This week, Myanmar’s military engineered what international observers agree is a coup. The national military took control of the levers of power and declared a year-long state of emergency, while detaining the de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a number of other members of the democratic leadership. On Monday, military-run television station Myawaddy TV announced the takeover of government; television and phone signals across the country were later cut, passenger flights grounded, and internet access was cut in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital city. Political material supporting the National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi’s party, was removed from Myanmar’s largest cities. The news cycle continues to move quickly, and it’s best to find coverage on live-time developments from international media outlets and NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. In this post, we’ll answer a few structural and contextual questions about the coup.
First, some history - and was Myanmar a democracy before the coup?
If you measure democracy by the presence of free and fair elections, as well as at-least-moderately independent media and access to political organization, then the 2010s were likely the best decade democratic politics in Myanmar have ever seen. Myanmar’s military ruled the country through the State Peace and Development Council from 1988 to 2011 - Suu Kyi, among the most vocal and prominent democratic activists in the 2000s, spent much of the tail end of this period under house arrest. Faced with increasing pressure from international organizations, including the United Nations General Assembly, the military government authored and implemented a new constitution in 2008. The first contested elections since 1990 took place in 2010, and again in 2012; the NLD refused to participate in the first, and only contested some of the available seats two years later. The military maintained a minimum 25% quotient of the seats in parliament through a provision in its constitution, and the Union Solidarity and Development Party, a supporter of the military, maintained a majority. Accusations of fraud and cheating from both sides marred the process of ostensible democratization.
In 2015, the first truly free elections with robust opposition participation took place. Suu Kyi’s NLD swept to a majority. In 2016, Suu Kyi took office as the long-awaited civilian leader of Myanmar, and various political groups who had suffered deeply under the rule of the military junta gradually raised their expectations. In particular, the Rohingya muslim population in northern Myanmar, long scapegoated as a non-assimilated, politically subversive demographic, anticipated a rapid increase in their relative status in Myanmar’s political system.
Suu Kyi’s bureaucracy was in control of significant domestic policy, but lacked one of the fundaments of contemporary western democracy: civilian oversight of the military, as well as its subordinate operations. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, oversees Myanmar’s foreign policy, domestic security, and the core of the country’s resource-based economic sectors, like oil and gas extraction.
The military, notably, developed and executed what is now referred to internationally as the genocide of the Rohingya population starting in October 2016. In the western region of Rakhine, sporadic insurgent attacks against federal security authorities triggered a crackdown on Rohingya militants, civilians, and settlements. By 2018, around 70% of the 1 million Rohingya estimated to live in Myanmar had either been killed or fled across the border to Bangladesh. Systematic sexual violence, home-burning, livestock-killing, and extrajudicial murder by the military took place during this time.
Suu Kyi’s defense of the military operations in Rakhine, first in the press and more prominently in December 2019 before the International Court of Justice in the Hague, took international democratic optimists by surprise. But the consensus understanding of the political structure of Myanmar at the time holds that Suu Kyi was not in a position to prevent or order a halt to the violence, even had she wished to, highlighting the limits of the illiberal, “hybrid” democracy Myanmar had established.
In late 2020, Suu Kyi’s NLD won another majority in parliament, over the objections of the military to certain voter registration processes and voter rolls. While the election commission found no irregularities, the military-backed USLD party maintained its rejection of the results. The coup, beginning on Monday, is understood to be founded partially on this pretext; the military claims that a provision in the current constitution permits for reimposition of military rule in times of emergency.
If the military had so much power, why did they set off a coup?
Although it’s still early days, experts are coming to understand that the coup occurred at two levels: a military takeover of civilian authority and a power-grab within the military itself. Senior General Min Aung Hliang has been the leader of the military since 2011, but was slated to reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 later this year. The coup now centralizes authority around him, and leaves him in control over the entire Myanma government. Hliang has extended his tenure in government for at least a year, or perhaps longer, with constitutional reform on the table.
What’s next for Suu Kyi?
After her publicly accommodationist stance on military human rights violations, Suu Kyi lost much of her cachet among democratic leaders and advocates in the West. Bill Richardson, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, suggested recently that Suu Kyi’s lost legitimacy necessitated a transition of power to other democratic figures in Myanmar.
But there is no question that the international community sympathizes with Suu Kyi and prefers her return to power to an extended period of military rule. Suu Kyi currently remains in detention, along with Myanma President Win Myint, also of NLD, despite calls for release from a litany of NGOs and influential politicians from countries that serve as important trade partners for Myanmar. Suu Kyi spent 15 of the 21 years ending in 2010 under house arrest, and with many of the same military leaders from the days of junta now in power once again, some circumstantial evidence suggests that the military’s easiest path to stability and centralization involves another lengthy period of incarceration for Suu Kyi.
That said, there is little doubt that Suu Kyi remains personally popular in Myanmar, and that her NLD party is preferred by the majority of the population to military government. Significant public demonstrations, calling for the freedom of NLD leaders and a return to democratic governance, have been growing in Myanmar’s largest cities. Estimates of attendance in Yangon are in the thousands; observers remarked on the use of the three-finger “Hunger Games” gesture of resistance, and chants of “We Demand Democracy.” Intensification of these protests could lead to more international attention, and perhaps to a partial retreat from the military.
Speaking of international attention, what do the great powers think?
The Biden administration has mulled reimposing sanctions on Myanmar for detention of civilian political leaders, according to a statement from National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. The most recent sanctions imposed by the US occurred under the Bush administration in 2003, in response to the military’s kidnapping of Suu Kyi. These sanctions placed a blanket embargo on American imports from Myanmar, and reportedly cost between 50,000 and 60,000 jobs in the Myanmar garment industry alone. More sanctions now would likely decimate the Myanma economy, which until last year was projected to quadruple by 2030, given rising foreign direct investment and positive investment in the technology sector.
China appears to be at least ambivalent, and perhaps optimistic about the prospects of a return to long-term military rule in Myanmar. Weeks prior to the coup, a high-level emissary from the Chinese government visited Myanmar and publicly heaped praise upon the administrative and security work of Myanmar’s generals. China remains Myanmar’s largest trading partner (though other states, like Japan and Singapore, now pour more investment funding into Myanmar). China has so far blocked any significant action on the subject of Myanmar through the UN Security Council, and, according to the New York Times, complained this week about leaks from UN deliberations on a multilateral response. So far, only a statement expressing displeasure at Myanmar’s backsliding into total military rule has emerged from the UNSC. In state-controlled media, China has referred to the coup at most as a “major cabinet reshuffle.”
But China is also at a sort of crossroads with its policy on Myanmar. Prior to the coup - and especially before the coronavirus pandemic - China cultivated close relations with the NLD, seeking to fund and build major infrastructure projects throughout Myanmar, as part of the multi-continental Belt and Road Initiative. Suu Kyi’s most commonly visited foreign country was China; her most frequently met foreign leader was Xi Jinping. China also has longstanding grievances with the military junta, many of whose leaders fought Chinese-trained communist rebels early in their careers. New intelligence shows that China continues to sell weapons to these rebels, and Myanmar’s military officials complained of this to Xi during his most recent visit. If China appears to be currently hedging in its response to Myanmar’s tumultuous week, it may simply be because of geopolitical concerns. One priority in Xi’s most recent period in power has been consolidation of authority in the Indochinese region, and China has long viewed American influence in Myanmar with deep skepticism. Nevertheless, as Myanmar diversifies its list of trading partners, it becomes less reliant on the support of great powers. By all indications, Myanmar has slid back into a period of geopolitical and economic turmoil.
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