How Myanmar’s Coup Puts Democracy on the Back Burner Again

A decade after Myanmar’s highly praised opening to the outside world following decades of military rule, the armed forces are back in power. Three months after Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the country’s modern founder, secured a third landslide election victory, the generals are disputing the vote and have detained Suu Kyi again -- setting off major street protests that have been met with lethal force. It’s another blow for the nascent democracy after accusations of genocide against the country’s Muslim Rohingya population triggered international outcry. It comes as optimism over the economic dream following the lifting of sanctions by the U.S. and Europe had begun to fade even before the pandemic.

1. Was it a coup?

Yes. The military on Feb. 1 detained Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, declared a state of emergency and said it was seizing power for a year. Known as the Tatmadaw, it said the 2008 constitution allows it to take power during a state of emergency that could threaten the union or “national solidarity.” A spokesman for Suu Kyi’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy, immediately called it a coup. The U.S. State Department a day later officially designated it a coup, which triggers restrictions on U.S. aid.

2. What happened with the election?

Suu Kyi’s party won more than 80% of available seats in the Nov. 8 election, according to officially certified results. (The military is guaranteed 25% of seats under the 2008 constitution, which gives it an effective veto over any amendments.) The military had said it wasn’t contesting the outcome but “finds the process of the 2020 election unacceptable.” It and its political factions have demanded authorities investigate allegations of 8.6 million instances of voter fraud, which would amount to almost a quarter of the electorate. Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said in January that the military had observed more than 1 million duplicate votes. The Supreme Court took arguments on Jan. 29 but hasn’t decided whether to hear the case.

3. What do others say?

The election commission on Jan. 28 defended the vote as held in accordance with the law and transparent, and rejected allegations of fraud. Prior to the state of emergency, Myo Nyunt, a member of the NLD’s central executive committee, said it was “inappropriate” for the military to continue pushing its claims after the elections results had been certified. International observers largely gave the elections a clean bill of health. The U.S., U.K., Australia, European Union and other diplomatic missions in the country urged the military not to try to alter the outcome.

4. Is there more going on?

Most analysts had described complaints from the military as bargaining for a better deal for the forces and parties aligned with them after their poor performance at the polls. But in its Feb. 1 statement, the military said it was necessary to act before parliament resumed Feb. 5. It said voter rolls would be checked and the election commission would be “re-established.” It also sought to disrupt the internet and limit access to social media. There were other issues: Parties representing ethnic minorities complained that up to 2 million were disenfranchised because of alleged security concerns in the areas where they lived.

5. What’s the history?

Modern Burma, as it was then known, emerged from British colonial rule after World War II and fell directly into conflict. Ethnic minorities make up a third of the population of 56 million and occupy half the country’s land, sitting on some of its most valuable resources, such as jade, gold, teak and opium. A deal guaranteeing ethnic rights and self-determination fell apart after Aung San, the father of Suu Kyi who was slated to become the country’s first leader, was gunned down with most of his cabinet in July 1947. A coup led by army chief Ne Win in 1962 inaugurated a half-century of military rule, during which the country descended into desperate poverty and isolation. Troops viciously suppressed pro-democracy protests in 1988. Two years later, the army annulled the results of elections that Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide. Under house arrest for much of the next 20 years, she served as a global lightning rod drawing attention to the junta’s misrule. Suu Kyi agreed to take part in by-elections and join parliament only after a new civilian government led by ex-generals in 2011 announced major political and economic changes. They included the release of political prisoners, freedom to assemble and demonstrate, and an opening to foreign investors.

6. What happened after the 2015 election?

After defeating the ruling party by a margin of nearly 10-to-1, Suu Kyi’s party took over the two houses of parliament in February 2016. While the head of the army promised to cooperate with the former political prisoner, the military continues to control the powerful security ministries and has rejected efforts to amend the constitution, which bars Suu Kyi from serving as president because her children are U.K. citizens. Her party introduced a bill to name her as “state counselor,” a role akin to prime minister, cementing her dominance of the government. (She also serves as foreign minister.)

7. And since then?

The country’s first civilian-led government in more than five decades delivered on some reforms, including liberalization of the banking, insurance and education sectors and curbing inflation. But about a third of the population lives in poverty and businesses remain mired in red tape. Accusations of genocide against the Rohingya have triggered investigations by two international tribunals and sullied the reputation of Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. They also limited the potency of her government, deterring many foreign investors. Relations between her party and the Tatmadaw soured even after she defended the military at a tribunal in The Hague in 2020. For the country’s emerging democracy, much has depended on whether the military would accept an accelerated pace of change or decide to retrench -- as it may now have done.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg Opinion’s Clara Ferreira Marques on what the coup means for Southeast Asia and how social media keeps protests against autocrats alive.
  • The BBC examines the voter fraud issue and tracks Suu Kyi’s career.
  • U.S. Institute of Peace report on the 2020 elections.
  • The United Nations details human rights abuses in Myanmar.
  • A QuickTake on the stutter in Myanmar’s economy and another on the Rohingya.
  • Thant Myint-U’s book “The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma.”

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