This morning, the people of Myanmar woke up to a situation that was all too familiar. The country’s military, or Tatmadaw, mounted what appeared to be a coup d’etat on the civilian government. On the streets of Yangon, trucks blasting patriotic music and carrying sword-wielding men were sighted at multiple locations. Markets and banks saw a flurry of activity as locals rushed to stock up on supplies and to withdraw cash. Countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, India, Japan and Malaysia all condemned the coup. Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that it has “grave concern(s)” about the situation.
Three cars with Myanmar just drive past blasting patriotic music. The back of the truck was loaded with men carrying swords. pic.twitter.com/P1FvTbbFfv— Aye Min Thant (@the_ayeminthant) February 1, 2021
All of this begs the question: what’s happening in Myanmar, and what brought the country here?
What just happened?
In the early hours of February 1, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Ki and other senior civilian leaders were taken or arrested by the military. One such arrest, of regional MP Pa Pa Han, was allegedly livestreamed on Facebook. In the video, the politician’s husband can be heard pleading with the men in military fatigue with a child clinging onto his chest and wailing.
Soon after, citizens in the country’s capital, Naypyitaw, and the largest city, Yangon, had their access to mobile data, telephones and state television be disrupted. By mid-day, a statement broadcast on a military-owned television channel announced that the country would enter a one-year state of emergency. At the end of this period, the army also pledged that there would be new elections and a transfer of power. Till then, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, would act as the leader of the country.
Why does the military have so much power?
Myanmar’s army plays an extremely large role in the country’s politics.
During World War II, Aung San, a nationalist student activist (also Aung San Suu Ki’s father) started the Burma Independence Army (BIA) with assistance from the Imperial Japanese Army. The group aimed to put an end to British rule in Burma by assisting the Japanese in their conquest of the country in 1942. Towards the end of the war, however, Aung San ordered his troops to turn their weapons on their Japanese masters as it became increasingly clear that the Allied forces were going to win. The formation of the BIA was thus seen as the first step towards Burmese independence, with its leaders being heralded as martyrs and national heroes. Due to this involvement in Burma’s national liberation struggle, the army still claims the right to intervene and adjudicate on the country’s future.
The 1962 Coup
The first of these interventions came soon after independence in 1962. The Burmese military, led by General Ne Win, mounted a coup on the country’s civilian regime – which was then a parliamentary republic. This was the beginning of one-party rule and political dominance of the army in Myanmar, which essentially spanned until 2011. In the years following, the military dictatorship embarked on what was called the Burmese Way to Socialism. The ideology, which was an amalgamation of various incoherent Marxist, Buddhist, isolationist, anti-western and sinophobic thoughts, ensured that the Burmese citizens remained economically impoverished.
The 8888 Uprising
Things took a turn for the worst in 1988, when Ne Win instructed that the national currency, the kyat, be issued in denominations of 45 and 90 because they were divisible by his lucky number, nine. This instantaneously wiped out the savings of many and precipitated an uprising against the government called 8888 protests (as key events happened on 8 August 1988). Aung San Suu Kyi rose to popularity during these protests, as she emerged as the leader of the movement calling for a democratic government. In response to these protests, the military clamped down harder, installing a new military junta that was to rule the country until 2011. It is said that the military killed over 3,000 of the protesters who participated.
Widespread sanctions and condemnations from the international community, together with dire economic conditions in Myanmar meant that the military had become more open to democratisation. In 2008, the country adopted a new constitution which allowed for more multi-party elections and contestation, albeit with some limits. One quarter of all parliamentary seats would be reserved for military officers, some ministries would be run by the military, and anyone who was married to a person who was not a citizen of Myanmar would be barred from running for the office of president. The last condition was to ensure that Aung San Suu Kyi, whose husband was British, was ineligible to become the president.
Regardless, the first elections under the new constitution were held in 2010, and the country embarked on the process of gradual democratisation.
Why did the military decide to mount a coup this time around?
The timing of this coup isn’t coincidental.
Myanmar just held its third election in November 2020 and was supposed to hold its first parliamentary sitting on February 1. In the election, Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won 396 out 476 seats in parliament in a sweeping victory. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which gained only a fraction of the vote, soon started to complain of wide-spread election fraud – even though evidence of this has been scant. This is the official reason that the military has given for the coup d’etat this week: they were defending the constitution from “terrible fraud in the voter list”.
Analysts are confused as to why the military has acted this way. Right now, Myanmar’s political system is structured in a way that is deeply beneficial for the army. “It has complete command autonomy, sizeable international investment in its commercial interests and political cover from civilians for war crimes,” said Gerard McCarthy, a postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. By mounting a coup, the military has all but isolated the country again and has invited economic sanctions on itself.
Perhaps, the military is trying to increase the influence of its affiliated party (USDP) and decrease the influence of outsiders. Particularly, some experts say that the military has not liked the increasing international trade and openness exhibited by the government. It is a deeply nationalistic institution which distrusts any foreign sources of influence. Considering that the chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was supposed to step down this year, there has also been speculation as to whether the coup is an attempt by him to cling onto power.
The situation is in a very precarious state at the moment.
While negotiation and arbitration have not been ruled out, there are fears that the country could plunge into unrest again. This is especially the case since Aung San Suu Ki herself has called on the public not to accept the coup and has urged them to protest. The military’s history of repression, and memories of the 8888 Uprising are also contributing to an atmosphere of unease and anxiety.
The fate of Myanmar’s fledging and fragile democracy is hanging by a thread.
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