Updated: Feb 28, 2021
The military of Myanmar overthrew the country’s fragile democratic government in a coup d’etat on February 1, arresting civilian leaders, shutting off the internet, and cutting off flights. The Coup has returned the country to a full military rule after a short experience of quasi-democracy that began in 2011 when the military implemented parliamentary elections and other reforms. Two days after troops took control of the Parliament and other state institutions, criminal charges were made public, accusing Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s ousted civilian leader, of violating an obscure import law. The move was widely seen as a pretext to keep her detained.
Parliament was scheduled to hold its first session since the country’s elections on 8 November. The country’s leading civilian party, National League for Democracy, won 83% of the body’s available seats. The military refused to accept the results, which was widely seen as a referendum on the popularity of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the NLD. She has been the country’s de facto civilian leader since her election in 2015. The new Parliament was expected to endorse the election results and approve of the next government. The possibility of the coup emerged after the military, which had tried to argue that the election results were fraudulent, in the country’s Supreme Court, threatened to “take action” and then soldiers surrounded the houses of Parliament.
The military detained the leaders of the governing NLD. Party and Myanmar’s civilian leadership, including Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint, along with the cabinet ministers, the Chief Ministers of several regions, opposition politicians, writers, and activists. The coup was effectively announced on the military-owned Myawaddy TV Station when a news presenter cited the 2008 constitution, which allows the military to declare a national emergency. The state of emergency, he said, would remain in place for one year. According to reports, the military quickly seized control of the country’s infrastructure, suspending most television broadcasts and canceling all domestic and international flights.
Telephone and internet access was suspended in major cities. The stock market and commercial banks were closed, and long lines were seen outside the ATMs. In Yangon, the country’s largest city and former capital, residents ran to the markets to stock up on supplies.
Aung San Suu Kyi came to power as State Councilor in 2016 after the country’s first fully democratic vote in decades. Her ascension to leadership was seen as a critical moment in the transition of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, from a military dictatorship to a democracy.
Ms. Suu Kyi, the daughter of the country’s independence hero General Aung San, spent more than 15 years under house arrest. Her time in detention made her an international icon, and she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Now, she potentially faces 3 years in prison. On February 3, her party said that she had been charged with the possession of 10 illegally imported walkie-talkies. The law used to justify locking up the nation’s elected civilian leader appeared to be providing the military with a legal justification for her detention.
The country’s previous military leaders similarly found reasons to keep her under house arrest and used her release as a veneer for their political conspiracies.
After her release from house arrest in 2010, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation was tarnished by her cooperation with the military and her vociferous defense of the country’s deadly campaign against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group. In 2019, she represented the country at a trial in the International Court of Justice, at which she defended Myanmar against accusations of ethnic cleansing. Many believed Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s cooperation with the military was a pragmatic move that would hasten the country’s evolution to full democracy. Still, her detention following the coup appeared to prove the lie in the military’s commitment to democracy.
The military said that it had handed power to the Army Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The move prolongs the power of General Min Aung Hlaing, who is supposed to age out as Army Chief this summer. His patronage network, centered on lucrative family businesses, could well have been undermined by his retirement, especially if he could not secure a clean exit.
Under the former power-sharing agreement, General Min Aung Hlaing presided over two business conglomerates and appointed three key cabinet members to oversee the police and the border guards. The military never fell under the control of the civilian government. In recent years, the army with General Hlaing at the helm has overseen campaigns against several of the country’s ethnic minority groups, including the Rohingya, the Shan, and the Kokang.
Several prominent world leaders quickly condemned it, demanding that Myanmar’s military immediately free Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and the other detained government officials and honor the November election results.
The Biden administration, which has sought to elevate human rights as a foreign policy priority, suggested that it would penalize Myanmar’s military hierarchy with unspecified sanctions. “The United States opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition, and will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed,” the White House said in a statement.
António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, said the coup developments “represent a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar.” Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said in a Twitter post that the “vote of the people must be respected and civilian leaders released.”
China, which shares a 1,300-mile border with Myanmar and is one of the country’s largest investors, has responded cautiously to the coup, having cultivated cordial relations with both Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and the military hierarchy that detained her.
“China and Myanmar are friendly neighbors. We hope that all parties will properly handle their differences under the Constitution and legal framework to maintain political and social stability,” Wang Wenbin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told a regularly scheduled news conference Monday in Beijing.
Myanmar was the first stop of a regional good-will tour last month by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, who pledged to furnish a China-made Coronavirus vaccine to Myanmar for free.
UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar Tom Andrews warned in a tweet that the military would be held accountable for its actions.
"It's as if the generals have declared war on the people of Myanmar: late-night raids; mounting arrests; more rights stripped away; another Internet shutdown; military convoys entering communities. These are signs of desperation. Attention generals: You WILL be held accountable," Andrews said.