Myanmar Military Stages Coup; Suu Kyi Urges Nation to Resist
(Bloomberg) -- Myanmar’s military detained Aung San Suu Kyi, declared a state of emergency for a year and voided her party’s landslide November election victory in a setback for the country’s nascent democracy.
Army chief Min Aung Hlaing’s office said he took the action in response to alleged voter fraud and the military would hold a “free and fair general election” after the emergency is over. An order by acting President Myint Swe, a former general aligned with the army, granted full authority to the army chief to run the country, saying it was necessary to act before new parliament sessions began this week.
Suu Kyi urged the country’s 55 million people to oppose the military’s move, calling it “an attempt to bring the nation back under the military dictatorship without any care for the Covid-19 pandemic people are facing.” The election commission last week labeled the vote transparent and fair, and in 2015 the military accepted her party’s landslide election win.
“We urge people to strongly oppose the unacceptable military coup,” she said in a statement posted on a party Facebook page that was confirmed by a spokesperson. “The people themselves are the most crucial.”
It was unclear how many people were held, and under what terms. TV channels, phone and Internet communications were all spotty, making it difficult to get information from the country. The military said banking operations were back to normal after experiencing delays due to Internet and phone outages.
Tensions had been brewing for several months, with the military and its political factions demanding authorities investigate allegations of mass voting fraud in just the second general election with widespread participation after decades of army rule. The U.S., United Nations and the European Union had issued statements urging the military to respect the results.
On Sunday, the military -- known as the Tatmadaw -- denied objecting to the outcome of the election and said it “finds the process of the 2020 election unacceptable.” The 2008 constitution allows the military to take power during a state of emergency that could cause disintegration of the union or “national solidarity,” effectively allowing soldiers to take power for vague reasons.
“It’s a really cynical take on their justification to power,” said Hunter Marston, a Canberra-based political analyst who has written about Myanmar for several publications. “We could see pretty widespread protests in major cities and even around the country in smaller towns, especially in Yangon.”
Myanmar’s military formally replaced Suu Kyi as foreign minister as it installed 10 new ministers to cabinet posts. A state-run television broadcast on Monday night announced the new foreign minister as Suu Kyi’s predecessor, Wunna Maung Lwin.
Among the cabinet appointments are top officials aligned with the military, while others were ex-ministers in the military-backed government of former President Thein Sein. That includes Win Shein, who previously held the post of finance and planning minister and was reappointed to the position.
The U.S., EU and Australia urged the military to reconsider, and the U.S. raised the prospect of reimposing sanctions.
President Joe Biden said in a statement Monday that “the international community should come together in one voice to press the Burmese military to immediately relinquish the power they have seized, release the activists and officials they have detained, lift all telecommunications restrictions, and refrain from violence against civilians.”
“The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy,” he said, invoking Myanmar’s traditional name. “The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action.”
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau warned the takeover would “jeopardize the peaceful process of democratic transition in Myanmar.” The UN Security Council is likely to hold a meeting on Myanmar on Tuesday, according to two diplomats familiar with the matter.
Myanmar’s transition to democracy had prompted the U.S. and EU to lift sanctions, with then-U.S. President Barack Obama hailing the reforms during a landmark visit in 2012. Foreign investors flocked to the country, and the country sought to open up its capital markets.
But initial optimism quickly dissipated due to a violent crackdown against Muslim Rohingya that prompted accusations of “genocide” against Suu Kyi’s government. That has tainted the international image of the 75-year-old leader, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest during a military regime that effectively cut Myanmar off from the world.
The Yangon Stock Exchange now only has six listed companies, with foreigners owning 261 million kyat ($200,000) of stocks as of Oct. 8 -- mostly in First Myanmar Investment Co. and Myanmar Thilawa SEZ Holdings. The exchange on Monday said it halted trading due to a connection error.
Several other assets reacted. China rare earth miners such as China Northern Rare Earth Group High-Tech Co. and China Rare Earth Holdings Ltd., which get large supplies from Myanmar, fell in trading Monday. Singapore-listed conglomerate Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd., which gets all of its revenue from Myanmar, requested a trading halt.
Myanmar’s Unrest Has Repercussions for Firms Beyond Its Borders
The military’s action will present an early foreign-policy test for Biden. The U.S. has become increasingly critical of Myanmar in the past few years under Donald Trump’s administration, imposing targeted visa restrictions and financial sanctions in 2017.
“It’s very clear the Biden administration represents a stark break from the previous government on human rights,” said Graeme Smith, a fellow at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs. “Whatever government is in power -- Aung San Suu Kyi or the military -- they will face more pressure on human rights than Trump, who probably wouldn’t have cared either way.”
China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner, accounting for about a third of total commerce in 2019 -- about 10 times more than the U.S. Myanmar has also received support from the International Monetary Fund, which last month approved about $350 million in assistance to address the Covid-19 pandemic.
In November, Suu Kyi’s NLD won 396 seats in the national assembly, more than the 322 needed to form a government. Turnout was an estimated 70% of the 37.3 million people eligible to vote. The ruling party also won 524 seats in elections held to state and regional parliaments, official data showed.
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