On Monday morning, the Myanmar military staged a coup, its first coup since 1988 but hardly unique in the country’s modern history.
This coup bore all the hallmarks of previous military takeovers, even in an era in which telecommunications technology is far different from 1988, and information about Myanmar cannot be hermetically sealed off from the world. The armed forces detained most senior civilian politicians, and went beyond just detaining political figures to detain a wide range of critics of the armed forces.
The army also instituted many roadblocks, throttled internet traffic, cut phone lines and other types of communication, closed banks and took control of regional governments and the central government, with power now clearly residing with the army’s top commander, Min Aung Hlaing.
Although the army has declared a state of emergency for a year, past history in Myanmar with such declarations could easily suggest that the state of emergency could go on for many years, and even indefinitely. After all, the Myanmar military still sees itself as the protector of the country despite several years of shaky democracy. Moreover, the armed forces wrote the current constitution, which has a clause that essentially allows for a coup and gives the military significant powers.
Why did the military move now? The army may have become afraid that Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) would be able to consolidate more power after last November’s elections, a big NLD victory, and cut back the army’s power, and that if the army commander retired he could become vulnerable to international prosecution for the army’s actions and might not be able to protect his family’s positions and wealth. The Myanmar military also may have feared that at some point in the future Suu Kyi and the NLD might be able to change the constitution and diminish the power of the armed forces. Since November, the armed forces have been disputing the election results and claiming they were fraudulent.
The military also may have believed — possibly correctly — that the global pandemic, Myanmar’s close relationship with China, the democratic regression in other states in South and Southeast Asia and the general U.S. disinterest in democracy issues in recent years would make it easier to launch a coup with little international pushback. Indeed, most South and Southeast Asian states said little about the coup, or simply referred to it as Myanmar’s internal problem. (Singapore did push back and called for Suu Kyi’s release, and India expressed significant concern about the coup.)
Suu Kyi, as de facto civilian leader of Myanmar, had done little to marginalize the military or push forward real democratic reform. Still, her party won a victory in last year’s national elections — the fraud that the military claims occurred as a reason for stepping in has not been proven, and observers said that the election had minor irregularities but was relatively free and fair.
The coup will have multiple aftershocks. For one, the shift in governance could create even worse management of the COVID-19 crisis, as people may try to flee the country or migrate to other parts of the country, as they did after prior coups, potentially spreading the virus as they move to other parts of Myanmar or possibly flee over the border into Thailand. Meanwhile, the army’s closure of banks and the uncertainty could cause even more damage to an already-suffering economy, amid the pandemic that is throttling growth.
Second, the coup could lead to an unwinding of deals with ethnic minority insurgencies, who could go back to war, further splintering Myanmar and leading to a massive spike in violence in what is already a conflict-ridden country. The insurgencies may now have the incentive to step up their battles, end cease-fire deals and try to stake more gains in territory.
There is also the prospect that, as the NLD and its allies try to rally Myanmar citizens, who now have lived through a decade of some degree of freedom — Suu Kyi has released a statement calling on Myanmar people to oppose the coup — that the army could crack down harder if the NLD, or other groups of Myanmar citizens, try to hold protests. In the past, during periods of absolute military rule — which has now returned — the military regularly used brutal force against any peaceful protests.
Some leading democracies have made strong statements in response to the coup. Australia, Canada, Japan, the United States and countries in Europe condemned the coup and now are considering further actions. But the Biden administration’s policy cupboard, though not bare, is fairly limited, given modest U.S. leverage over Myanmar and the fact that Myanmar’s neighbors mostly seem willing to live with the coup. Still, the United States and its partners have some options, and likely will start by calling an emergency session at the United Nations to discuss the coup. But for citizens of Myanmar, the long-term damage is probably already done.
Joshua Kurlantzick is Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article is adapted from a posting he wrote for CFR’s Asia Unbound.
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