On the morning of February 1st, Myanmar’s military started a coup led by General Min Aung Hlaing’s that brought down the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD). The State Counsellor in the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, was detained along with other NLD leaders. In addition, the military arrested activists who protested the coup.
With this in mind, why did a coup happen in the first place, what was the international response, and what does the future of Myanmar look like?
In this article, we’ll go in detail to answer these questions. But first, let’s look at Myanmar’s politics and explore who Suu Kyi is.
The Politics of Myanmar
Under the 2008 constitution, Myanmar has a multiparty democratic system. However, the military holds the most substantial amount of power. There are two legislative chambers: The People’s Assembly, which is the lower house that has 440 seats, and the 224-seat Nationality Assembly, which is the upper house. 25% of both chambers’ seats are occupied by the military, while the rest are occupied by elected members.
The president is elected by an electoral college made up of three committees: two are formed from members of the upper and lower houses, and one of military appointees. The cabinet of the national government is appointed by the president, however, it needs to be approved by the parliament.
Aung San Suu Kyi
This is not the first time Ms Suu Kyi has been placed under house arrest. It first happened in 1989 while she was standing up for human rights. She refused the generals’ rule of Myanmar that put its civilians under ruthless oppression. In 1991, she received a Nobel Peace Prize for standing her ground despite being offered freedom if she left the country. However, she refused as she wanted the country to be ruled by a civilian government and for political prisoners to be freed.
It wasn’t until 2011 that she was allowed to meet with associates and travel outside her city (Yangon). In mid 2012, Suu Kyi traveled to Thailand, her first trip since 1988. Later, she went to Europe where she gave her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo and was invited to address the British Parliament in London.
As State Counsellor, Suu Kyi’s main objective was peace amongst the many ethnic armed forces. However, she suffered international criticism from her handling of the targeted Rohingya muslims, which forced many muslims to flee the country. As an ambassador for human rights, the international community expected a better response from the country’s leader. Suu Kyi however, initially ignored the situation and when she did address it, she refused to denounce the offenders’ actions.
On November 8th, 2020, the NLD, Suu Kyi’s party, won an overwhelming majority. However, the military and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) claimed the elections to be fraudulent as polls were cancelled in some areas of the country, putting a question mark over the final results.
Whilst the military and the USDP tried contesting the results at the electoral college, their claims were dismissed. In response, on February 1st of this year, the military invoked clauses 417 and 418 which allowed them to declare a state of emergency in Myanmar for one year, making them the ruling power. Sun Kyi and other NLD leaders were detained.
Why Was There a Coup?
The military ruled from 1962 to 2011, through fear and brutality. Compared to the period where the military ruled the country, the citizens of Myanmar enjoyed certain freedoms under a democratically elected government. They had access to the internet, they were able to buy SIM cards and enjoyed social media sites such as Facebook.
As previously mentioned, the military justified the coup as a response to the fraudulent election results. However, analysts argue that the true reason for the coup was due to General Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of the armed forces, feeling as if he had lost respect and power, pushing him to attempt to regain power. Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing have had a fractious relationship since she took office in 2015. After years of poor communication and disagreements, the relationship finally fell apart leading to a coup.
Although Suu Kyi has faced international criticism for poorly handling the Rohingya crisis, she actually saw her domestic support increase ahead of the election after defending the country and its military from the accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
The coup made headline news across the world. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, accused the military of trying to seize back control of the country saying: “We call on the military to respect the rule of law, to resolve disputes through lawful mechanisms and to release immediately all civilian leaders and others who have been detained unlawfully.”
President of the United States, Joe Biden, called the military takeover “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law.” In a tweet, Boris Johnson condemned the imprisonment of civilians and said “The vote of the people must be respected and civilian leaders released.”
“The vote of the people must be respected and civilian leaders released.” - President Biden
Other European nations also condemned the actions of the military and demanded democracy to be respected, as well as the immediate release of civilians and NLD leaders from prison.
As the military ignores the decision of the overwhelming majority of the population and their lack of regard for democracy, they will likely have more sanctions imposed on them by the international community. However, this doesn’t seem to worry General Min Aung Hlaing. Activists and journalists have already been suppressed, but fears grow as experts believe under military rule they will be placed in further danger.
According to Myanmar’s human rights organisation Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 133 government officials and 14 activists have been detained since February 1st.
Khin Zaw Win, the director of the Yangon think tank, said this coup differs from the 1962 and 1988 coups which were brutally enforced and imposed a new order on the country. He stated the following: “This time it's been, let’s say, very restrained and the language they use and the statements ... appear they are trying to placate the population," he said. "In the past, the existing constitutions were ditched, this time they are being meticulous about it.” Despite the military announcing they are respecting the rule of law and the democratic process, we have seen in the past military rule often take a worrying turn towards dictatorship and oppression following a coup d’état.
For more information on this topic, head over to our section on Foreign Affairs.