Pro-democracy Burmese and Thais people gather outside Bangkok’s Myanmar embassy to decry Myanmar’s military coup.
For both domestic and international observers, Myanmar’s 2008 constitutional reforms appeared to confirm a nascent democracy and blooming liberty. On February 1, those embers of possibilities were put out by an all too familiar military coup—Myanmar witnessed a military coup in 1962 and 1988. That February morning, the military detained the nation’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy party, censored internet and media communications, and instituted a nationwide curfew. The Commander in Chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, replaced Suu Kyi as Myanmar’s leader. As the shock of the event starts to wear off, the nation’s path to democracy becomes unclear.
The military takeover was not entirely unexpected. As early as January 26, prominent military officials warned that they may need to “take action” against the democratically elected government as a result of alleged fraud in the 2020 Myanmar general election.
Although an independent investigation found no major examples of such fraud, the military, arguing in Myanmar’s Supreme Court, rejected the findings and cited purported inaccuracies in the investigation’s results. These tensions came to a head in the coup when the military arrested prominent government officials and proclaimed a one-year state of emergency. The military’s official announcement said that the purported election inaccuracies “obstruct the path to democracy,” adding that this issue “must therefore be resolved according to the law.”
The recent history of Myanmar is one fraught with tumult and instability. The country gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1948 and has faced numerous issues since, such as the rampant drug trade and militant ethnic groups. Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi has faced scrutiny from the international community in recent years. She was hailed as a champion for democracy after receiving a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her work in human rights advocacy. However, her recent efforts to calm ethnic tensions were not entirely successful. In late 2016, Suu Kyi’s passive complicity allowed Myanmar’s armed forces to kill over 7,000 Rohingya Muslims and forcefully evict 700,000 more. At the International Court of Justice in 2019, Suu Kyi denied the genocide and asserted that any accusations of wrongdoing were simply misconstrued exaggerations. Her complicity and subsequent unwillingness to denounce the abuses led to her international reputation’s rapid diminution.
The coup itself was executed efficiently hours before the Parliament was due to officially swear-in the elected members from the 2020 general elections. Myanmar’s military was able to either shut down or control the internet and media outlets. Flights were grounded. Banking services were halted. One resident expressed her disappointment to The New York Times, stating that she felt the people of Myanmar “have no protection under the law now.” On February 3, the military government charged Aung San Suu Kyi with a bizarre infraction—illegally importing communications equipment, such as walkie-talkie radios—giving the military the power to detain her for at least two more weeks.
While the coup is nominally due to election fraud, Myanmar’s new leader Min Aun Hlaing may have had ulterior motives. As the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, he presides over business conglomerates and government services, in addition to the military. His retirement, which was planned to occur this summer, would have resulted in a loss of economic and social status.
The path ahead for the military government seems rather bleak. The previous government was popular among its citizens—the National League for Democracy party won 83 percent of the Parliament’s seats in the contested election—and the relative peace is not expected to last long. While reports indicate Aung San Suu Kyi is not in personal danger, she has not been seen since the coup. Protests are expected in the near future, considering her immense public backing. Internet blackouts, after all, can only delay the inevitable backlash for so long.
Numerous countries and organizations have released statements condemning the recent developments in Myanmar. The Biden administration labeled the takeover a coup and stripped Myanmar of $109 million in foreign aid, with more potential sanctions on the horizon. A senior official said that the United States’ response was and will continue to be informed by “the people of Burma and their aspirations for democracy, peace, justice, and development.”
The UN Security Council also denounced the seizure of power, stating that “all electoral disputes should be resolved through established legal mechanisms” and affirming that there had been no election fraud. The General Assembly echoed many of the same points, adding that the democratically elected leaders should be released and stating that the coup “could further exacerbate the problems of the most vulnerable, including Rohingya Muslims.”
Meanwhile, China has not released an official statement regarding the coup. China arguably has the most to gain from the developments and is likely orchestrating its course of action with great care. Senior diplomats from China met with Hlaing recently, suggesting that the two parties, aligned in terms of economic doctrine and authoritarian tendencies, may have reached an agreement. Yet China has called for talks between both the democratic government of Myanmar and the military. Some observers suspect China may use its influence to gain concessions from the West to re-institute democracy in Myanmar, but reputable information is scarce.
The repercussions of the coup are wide-ranging, and could shape not only Myanmar but the balance of power in Southeast Asia. The Biden administration faces one of its first major international crises, exacerbated by Covid-19, China, and the Rohingya situation. As for the Rohingya themselves, there is no end in sight for their oppression. As of now, Myanmar waits in a state of limbo. The torch of liberty wanes; an uncertain future awaits.