On February 1st, 2021, a military coup d'état happened in Myanmar where armed forces, also known as Tatmadaw, seized power under the command of the military general Min Aung Hlaing. The military deposed the government led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her party National League for Democracy (NLD) and declared a “state of emergency” for one year. A state of national emergency is what justifies the authority of the military to take control under Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution. The events triggering this declaration focused on the military’s claims of voter fraud in the national elections of November 2020, during which Aung San Suu Kyi won with approximately 80% of votes, and its failure to postpone the election because of the coronavirus crisis.
Ironic isn’t it?
Paradoxically, some of the first moments of the coup were even caught on video. A fitness instructor who was performing her training routine in front of the parliament unintentionally captured initial phases of the takeover as military vehicles were approaching the government complex.
Myanmar’s experiment with democracy
Myanmar’s people are no strangers to military rule or conflict. In fact, Myanmar has experienced a long-standing rivalry between the military and its pro-democracy movement. The grant of independence from the British was followed by the seize of power by the military and its centralization of power, claiming it was the appropriate force to keep the ethnically diverse nation together. During military ruling times, Aung San Suu Kyi was paving the way towards a more democratic Myanmar and gaining popularity along the way. Her work earned her a Nobel prize, but at the same time implied strong scrutiny and criticism by the military and even house arrest for prolonged periods of time. Since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the military has always had strong influence on the nation’s history, an influence that is still evident today, as the military holds 25% of parliament seats and keeps control of defense and internal affairs, thus making it evident that no matter the ruling party, authority will have to be partially shared. Such conditions make the political scene of Myanmar a “landmine” where one wrong handling can trigger a disaster. The coup was a strong hit on the country’s vulnerable transition to democracy.
The rationale behind the coup and the Rohingya genocide
As it appears, the Tatmadaw is quite secretive about its decisions and operations and not much information with respect to the coup was released apart from their initial declaration. However, two main theories have emerged. The first one, focuses on Myanmar’s political scene and the rising power of the NLD party. In particular, given the strong win of the NLD party in the last elections and their rising popularity and political power, concerns arose with respect to potential future reforms or changes to the constitution, events that would directly affect the power of the military over the nation. Larry Jagan, independent analyst in Myanmar, believes that the military is trying to silence Aung San Suu Kyi and minimize her political influence to prevent her from another political victory in next elections.
The second theory, which is a bit more targeted towards Min Aung Hlaing, revolves around the idea that the military leader is acting in his own interests. The general has, after all, expressed his wish to become President. At the same time, he could be trying to cover his role, or at least minimize his liability with respect to the Rohingya genocide. The ongoing persecutions and attacks on the Rohingya people have resulted in the death of thousands, the destruction of villages and the fleeing of over a million Rohingya to other countries. These attacks, which happened in the period of Min Aung Hlaing’s ruling, have been condemned by the United Nations, international institutions including the ICC and many national leaders. The Rohingya genocide was a hard blow also for Aung San Suu Kyi’s public image, who failed to criticize the events and instead maintained a neutral stance towards the problem, avoiding placing responsibility on the military, a choice that diminished her status as an icon in the international and human rights community.
The public’s reaction and ongoing protests
Over the last ten years the rise of the democratic party has allowed the people of Myanmar to enjoy greater freedoms than ever compared to their recent history. Therefore, the public did not take lightly to the announcement of martial law. On top of that, the shutdown of internet connectivity, the restriction of the functionality of many social media platforms and closing the borders enraged thousands of citizens who poured to the streets to protest the coup. The protests started out as peaceful demonstrations against the takeover with labor strikes, civil disobedience actions and other non-violent movements. The three-finger salute quickly became a protest symbol of opposition to the military rule. However, the conflict soon heightened, and the protests took a violent turn. The military has been attempting to silence these protests showing increasing signs of brutality, detaining, and charging members of the protests but the situation escalated as the military has now opened fire against citizens, while news agencies report that over 400 people have been killed and even more arrested or injured.
The international community’s voices and the role of China
The international community has expressed its criticism towards the military takeover and requested that the fatal shootings stop immediately. Many government officials around the world such as the UK, Australia, Canada and the US condemned the military’s actions and stated that the people responsible for the coup should be sanctioned. The United Nations Security Council called for the reversal of the coup, and immediate release of the country’s elected representatives. For China, however, the situation appears to be more complicated. Being one of the largest foreign investors in Myanmar and having vested geostrategic interests in Myanmar in terms of trade, China avoided bold statements and refrained from characterizing the coup as it is, but rather Chinese media labeled it as a “political reshuffle”. What is more, approximately two weeks ago Chinese officials attended Myanmar’s parade on “Armed Forces” day, the same day that proved to be the deadliest in terms of casualties since the beginning of the coup. Ironically, China remains a key player for any hope of an international coalition to protect the Burmese people. Getting China to agree with these efforts, however, will not be easy, as openly showing dissatisfaction towards the coup makes it the nation with the most to lose in terms of international relations with Myanmar. Demonstration of support surely is important and necessary, but in cases of international crises timing is of the essence as one thing remains sure: the longer the international community negotiates and plans its intervention, the longer the Burmese people will suffer.