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The coup launched by Myanmar’s military in the dawn hours Monday morning should have been no surprise. Unrest in the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, had been mounting since its political party was crushed in last November’s general elections.

Nevertheless, most of the world was taken aback by the move and the subsequent declaration of a state of emergency. Friends of Myanmar must denounce the coup and demand a return to democratic rule without delay.

Myanmar is well acquainted with military rule. The armed forces ruled the country from 1962 to 2011. A general election was held in 1990, but the military overturned a landslide win by democratic forces and retained power until another vote in 2010. This vote was won by the military-backed political party — amid widespread criticism that the election was rigged — and the junta was dissolved the following year to allow civilian rule (at least in form).

A second election, held in 2015, produced a landslide win for the opposition National League of Democracy (NLD), which was headed by nationalist icon Aung San Suu Kyi. While the party claimed an absolute majority in both houses of parliament, NLD power was checked by the 2008 constitution, which reserved a veto and control of the “power” ministries responsible for security and defense to the Tatmadaw.

An uneasy truce prevailed for five years, but tensions bubbled over after the 2020 election. The NLD won another landslide victory — 396 of 476 contested seats in parliament, while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won just 33. The military leadership claimed massive fraud — no evidence has been found to support the charge — and insisted the ballot should have been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Military officials sensed that time was against them. In the last legislative session, the NLD had introduced numerous constitutional amendments that would have undermined Tatmadaw status and political influence. All were vetoed by the military.

Equally important were the political calculations of the military commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing. He will reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 this summer but he had hoped to extend his career by being elected Myanmar’s president by the new parliament. From that position, he could designate his successor, which would extend military control of politics and protect patronage networks for him, his family and cronies. The margin of the NLD victory put both goals beyond reach. A coup was the only remaining option.

Suspicions were allayed by a statement days earlier by Min Aung Hlaing that the military would “abide by the constitution.” Unfortunately, the constitution gives the military power to take control of the government by declaring a “state of emergency,” which is what Min Aung Hlaing did. He made that declaration, put himself in charge, placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, sent home NLD parliamentarians and Cabinet members and replaced them with military officers and supporters. He also promised to hold elections in a year.

International reaction has been mixed. Some governments, like that of the United States, have denounced the coup, demanded the military withdraw and threatened the imposition of sanctions.

ASEAN, the Southeast Asian regional organization of which Myanmar is a member, has been more restrained. It issued a statement that said, “We encourage the pursuance of dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar.” Three ASEAN member states — Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore — issued statements of concern. Thailand, Myanmar’s neighbor and whose prime minister seized power in a coup himself, dismissed the events as a “domestic issue and internal affair.”

Japan’s response has been tepid as well. It took nearly a day before Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi expressed “grave concern over the situation in Myanmar” and urged the release of Suu Kyi and other leaders. Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato called for the resolution of the crisis through dialogue, and Wednesday said it was “equivalent to a military coup.” There has been no criticism of the military for taking this fateful step.

Japan’s logic was revealed by State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama who warned, “If we do not approach this well, Myanmar could grow further away from politically free democratic nations and join the league of China.” That geopolitical prism has shaped Japanese engagement with Myanmar for decades. During the darkest days of the military junta, the Japanese government worried that isolating Myanmar would push it into China’s sphere of influence. This concern caused considerable friction in relations with Washington; they were resolved when the United States resumed relations with Myanmar after liberalization in 2012.

Japan should lean forward. It should work with ASEAN and other governments (pushing them as well as the one in Naypyidaw) to restore democracy. It need not fear that the military will embrace China: The Tatmadaw is nationalist and harbors suspicions of its neighbor. The military has a poor record of economic management and will need assistance and investment from countries like Japan — more than 400 Japanese companies operate in the country — to fend off the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as avoid the complete discrediting of the military as an institution. It was just such a reckoning that pushed the military to liberalize a decade ago.

Tokyo should demand the immediate restoration of democracy, a return to the barracks by the military and respect for last year’s election results.

 

The Japan Times Editorial Board

 

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