Nearly nine years ago, the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi reluctantly decided to participate in the by-elections to the parliament on April 1, 2012, after two-decades of military repression. She was denied a 1991 election verdict to rule, and in the interregnum survived an assassination attempt in 2003. After promulgating the 2008 constitution, the military decided to hold general elections in 2010, as part of a military-designed seven-step roadmap to democracy.
The NLD leader had earlier termed the whole process an instance of sham democracy.
Myanmar became the diplomatic toast in 2012 as world leaders, including the U.S. President Barack Obama, descended to what was considered as a potential democratic stronghold in Southeast Asia and China’s backyard. To her credit, the NLD leader was resolute in her cautiousness as the western leaders sought her advice on how to approach President Thein Sein’s government.
On Feb. 1, 2021, she proved to be right as the military or Tatmadaw, as it is locally known, staged a coup in the wee hours. She, along with colleagues including President U Win Myint, cabinet ministers, the chief ministers of several regions and NLD activists were arrested in a nationwide swoop. A military television network reportedly announced a one-year state of emergency with ultimate authority transferred to the army chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
The coup came on the same day the new parliament was to start. Both the upper as well as the lower houses were to elect speakers later this week, with the president to be elected by a joint session of parliament due in March.
The military’s grouse is that the ruling NLD governments and its appointed election commission failed to review the 2020 elections results. It claimed that at least 8.6 million irregularities were found in voter lists. Yet, the election commission, appointed by the ruling party, like in any other democracy, said there was no evidence to support the military’s claims. The ruling NLD party won 396 out of 476 seats in the Nov. 8 election, allowing the party to govern for another five years.
The contesting positions are symptoms of a deeper institutional malaise. Constitutionally, three important ministries relating to national security, namely defense, home and border, are held by the military. The military nominates 30 percent of the members of parliament.
Also, the governing structure of two independent bodies (a dyarchy) was reinforced by the lack of direct communication between the NLD leader Suu Kyi and the military’s top echelons during the NLD’s first term. That stands in contrast to President Thein Sein’s government. The two power centers were communicating via third persons, including external, and this has often exposed misinterpretations on both sides particularly on crucial sensitive topics. In an environment in which the military is fighting an existential battle for political survival, after ruling the country directly or indirectly since the formation of the republic, a military coup was an imminent possibility.
Ironically, the 2017 Rohingya crisis had brought a temporary truce between the NLD leader, who appeared in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Hague, on Dec. 11, 2019, to defend the military’s actions in the country’s Rakhine state, and the military leadership.
During the first term, the NLD leader had been cautious in her attempts to civilianize the polity. In early 2019, the NLD formed a committee to draft amendments to the 2008 Constitution. Military legislators hit back immediately. In September, 2019, they proposed amending the Constitution to bar anyone who has a foreign citizen in their immediate family from becoming a union minister or chief minister. This was a warning to the NLD leader that any attempt to remove the military from the ruling political structure will invite a similar response against her status as a de-facto foreign minister.
Faced with a constricting institutional and constitutional position, Suu Kyi’s efforts to civilianize and extricate the military from the power structure was always going to be a huge challenge. However, the Rohingya crisis further weakened her position and she lost all her leverage as she could hardly rely on her western allies.
After getting the green light from Suu Kyi, many western countries had started limited military-level engagements with Tatmadaw, with footprints in areas like disaster preparedness, after the 2010 elections. The ties were progressively improving and it seemed Suu Kyi’s leverage would grow in the process. In April, 2017, a few months before the onset of the Rohingya crisis, army chief Min Aung Hlaing received an invitation from the military chiefs of Germany and Austria. He even addressed the European Union Military Committee in Belgium in November 2017. Given that military ties by the western countries were cut with Tatmadaw due to human rights violations in Rakhine, the current situation was not unexpected.
Tatmadaw returned to its shell and the default strategy of relying on its neighbor China internationally, including at various U.N. Security Council platforms, was resurrected. It is highly unlikely that China, which has strategic economic interests in Myanmar with major oil and gas pipelines crisscrossing the country and direct political equities with multiple domestic stakeholders, was unaware of the imminent threat of a coup.
In fact, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, had met the Myanmar army chief last month. In this respect, China’s statement after the coup supports its position. It said, “We hope that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability.”
The military used Section 417 and Section 418 of the 2008 constitution, which permit a military takeover in the event of an emergency that threatens Myanmar’s sovereignty, or that could “disintegrate the Union” or “national solidarity.”
The military’s excuse of an exaggerated possibility of wide-spread protests over election fraud is in line with military coups in other parts of the world. The lessons from the coup in Myanmar are ominous but hardly surprising. Irreversibility is never a given when the military sets the tone of a controlled democracy.
Luv Puri was a member of the U.N. secretary-general’s good offices on Myanmar.
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