much more challenging for the military to consolidate their power.
How will the response dictate the future?
In the immediate aftermath of the coup, there have been widespread calls for nonviolent resistance. NLD patron U Win Htein called on the public to launch nonviolent protests in response. A letter from Aung San Suu Kyi urged Myanmar to “boldly stand against the coup“.
Myanmar’s civil society has responded in kind to this call, with numerous civil servants, doctors and health professionals and citizens declaring their support for the NLD and dissatisfaction at the coup. Medical staff from hospitals in Naypyitaw, Yangon and other cities say they plan to stop work indefinitely from 3rd February in protest the military coup. In turn, the NLD backed Myanmar’s growing civil disobedience movement, promising to support any workers who are fired for taking part in the anti-coup campaign.
In the past week, tens of thousands of people have flooded the streets in Myanmar’s main city, Yangon. Chanting “We don’t want military dictatorship,” and other slogans, they represented a defiant demonstration of support for democracy and a rejection of military rule. The police, responded on the with water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds on a third successive day of protest. State TV has subsequently warned protesters that action would be taken if they threaten public safety or the “rule of law”.
This seems a precursor to more draconian measures seen during previous protest movements such as the Saffron Revolution and the 8888 Uprising, where the military used both violence and arbitrary detention to suppress the movement. In ordering telecommunications companies to shut down internet and 4G services entirely, there seems concern on the part of the Tatmadaw regarding the potential scale of the protests. However, in doing so, the Tatmadaw may have motivated many to come to the streets. A protester in Yangon stated; “We are young people fighting for democracy and against the military coup” “When the military cut off social media and the internet, taking to the streets was the only thing we could do.” This shows that the people of Myanmar are unlikely to go quietly back into isolation and authoritarianism. With an upsurge of young and angry protesters on the streets, it seems likely that a long-protracted battle for democracy will commence.
The entrenchment of the military within all aspects of the country’s civil and economic infrastructure has posed challenges for the international community if it wishes to take punitive actions. This will make sanctioning the regime a tricky proposition, with countries such as the US and Japan unlikely to want to induce a repeat of the 1990s, where swingeing sanctions destroyed livelihoods and devastated an already failing economy. There is also an underlying fear of pushing the state further into the hands of China. Azeem Ibrahim has noted the importance of China’s response, arguing the coup was either done with Chinese knowledge or under the impression that it would draw China into coming to their defence. In the calculation that China rarely misses an opportunity to expand its influence.
China and Russia have already shown a reluctance to denounce the coup openly, delaying the publication of a UN Security Council statement condemning the coup under the pretext “that any action by the Council should contribute to political and social stability of Myanmar and its peace and reconciliation, avoiding escalating the tension or further complicating the situation,”. By not condemning the coup but also not throwing full support behind the Tatmadaw, China is playing a delicate balancing act to determine what move benefits them best. Historically, the Tatmadaw have shown reluctance towards full alignment with Beijing, who had been seemingly moving closer to Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government. As the largest trading partner and second-largest FDI source for Myanmar, China will likely prioritise stability over civil strife.
This is evident in their measured initial reactions, where Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China was studying the situation, describing Myanmar as a “friendly neighbour.” He has urged Myanmar to handle the situation according to its laws and constitution properly and “maintain political and social stability.” However, suppose the west reverts to punitive sanctions. In that case, the result is likely a Myanmar even more dependent on China, whose main aim will be to ensure stability to safeguard the $21.5 billion it has pledged in investments within the country.
For the other Asian states, especially those within the ASEAN bloc the situation is precarious. There has been a lack of consensus on the issue, with Malaysia and Indonesia calling for a summit on the issue and other states including Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines stating the coup was an internal matter. Japan too stayed silent; this may be due to its heavy investment in Myanmar, with more than 400 Japanese companies operating in the country. Some companies have pre-empted by cancelling contracts with Myanmar, with Kirin ending a six-year-old joint venture with a holding company in Myanmar that is linked to the country’s military. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga may be reluctant to act firmly until a clearer picture of the situation can be gathered due to the perceived risk of Myanmar falling closer into the Chinese orbit. The other major Asian states will likely follow a strategy, where the coup is condemned, but extensive sanctions are not implemented until they proceed with a thorough mediation process. Assuming ASEAN does not form a consensus on the issue soon and continues to be unwilling to deal with national actors in Myanmar seeking to promote their interests over the interest of regional stability. In that case, the bloc’s credibility will be increasingly at risk.
In many ways the coup d’etat on the 1st February 2021 begs more questions than the explanations, namely, what motivated the Tatmadaw to revert the country back to dictatorship? Will the people of Myanmar, who have enjoyed some degree democratic freedom in the last few years respond? Will they force the military to renege and release Suu Kyi and the other NLD party leaders? Moreover, how will China’s response dictate Myanmar’s future and will it have broader geopolitical impacts on the relationship between China and the United States? The next few weeks will likely determine how this crisis unfolds and whether the people of Myanmar will be vindicated in their pursuit of democratic freedom.